We meet with Nelson Freitez in Barquisimeto. He is part of the 350-strong Cecosesola cooperative. Cecosesola (Central Cooperativa de Servicios Sociales Lara) was founded in 1967 as an umbrella cooperative of several rural cooperatives from the state of Lara and some neighborhood groups from the big city of Barquisimeto. Today, Cecosesola includes 85 grassroots cooperatives and associations. In total, Cecosesola has more than 2,000 members who receive a weekly advance on the profits they generate together. There is also a German branch of this cooperative and they are currently “touring” Germany, until June 6.
We ask Nelson about the society in Venezuela. He goes on to say that Venezuela has been a “profit society” since the 1930s, by which he means that the country’s income does not come from its own performance and production, but from oil wealth. The perception of the population is: we are very rich, but this wealth is distributed unfairly. The redistibution policy of the government(s) never met the consumption expectations of Venezuelans and since the 1980s there have been repeated protests. A first climax of these protests took place in 1989, in the so-called “Caracazo”, a kind of popular uprising that resulted in mass riots and many deaths.
But this protest never turned into a civil movement or a strong union. It gurgles and bubbles a lot, there is a lot of movement and unrest, but little articulation of it. Hugo Chavez represents this movement and gives it a form. The form he has chosen is confrontation, conflict, exaggeration, bipolarism. He stimulates the perception of class differences. And he goes to the area of the “billion dollar dance”.
Hugo Chavez distributes the oil income among the poor, obtaining the support of millions of people who live in the simplest conditions, in barrios like Petare. And he has changed the political system: he has centralized power more firmly in the hands of a military-civilian elite and bent the last federal model. As Nelson puts it, “the party and the government have occupied the state,” not formally, but de facto.
Since Hugo Chavez came to power 13 years ago, many cooperatives and “misiones” have been created and existing ones, like his, encouraged. These grassroots organizations are articulating for the first time issues that were previously brought forward in an unstructured way in the form of protests; but the frustration returns when these hit the “glass ceiling” of the aforementioned elite.
He describes the (political) culture of Venezuelan society as follows: one would like to see one’s own rights preserved and respected, but is not willing to abide by rules oneself. People are always optimistic, but not very self-critical and hardly capable of learning. Public debate has no tradition and ethics are lacking. The reason lies in the contradiction between what is produced and what is received. How does one live without working? A great pike is the one who gets rich quickly with as little effort as possible. It will take another 20-30 years for this to change, and maybe it never will, because Venezuelans have the “megalomania gene” in them.
For this reason, he does not believe that much will change after the October elections, even in the event that Chavez loses, because in the end it is a weak state with weak institutions. Every president – and here Chavez is no different from his predecessors – distributes the income of the oil to “his citizens”. In Chavez’s case, these are the previously disregarded, the poor.
We ask him if violence and crime have increased in percentage or only in absolute terms (the population has almost doubled since our visit in 1995). Violence has increased in every way: statistically (absolute and percentage), as well as in intensity: today you meet your neighbor with a firearm. In 1980 there were 18 deaths per 1000 inhabitants, today there are 48 deaths per thousand inhabitants. After Honduras and Guatemala, this places Venezuela third in the world. Guns have increased in value within society, many people own a gun. (By the way, there is a gun census project going on: the government is trying to find out who owns a gun, including its own police and security forces). The dignity that Chavez is trying to give to the poor in the barrios through his projects, many of the previously disregarded are trying to get with guns. The coolest is the one who has the most powerful motorcycle, the most expensive watch, the newest Blackberry, the most beautiful wife and the most dangerous weapon.
Finally, we ask him how he sees the danger of a civil war, should Chavez lose the elections? Fortunately, the majority of citizens are against violence and do not see a civil war as a solution to the problems. Nevertheless, as political scientists we know that every civil war is preceded by verbal aggression, and this, as well as bipolarization, has increased under Chavez. Thus, at Christmas, there is often a kind of truce in the families and people talk about other things…