BBC, June 19, 2008
Leading Indian writer Amitav Ghosh’s critically acclaimed new novel Sea of Poppies is set during a time when opium trade out of India was flourishing during British rule.
The novel spans three continents and close to two centuries and is the first in a planned historical trilogy set in the 19th century.
Ghosh, a trained anthropologist and historian with a doctorate from Oxford University, spoke to the BBC’s Soutik Biswas on the colonial opium trade.
Sea of Poppies is a historical novel. Is it the fact that the British were the world’s biggest opium suppliers two centuries ago that led you into this story?
I should correct you. It was not two centuries ago. Under the British Raj, an enormous amount of opium was being exported out of India until the 1920s.
And no, the opium story was not really the trigger for the novel. What basically interested me when I started this book were the lives of the Indian indentured workers, especially those who left India from the Bihar region.
But once I started researching into it, it was kind of inescapable – all the roads led back to opium. The indentured emigration [out of India] really started in the 1830s and that was [around the time of] the peak of the opium traffic. That decade culminated in the opium wars against China.
Also all the indentured workers at that time came from all the opium growing regions in the Benares and Ghazipur areas. So there was such an overlap there was no escaping opium.
When and how did you end up researching and learning more about the British opium trade out of India?
I was looking into it as I began writing the book about five years ago. Like most Indians, I had very little idea about opium.
I had no idea that India was the largest opium exporter for centuries. I had no idea that opium was essentially the commodity which financed the British Raj in India.
It is not a coincidence that 20 years after the opium trade stopped, the Raj more or less packed up its bags and left. India was not a paying proposition any longer.
What did you discover in the course of your research? How big was the trade?
Opium steadily accounted for about 17-20% of Indian revenues. If you think in those terms, [the fact that] one single commodity accounted for such an enormous part of your economy is unbelievable, extraordinary.
In fact the revenues don’t account for entire profits generated [out of opium trade] -there was shipping, there were so many ancillary industries around opium.
How and when did opium exports out of India to China begin?
The idea of exporting opium to China started with Warren Hastings (the first governor general of British India) in 1780.
The situation was eerily similar to [what is happening] today. There was a huge balance of payments problem in relation to China. China was exporting enormous amounts, but wasn’t interested in importing any European goods. That was when Hastings came up with idea that the only way of balancing trade was to export opium to China.
In the 1780s he sent the first shipment of opium to China. It was a small shipment and they could hardly get rid of it. There wasn’t much demand. [But], within 10 years, demand for opium increased by factors of magnitude. It was incredible – within a period of 10-30 years how much the opium trade spread and increased.
In the period that Hastings started exporting opium in the 1780s until about 1809-1810, most of the opium in India was grown in the Bengal presidency (in eastern India).
After that the Malwa region in western India began growing opium. Finally twice as much opium was growing in western India and there was a huge export from that region. What do you think the major princely states lived off?
What kind of human devastation did opium growing wreak on the Indians?
I can’t say I have an accurate picture. Whether it was devastation or not we don’t know. There is so little we know [about this aspect].
Some reformers were trying to stop the opium trade and we know from their petitions and letters that there was fair amount of resistance. There seem to have been a lot of difficulties for peasants – they were switching to an agricultural monoculture, and that was causing problems.
With so much poppy being grown, didn’t local people get addicted to it?
It happened. One of the curious things I was not aware of was that there are many different ways of consuming opium. One of the ways was to eat it in a bowl. This was somehow the commonest way of taking opium in India – either eating it or dissolving it in water.
East of India and eastwards through China there was a different way of consuming it which was by smoking it. That was very much more addictive.
It was not traditionally the case that people smoked opium in India. Opium also was a part of social life – it was offered during certain ceremonies. So it was a very complex picture.
If there was any direct damage to India, it lay in the disruption of the agricultural timetable. But the damage that was done to China was incalculable.
Both Indian and British history appear to have glossed over this part of colonial rule.
Absolutely. Opium was the fundamental undergirding of our economy for centuries. It is strange that [even] for someone like me who studied history and knew a fair amount about Indian history, I was completely unaware of it.
Why do you think that happened?
I think the reason is some sort of whitewashing of the past.
On the Indian side, there is a sort of shame, I suppose. Also, just a general unawareness. I mean how many people are aware that the Ghazipur opium factory [in India] continues to be one of the single largest opium producers in the world? It is without a doubt the largest legitimate opium factory in the world.
Don’t you find it ironic that the tables have turned in a sense with Afghanistan becoming the world’s biggest opium producer with most of it sold in the affluent West?
It is strange. But it’s an irony in which no one can take any comfort. Opium is a destructive thing for anyone, anywhere.
And it remains a potent driver of economies, at least in a place like Afghanistan..
And, before that in Burma.
Sea of Poppies appears to be a scathing critique of British colonialism. Do you think colonialism has had a pretty easy ride in India and there is not enough examination of the extent of how it affected the country adversely?
It’s such an ironic thing. Before the British came, India was one of the world’s great economies. For 200 years India dwindled and dwindled into almost nothing. Fifty years after they left we have finally begun to reclaim our place in the world.
All the empirical facts show you that British rule was a disaster for India. Before the British came 25% of the world trade originated in India. By the time they left it was less than 1%.
Lot of Indians believe that the British built institutions, the police, bureaucracy.
I don’t know what people think about when they say such things.
When they talk about [the British building] modern institutions it amazes me.
Was there no police force in India before the British came? Of course there was. There were darogas (policemen), there were chowkis (police stations). In fact the British took the word chowki and put it into English. So to say such things is absurd.
OpenDemocracy, April 21 2008
Photo: Getty Images
“Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge” (Aimé Césaire)
Aimé Césaire died on 17 April 2008 in Fort-de-France on the French Caribbean island of Martinique at the ripe age of 94. His life and political choices are truly captured in his friend and surrealist writer André Breton’s words: Césaire was the “prototype of dignity”.
But, like most brilliantly creative men, he had more than one incarnation. Throughout his long life, Césaire contained the multiple identities of surrealist poet, political playwright, intellectual engagé, politician and anti-colonial crusader.
Aimé Césaire was born in 1913 in the small town of Basse Pointe in Martinique to a lower-middle-class family. He displayed early brilliance and was admitted at the age of 11 to the Lycee Schoelcher in Fort-de-France. After moving to Paris, and studying in the prestigious Lycee Louis Le Grand, he prepared for the competitive entrance exam of the elite École normale supérieure. During this period, many African and Caribbean intellectuals had been recruited under the French colonial policy of assimilation to study at metropolitan universities. The years Aimé Césaire spent in Paris were formative in many ways. There he absorbed French culture, European humanities and learned Latin and Greek; but he also befriended the Senegalese intellectual Léopold Sédar Senghor (with whom he began to study African history and culture), and was exposed in Paris to influences from African-American movements such as the Harlem renaissance.
In this intellectually ebullient climate Césaire and Senghor (together with Césaire’s childhood friend Léon-Gontran Damas) launched a journal called L’Etudiant Noir (The Black Student) featuring the works of writers from Africa and the Caribbean. The concept of “négritude” – defined as the “affirmation that one is black and proud of it” – was coined by them in the first issue of the journal, although credit is generally ascribed to Senghor alone.Négritude blossomed into a political, philosophical and literary theory that would have repercussions all over the world.
A return to source
Much of Césaire’s later work revolved around the theme of restoring the cultural identity of black Africans. Critiques of négritude have pointed to the essentialism and nativism inherent in the idea that all people of negro descent shared certain inalienable essential characteristics. But négritude went beyond the race-based assertions of African dignity of WEB du Bois or Marcus Garvey, in that it attempted to extend perceptions of the negro as possessing a distinctive personality in all spheres of life, intellectual, emotional and physical. Within the négritude stream, Césaire’s life and oeuvre was special and different in its attempt to embrace négritude, Marxism and surrealism all in one.
In the early 1940s Aimé Césaire and his wife Suzanne Roussy(Roussi) returned to Martinique and took up teaching posts in Fort-de- France. With other colleagues and friends they launched a new journal called Tropiques. This became a major voice for surrealism which they perceived as the strategy for revolution and emancipation of the mind. Césaire’s most renowned works, Les Armes Miraculeuses (Miraculous Weapons) and Soleil cou coupé (Beheaded sun), embraced both surrealism and négritude. But it was his Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (1939) that brought him fame and led André Breton to describe it as the “the greatest lyrical monument of our time”. This epic poem depicts in symbolic imagery the degradation of black people and describes the rediscovery of an African sense of self. It provided the all important starting-point for the claiming of a black Caribbean identity.
By the end of the second world war, Césaire – like many young intellectuals of the time – joined the French Communist Party (PCF). He took an active interest in politics, running successfully for mayor of Fort-de-France and was for decades deputy to the French national assembly. He was instrumental in the change of status of the former colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guinea, and Reunion from colony to départements within the French republic. In 1956 he broke away from the Communist Party partly because of its unwillingness to condemn the Soviet Union’s intervention in Hungary and partly because of the privileging of proletarian revolution over anti-colonial struggles. Thus while many communist intellectuals in France remained mute, Césaire took a principled stand. He later created his own political formation, the Martinique Progressive Party, and openly supported the candidature of Ségolène Royal in the 2007 presidential election.
Césaire’s writings and politics had a deep impact on the francophone colonised world. His Discourse on Colonialism (1950), less known than the writings of his former student Frantz Fanon, argued subtly that colonialism affected the colonised as as much as the coloniser who was dehumanised through the practice of torture and violence. It dealt with issues that would be taken up by postcolonial thinkers in the later 20th century: the importance of an ideology of race and culture that sustained colonial rule anticipated the idea that colonialism is also domination through knowledge. He believed that a revolt of the tiers monde was the only path possible for the creation of a just world.
His later works on colonialism were grounded in history. He wrote about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s heroic attempt at revolution, about Patrice Lumumba‘s struggle in the Congo and finally adapted Shakespeare’s Tempest to explore the relation between coloniser and colonised. Reading him is a caution against today’s tendency to read colonialism as an encounter between cultures or the creation of contact-zones. Reading him serves as a reminder that colonialism was essentially humiliation and pain.
Aimé Césaire never lost his dignity and as a intellectual engagé always took a principled stand, critiquing in the same vein all the avatars of modernity from Marxism to nationalism and colonialism with the trenchant weapon of poetry. He leaves us beautiful words reminiscent of some of Mallarmé’s poems, complex and demanding yet conveying a piercing sensation of beauty and depth.
*Nira Wickramasinghe is a professor in the department of history and international relations, the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. She grew up in Paris and studied at theUniversité de Paris IV-Sorbonne and at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate Among her books are Civil Society in Sri Lanka: New Circles of Power(New Delhi, Thousand Oaks/ Sage, 2001);Dressing the Colonised Body: Politics, Clothing and Identity in Colonial Sri Lanka(New Delhi, Orient Longman, 2003); and Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History of Contested Identities (C Hurst and University of Hawaii Press, 2006).
Terry Eagleton sifts through the texts of the Gospels and comes up with some ambiguous answers.
New Internationalist, May 2008
Jesus certainly kept some shady political company. One of his inner circle was known as Simon the Zealot, the Zealots being an underground anti-imperialist movement dedicated to driving the Romans out of Palestine. The Roman presence in the province was not in fact particularly oppressive. No Roman institutions, legal, educational or religious, were imposed on the people. In Jesus’s own home territory of Galilee there was no official Roman presence at all, so it is unlikely that he would have grown up at the knee of smoulderingly anti-imperialist parents. Any Roman soldiers he saw as a child would have been on holiday.
Even so, there were religious reasons why even hands-off rule by a pagan state was objectionable to God’s chosen people. The Zealots wanted a purified, traditionalist, theocratic Jewish state, and promoted a theology not unlike that of al-Qaeda today. In addition to the militant Simon, two other of Jesus’s disciples, James and John, are given a nickname (Sons of Thunder) which some New Testament scholars suspect may link them, too, to the insurrectionists. Perhaps Judas sold Jesus because he had expected him to be Lenin, and became bitterly disenchanted when he realized that he was not going to lead the people against the colonial power.
It is, however, unlikely that Jesus was part of the anti-imperial resistance. For one thing, he seems to have believed in paying taxes (‘Render unto Caesar…’), while the Zealots did not. For another thing, he was at daggers drawn with the Pharisees, who were in some ways the theological wing of the Zealots. In fact, they are the only sect whom he curses to hell.
Another reason why Jesus is unlikely to have been a Zealot is that his disciples were not arrested after his execution. Had they been known insurrectionists, the occupying Roman forces would almost certainly have moved in to mop them up. There may have been a sprinkling of anti-imperialist militants among the disciples, but the Roman authorities seem to have been clear that the Jesus movement was not out to overthrow the state. This is not why he was crucified.
Indeed, why he was crucified is something of a mystery. It was certainly not because he claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus makes no such claim in the Gospels, except once, implausibly, in the Markian trial scene; and Mark had his own axe to grind. Taken in a literal sense, the title ‘Son of God’ would almost certainly have resulted in Jesus’s being stoned to death on the spot for blasphemy, which was presumably one excellent reason why he did not make claim to it. In any case, Jesus cannot have believed that he was literally the Son of God. Yahweh does not have testicles.
Only the Romans had power of execution, and they took no interest in the theological squabblings of their colonial subjects. Or rather, they took an interest only if they threatened to breed political consequences. They would certainly have been put on the alert if Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah, since the Messiah was seen for the most part as a militant political leader who would put Israel on its feet again. But Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah either, except on two occasions, both of which are historically dubious.
It is likely that Jesus ended up on Calvary because of his enormous popularity with some of the poor, who had swarmed into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and who no doubt looked to him for some vague sort of salvation from the Roman occupation. His popular support was probably by no means as massive as the evangelists make out. Even so, there was a general expectation that God was about to do something dramatic. For Christian theology, he did – but it turned out to be a resurrection, not a revolution.
It may be that Jesus’s violent act of trying to clear the temple of moneychangers, which sailed preciously close to blasphemy, was enough for his antagonists to nail him. A reverence for the temple was an essential feature of Judaism, and a strike against it was a strike against Israel itself. The temple rulers controlled Israel’s currency and economy, so that the place was among other things perceived as a bastion of the ruling class.
Running out the moneychangers was not, however, intended as an ‘anti-capitalist’ gesture. Jesus would have understood well enough that pilgrims would not have brought their sacrificial animals with them from home, for fear that they might be found blemished by the priests who inspected them on arrival. They would consequently buy a dove or pigeon in the temple itself, and would need to change currencies to do so. Jesus was probably signifying the destruction of the temple in a symbolic way, rather than expressing his distaste for its commercial sleaze. The paraphernalia of organized religion was to be replaced by an alternative temple, namely his own murdered and transfigured body.
Quite what the charges against Jesus were is not entirely clear. The accounts of the Gospels on this score are mutually inconsistent. The general impression is that the whole of the Jewish governing caste were against Jesus, but that they could not find common ground among themselves on why they were. He was certainly accused of blasphemy. But the Romans would not have cared about that, and in any case executing someone as a pseudo-teacher or pseudo-prophet was remarkably rare in Jesus’s day.
The High Priest, Caiaphas, had therefore to concoct some charge which legitimated Jesus’s execution in the eyes of the Jews while sounding sufficiently alarming to the Romans to spur them to dispose of him. Protesting that he claimed to be king of the Jews, even though we have no evidence that he did, would fill the bill nicely. Suitably spun, it might sound like blasphemy to the Jews and sedition to the Romans. But it might also have been enough to get Jesus crucified to advise the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, that this unruly vagabond represented a threat to law and order in such politically volatile conditions.
Pilate seems to have had a particular penchant for stringing people up. He is presented in the Gospels as a vacillating liberal of a metaphysical turn of mind, but we know enough about his historical record to be sure that he was nothing of the sort. He was, in fact, a notoriously brutal viceroy, an official who was accused of bribery, cruelty and executions without trial and who was eventually dishonourably dismissed from office. Had Jesus come up against a more liberal regime, he might well have got off.
Was Jesus, then, a ‘spiritual’ rather than a political leader? This, to be sure, is the customary reading of his exhortation to render unto Caesar what was owed to him, while at the same time granting God his due. But it is unlikely that this is how his words would have been understood in first-century Palestine. It projects back upon them a modern distinction between religion and politics which is decidedly non-scriptural. Those who heard Jesus’s words would have understood that ‘the things that are God’s’ included mercy, justice, feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrant, sheltering the destitute and protecting the poor from the oppression of the powerful. There is little opiate delusion in Jesus’s grim warning to his comrades that if they were true to his Gospel of love and justice, they would meet the same sticky end as him.
The motif of a close link between the deepest suffering and the highest exaltation is a traditional one in Judaism, as it is in the Western lineage of tragedy. True power flows from powerlessness, a doctrine which Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection is meant to exemplify.
In the so-called Beatitudes, the poor, hungry and sorrowful are declared blessed, but not the virtuous. Unlike the virtuous, they are signs of the coming kingdom because they exemplify the emptiness and deprivation which the New Jerusalem is destined to repair. The point of prophecy is not to foresee the future, but to warn those in the present that unless they change their ways, the future is likely to be extremely unpleasant.
The kingdom did not, of course, arrive shortly after Jesus’s death, as the first Christians (and certainly St Paul) seem to have believed it would. The Christian movement begins in bathos. Its origins lie in a hideously embarrassing anti-climax, one which follows hard on the heels of the shameful scandal that the Son of God has actually been butchered.
One reason why Jesus and his followers expected the kingdom to arrive very soon is that they had no notion that human activity might have any role in helping to establish it. For the early Christians, the kingdom was a gift of God, not the work of history. History was now effectively at an end. There was no point in seeking to overthrow the Romans when God was about to transform the whole world. Jesus’s disciples could no more bring about the kingdom of God by their own efforts than socialism for deterministic Marxists can be achieved by intensified agitation.
Some aspects of the way Jesus is portrayed in these texts have an obvious radical resonance. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful. The problem of much modern Christianity has been how to practise this lifestyle with two children, a car and a mortgage.
Jesus has most of the characteristic features of the revolutionary activist, including celibacy. Marriage belongs to a regime which is already passing away, and there will be no marrying in New Jerusalem. This is not an anti-sexual motif. Celibacy is seen by Christianity as a sacrifice, and sacrifice means giving up what is regarded as precious. St Paul, an enemy of the flesh in popular mythology, regards the sexual union of two bodies, not celibacy, as a sign of the coming kingdom. Actually working for the kingdom, however, involves surrendering or suspending some of the goods which will characterize it. The same is true of working for socialism.
Even so, Jesus is not presented as an ascetic, in the manner of the ferociously anti-social John the Baptist. He and his comrades enjoy food, drink and general festivity, and he enjoins men and women to unburden themselves of anxiety and live in the present. What one might call Jesus’s ethical extravagance – giving over and above the measure, turning the other cheek, rejoicing in being persecuted, loving one’s enemies, refusing to judge, non-resistance to evil, laying oneself open to the violence of others – is similarly motivated by a sense that history is now at an end.
In his crucifixion and descent into hell, Jesus in St Paul’s view is ‘made sin’, identifying with the scum and refuse of the earth, enduring a solidarity with suffering, evil and despair in order to transfigure it through his resurrection. Like the classical tragic protagonist, he succeeds only through failure. If he lay down confidently expecting to spring up again, he would not have been raised from the dead.
This, then, is what all the effervescent hopes of Jesus and his entourage have come to. The crucifixion proclaims that the truth of human history is a tortured political criminal. It is a message profoundly unacceptable to those sunk in a dewy-eyed delusion (idealists, progressivists, liberals, reformers, Yea-sayers, modernizers, socialist humanists and the like), though one which was perfectly understood by a Jew like Walter Benjamin. Only if you can gaze on this frightful image without being turned to stone, accepting it as absolutely the last word, is there a slim chance that it might not be.
Christianity is thus considerably more pessimistic than secular humanism, as well as immeasurably more optimistic. On the one hand, it is grimly realistic about the recalcitrance of the human condition. On the other hand, it holds out not only that the redemption of this dire condition is possible, but that, astonishingly, it has in some sense already happened. Not even the most mechanistic of Marxists would claim these days that socialism is inevitable, let alone that it has already come about without our noticing. For Christian faith, however, the advent of the kingdom is assured, since Jesus’s rising from the dead has already founded it.
Was Jesus, then, a revolutionary? Not in any sense that Lenin or Trotsky would have recognized. But is this because he was less of a revolutionary than they were, or more so? Less, certainly, in that he did not advocate the overthrow of the power-structure that he confronted. But this was, among other things, because he expected it to be soon swept away by a form of existence more perfected in its justice, peace, comradeship and exuberance of spirit than even Lenin and Trotsky could have imagined. Perhaps the answer, then, is not that Jesus was more or less a revolutionary, but that he was both more and less.
The New Yorker, June 23 2008
Venezuela’s oil money has brought better living standards for the country’s poorest citizens. It has also given Chávez the means to buy influence with his neighbors, usually at the expense of the United States. Photograph by Chris Anderson.
A few years ago, when Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela, said that he wanted a new jet to replace the nearly thirty-year-old Boeing bequeathed to him by his predecessor, his critics raised an outcry. But Chávez went ahead with his plans. His new plane, which cost sixty-five million dollars, is a gleaming white Airbus A-319, with a white leather interior, seating for sixty passengers, and a private compartment. The folding seat-back trays have gold-colored hinges, and there is plenty of legroom.
Chávez has spent more than a year altogether on trips abroad since taking office, in February, 1999, and so the jet is a kind of second home. His seat bears an embossed leather Presidential seal. Paintings of nineteenth-century Latin-American independence heroes hang on the walls, including a prominent one of Simón Bolívar, known as El Libertador. Bolívar led military campaigns to free large parts of South America from Spanish rule, and in 1819 he helped create a vast nation called Gran Colombia, which encompassed the present-day republics of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama. But political rivalries and internecine warfare frustrated Bolívar’s dream of a United States of South America, and Gran Colombia fell apart soon after his death, in 1830.
Bolívar is Chávez’s political muse; Chávez quotes and invokes him constantly, and is unabashed about his desire to resuscitate Bolívar’s dream of a united Latin America. In his first year in office, Chávez held a successful referendum to draft a new constitution, which officially renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. More remarkably, he has adopted Fidel Castro as his contemporary role model and socialism as his political ideal, and, a decade and a half after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is leading a left-wing revival across Latin America. Chávez’s hemispheric ambitions have made him one of the most compelling, audacious, and polarizing figures in the world—one of a number of post-Cold War leaders trying to form regional power blocs. A generation ago, Castro sought to undermine United States authority by supporting armed guerrilla forces; Chávez has pursued that goal mainly by using money—thanks, in large measure, to U.S. oil purchases. Venezuela is the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the U. S., providing around a million barrels a day, and its proved oil reserves are among the world’s largest.
One recent Sunday, I flew with Chávez to La Faja del Orinoco, an oil-rich belt of land in eastern Venezuela. In May, 2007, Chávez ordered the nationalization of pumping and refining facilities in La Faja owned by foreign oil companies. The move was one of a series of measures that Chávez had taken to increase Venezuela’s share of oil revenues, including increases in royalty payments from 16.6 per cent to 33.3 per cent, and its ownership stake from around forty to at least sixty per cent. (As recently as 2004, these companies were paying royalties of one per cent of the oil’s value.) Most of the oil companies, including Chevron and B.P., agreed to the terms; ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil did not, and pulled out.
ExxonMobil had been pumping as many as a hundred and twenty thousand barrels a day out of La Faja. Seeking compensation, the company secured injunctions from judges in the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands that froze up to twelve billion dollars in overseas assets of Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or P.D.V.S.A. Chávez, decrying “imperialist aggression,” threatened to cut off all oil sales to the United States. Analysts estimate that if he should ever make good on that threat the price, which has already risen vertiginously, would spiral even farther upward. (A London court later overturned the British injunction, in what was seen as a major victory for Chávez, but the legal fight continues. ExxonMobil will not say publicly how much it asked for, except that the sum is “multiple billions of dollars.”)
On the plane to La Faja were several of Chávez’s ministers and aides, along with a dozen or so bodyguards and three Cuban doctors, who travel with him everywhere. Just after boarding, Chávez pushed through the curtains from his compartment to the main cabin and greeted everyone. He joked that the Cuban doctors must be guerrillas on an “internationalist mission.” Halfway through the hour-long flight, I joined Chávez in his compartment. Chávez, who is about five feet seven, is a youthful-looking fifty-three, and has a thick neck and chest. He introduced me to General Gustavo Rangel, his Defense Minister, and René Vargas, Ecuador’s Ambassador to Venezuela.
Chávez began our conversation by asking, “Tell us, why didn’t Saddam put up more of a fight when the Yankees invaded?” Before I could reply, General Rangel said that the Americans had successfully degraded Iraq’s air-defense system in the run-up to the war. Chávez looked at me for confirmation, and when I agreed he smiled, and said that, just in case the Americans were thinking of doing anything similar to Venezuela, he had bought an air-defense system from Belarus. (In the past four years, Venezuela has spent four billion dollars on foreign arms purchases, mostly from Russia.) The Belarusian system probably wasn’t the most sophisticated in the world, Chávez said, but it was what Venezuela could get: “We do what we can to defend ourselves.”
Chávez campaigned for the Presidency, in 1998, with promises to bring radical change, but, for a time after he won, it was unclear whether he could deliver much more than symbolism and oratory. When he took office, oil was at a mere ten dollars a barrel, and his first government budget was seven billion dollars; last year, as oil approached a hundred dollars a barrel (by last week, it was a hundred and thirty-six dollars), the budget rose to fifty-four billion. The oil money has allowed Chávez to triple spending on social programs. Even though many of these “missions,” as they’re known, have foundered or have proved inadequate, the volume of revenues has meant an improvement in living standards for the country’s poorest citizens, who are, unsurprisingly, Chávez’s strongest supporters. It has also given him the means to buy influence with his neighbors, usually at the expense of the United States.
Chávez’s relationship with the United States, which was strained from the start, became openly hostile after a short-lived military coup, in 2002, that seemed to have the blessing of the Bush Administration. Chávez discontinued long-standing military ties and ended Venezuela’s coöperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, before he left office, compared Chávez to Adolf Hitler. In 2006, the State Department placed Venezuela on a list of nations that it described as “uncoöperative” in the war on terror.
Despite the harsh language, unofficial U.S. policy in the past few years has generally been to ignore Chávez, in order to avoid being drawn into a confrontation. This reflects a broader disengagement from the region during the Bush Administration. Since 2001, the United States has been distracted from Latin America by the war on terror and by Iraq, and that has given Chávez room to operate. Venezuela outspends the United States in foreign aid to the rest of Latin America by a factor of at least five. Last year, U.S. aid amounted to $1.6 billion, a third of which went to Colombia, mainly to fund Plan Colombia, a drug-eradication program administered by the U.S. security contractor DynCorp. Chávez, meanwhile, pledged $8.8 billion for the region. This included subsidized oil for Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia; the purchase of public debt in Argentina; and development projects in Haiti. (Chávez has, in addition, provided discounted heating oil to poor Americans through Citgo, the Venzuelan state oil company’s U.S. subsidiary.)
There is also evidence that Chávez has fostered a relationship with the Colombian Marxist guerrilla organization Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC. The FARC operates along Venezuela’s border with Colombia and holds hundreds of hostages—civilians, soldiers, and politicians—in secret camps. Chávez has, at times, publicly distanced himself from the FARC, most recently last week, but the group’s espousal of Bolivarian ideals, and its strategic position, appears to have tempted him into seeing the organization as a means, if only by proxy, of confronting the U.S.; Colombia is one of America’s closest allies in the region.
The present in Latin America may be analogous to the nineteen-sixties, when the U.S. was mired in Vietnam and deeply unpopular internationally, and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara (another hero of Chávez’s) saw an opportunity to foment guerrilla insurgencies elsewhere—“one, two, three, many Vietnams,” as Che said—by which U.S. strength could be sapped.
Cris Arcos, who was, until recently, President Bush’s Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for International Affairs, told me he feared that the moment had passed for the U.S. to do much to contain Chávez. “The problem with the war on terror is that the Pentagon can’t engage anywhere else—it’s tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Arcos said. “Our foreign policy is all about China and the war on terror, so where does that leave Latin America?”
In Latin America, Arcos said, “the political left has lost its fear of the gringos and the right has lost its respect for the U.S. Why? Ironically, because both expected the U.S. to smash the left, especially now that it is the sole superpower.” He continued, “The U.S. predictably considers Chávez to be annoying and crude, and thinks that he behaves inappropriately for a head of state. His cavorting with Iranians and other pariahs is alarming to the U.S., yet it’s not taken seriously by his South American neighbors.” Their tolerance for Chávez, he said, was “evidence of the U.S.’s eroding influence in the region.”
Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, first met Chávez in 1999, when, as President Clinton’s Energy Secretary, he represented the United States at Chávez’s inauguration. (He brought him a baseball glove as a swearing-in gift.) Richardson told me, “I am concerned that, because of our policy to isolate Chávez, we may have created a vacuum in Latin America, where he already outvotes us on certain issues. I am not saying that this means we have to go along with him, but there may be ways we can establish a working relationship with him. Isolating him is not in our interest.” Richardson said, “I question whether we would be wise to brand Chávez a state sponsor of terror”—a move that the Administration has considered—“because of our energy needs, and our energy relationship with Venezuela.”
The old ExxonMobil station in La Faja was immaculate, all swept gravel and pristinely painted structures. Chávez, who has a regular live Sunday television show, “Aló Presidente,” planned to broadcast from the facility that day.
It was humid but pleasant. An advance team had set up several hundred folding chairs outside the refining station, and a plank floor had been laid down as a stage, with a desk for Chávez, furnished with maps, notepads, and books (including a Spanish edition of Joseph Stiglitz’s “The Roaring Nineties”). Young aides in red T-shirts emblazoned with Chávez’s image and the words “Democracia en Revolución” (“Democracy Within Revolution”) and matching red baseball caps dispensed coffee and bottles of water. Chávez was dressed in a red guayabera and black jeans. His bodyguards and many of his ministers wore similar red guayaberas.
By the time Chávez sat down at the desk, he had been on the air for more than an hour, walking through the facility, followed by cameramen, with his daughter María Gabriela. She is a wide-faced young woman with a toothy smile. As they made their way, he explained what they were seeing, for the benefit of the television audience. Periodically, he stopped to hug or kiss her. She, her sister, Rosa Virginia, and a brother, Hugo Rafael, all in their twenties, are Chávez’s children with his first wife, Nancy Colmenares, whom he divorced in the early nineties. Chávez also has a ten-year-old daughter, Rosinés, with his second wife, Marisabel Rodríguez. Rodríguez left him in 2002, and has since married a tennis instructor. Recently, she has begun speaking out publicly against Chávez, accusing him of being obsessed with power, and hinting that she would like to run for the Presidency herself.
Sitting at the desk, Chávez began with a long pep talk for his supporters. When the camera cut away for a short, sharply critical film about ExxonMobil—it opened with a montage of images of Hitler, oil spills, and John D. Rockefeller—an aide held up a large white screen to shield Chávez while a young woman applied powder to his face. Another aide poured him espresso from a thermos, which he carried in a black leather briefcase.
Back on the air, Chávez spoke scornfully of the students known as los chamos (“the kids”), who, in demonstrations last year, rallied considerable public opposition to him. Some of the leaders of los chamos have expressed interest in running against Chávez’s candidates in mayoral and gubernatorial elections scheduled for November; Chávez called out to those who might “throw themselves” into the race, “Go ahead, jump!” He then added, “Better put on parachutes.”
Chávez has a gospel preacher’s deftness with language and an actor’s ability to evoke emotions. Within a single soliloquy, he comes up with rhymes, breaks into song, riffs on his own words, gets angry, cracks jokes, and loops back to where he started. His speeches can be highly entertaining, but it is sometimes difficult to know if he means what he says or has simply been carried away by his own oratory. A couple of years ago, at the United Nations General Assembly, he announced that he smelled “sulfur” at the lectern. The stench, he said, had been left by President Bush, who had spoken the day before, and was “the Devil.” (Chávez has a repertoire of colorful labels for Bush, including “coward,” “donkey,” “drunkard,” and “Mr. Danger.”) At a summit meeting in Chile last November, Chávez repeatedly interrupted Spain’s Prime Minister, until Juan Carlos, Spain’s king, snapped, “¿Porque no te callas?”—“Why don’t you shut up?” The King’s rebuke became an instant YouTube sensation. In Spain alone, more than half a million people downloaded it as a cell-phone ring tone.
Chávez, sitting at the stage desk, drew a diagram on a large white card, and, holding it up to the “Aló Presidente” cameras, told viewers that he’d been thinking about a new “windfall profits” tax on oil companies. He called out to Rafael Ramírez, the president of P.D.V.S.A.—a tall, blue-eyed man who resembles Tim Robbins—and he promptly stood up and began taking notes, nodding furiously. This was not a rehearsed moment; to an unusual degree, “Aló Presidente” is Chávez’s government in action, and it is a government that Chávez does not so much administer as perform live. A couple of Chávez’s younger advisers told me that they frequently felt like supporting actors in Venezuela’s own “Truman Show.”
The show went on for five hours. At one point, Chávez spoke darkly about an assassination plot against him involving Colombian and American agents. He blamed Venezuela’s private companies for shortages of food—milk, for instance, had become extremely scarce. Chávez informed his audience that, a few hours earlier, a cargo of powdered milk from Belarus had been unloaded at a Venezuelan port. He elicited a round of applause, as if the mere fact of the milk’s arrival were a feat worth saluting, and pointed out a delegation of Belarusian officials in the audience. Chávez talks incessantly about building an alliance of nations that can challenge the United States; he has sought out relationships with Iran (and had earlier sought one with Saddam Hussein), China, Russia (Chávez has called Putin one of his “buenos amigos”), and, of course, Belarus.
The show cut away by satellite to a group of Belarusians and Venezuelans at the site of a joint seismic-mapping project. After a few minutes of pleasantries exchanged through an interpreter, Chávez remarked, “That translator, from the sound of things, is Cuban, for sure.” He smiled. “Cuba all over the place!”
Then Chávez turned to the camera and, looking directly at it, asked, in English, “How are you, Fidel?”
Fidel Castro, who will turn eighty-two this summer, has been sick since July, 2006, when he vanished from view after returning from a trip to Argentina with Chávez. Despite rumors that he had cancer, it appears that Castro was suffering from diverticulitis, a severe intestinal disorder, which nearly killed him, and from which he has not entirely recovered. He has not appeared in public since, but photographs and video footage have offered glimpses of a diminished man. In all this time, Chávez has been one of the few people outside Castro’s immediate family who are allowed to see him. He has taken it upon himself to visit the Old Man regularly and to cheer him up.
“For me, Fidel is like a father. Like a beacon. Fidel is, I believe, irreplaceable,” Chávez told me. “He is a giant of the twentieth century, and, just as he entered its history, he has also entered into that of the twenty-first. And there he is, even now, doing everything he can to keep on fighting what he calls the battle of ideas, until his last breath.”
The deep friendship between Chávez and Castro began well before Chávez took office. In 1979, when Chávez was a young lieutenant in the Venezuelan Army, he and other junior officers began talking about a revolution. Their plans became more serious in 1989, after the Caracazo, a three-day riot that began when the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez implemented International Monetary Fund reforms, resulting in a spike in the cost of gasoline and public transportation; the Army was called into the streets, and hundreds of civilians were shot dead. Three years later, in 1992, Chávez, then a lieutenant colonel, led a military rebellion. But he surrendered when it became clear that his men were outnumbered, and that continuing would only mean further bloodshed. (At least twenty people died.) Allowed to appear on television, he said that the coup was over, but only “por ahora”—for now. The bombast, and the implicit threat of Chávez’s words, captivated Venezuelans, and launched his political career.
Chávez was imprisoned, along with his co-conspirators. They were released two years later, in 1994, after Pérez was impeached for corruption, and the criminal charges against them were dismissed. One of the first things Chávez did was go to Havana and meet Fidel Castro. Castro received him warmly, and treated him like a head of state. When, five years later, Chávez came to power, he returned to Havana and paid his respects to Castro.
Chávez told me that while he was in jail he had read an interview with Castro that impressed him deeply. At the time, the Cuban economy had all but collapsed, owing to the abrupt end of Soviet subsidies. “Fidel said, ‘There will be a new wave, sooner or later. The people of Latin America will awaken and there will be a new wave, and it will have to be seen,’ ” Chávez said. “Now, as for the new wave, it’s here”—he slapped the arm of his chair—“and if someone can’t see it, it’s because he’s blind, and if he can’t feel it, it’s because he’s dead.”
Since 2001, Cuba has received shipments of subsidized Venezuelan oil, estimated to be worth $2.5 billion a year, in exchange for the services of thousands of Cuban teachers, sports instructors, and doctors, who work in Venezuela’s slums and rural areas. Thousands of Venezuelans are studying in Cuba, and more than a hundred thousand Venezuelans with eye problems have been sent to Cuba for specialized medical treatment. In 2004, Chávez and Castro signed a sweeping trade deal that eliminated tariffs between their countries, and simultaneously committed themselves to Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, which means “dawn” in Spanish. ALBA is intended to counter the “neoliberal” trading bloc envisaged under the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas. (Bolivia, Nicaragua, and the small Caribbean island nation of Dominica have since joined ALBA.) Chávez has become Cuba’s primary benefactor while positioning himself as the inheritor of Fidel’s mantle.
In February, Castro released a letter saying that he was giving up his post as Cuba’s President. “Fidel hasn’t resigned from anything,” Chávez, loyally, told reporters. “He’s just stepped aside for others.” (Fidel’s younger brother Raúl replaced him as President.) Chávez promised to “continue fighting” at Fidel’s side.
Teodoro Petkoff, who ran against Chávez in the 2006 Presidential election campaign and is one of his leading critics on the center-left, told me that Castro had been “a moderating influence” on Chávez—a source for level-headed and pragmatic consultation for the younger man. He thought that Castro’s departure from active politics had, in that sense, hurt Chávez. “Chávez doesn’t have anyone to talk to, and there’s no one who can argue with him; the people around him are all mediocre personalities,” he told me. “The relationship with Fidel is key, because Chávez has a kind of adolescent devotion to him.”
I was reminded of something that Román Ortiz, a security-affairs analyst with a Bogotá think tank, told me: “Chávez and his plans don’t fit into the minds of those who read and believed in Fukuyama and thought we were all going to be liberals. They don’t really grasp that he has a political project, one that shares certain elements with theFARC, which is to rebuild Gran Colombia.” Ortiz added, “He will have to be contained in order for war to be avoided. Chávez is more dangerous and unpredictable than Fidel Castro. In this scenario, we are going to miss Castro.”
The nature of Chávez’s relationship with the FARC, which has been fighting to overthrow the Colombian government for more than forty years, is one of the most controversial questions about him. The FARC occupies large areas of the remote jungle of southern and eastern Colombia and finances itself by taxing illicit coca farmers and cocaine processors and traffickers. Chávez’s perceived support of the guerrillas has alienated even some of his natural allies and, since last year, has been the focus of a dispute between him and his Colombian counterpart, Álvaro Uribe, that has taken on increasingly bizarre dimensions.
Last August, Uribe asked for Chávez’s help in negotiating with the FARC for the release of hostages, some of whom have been held for as long as a decade. Chávez agreed. Then, in late November, Uribe, after learning that Chávez had spoken with the commander of the Colombian Army without first asking his permission, abruptly cut Chávez out. Chávez responded, in one tirade after another, by calling Uribe a “mafia boss,” a “coward,” and a “liar.”
Uribe does have a problematic background. In a 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency document, he is described as being a “close personal friend of Pablo Escobar,” the late drug lord. As a regional governor, Uribe helped establish a civilian vigilante organization, CONVIVIR, that metamorphosed into an armed paramilitary network. Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary forces have fought a vicious war against the country’s leftist guerrillas and their sympathizers, killing thousands of civilians. And, like the FARC, they became involved in the drug trade. In the complex web of relationships that characterize Colombian society, however, few politicians can claim never to have had a relationship with anarcotraficante, a guerrilla commander, or a paramilitary warlord. During the past five years, thousands of paramilitaries have given up their weapons in a demobilization deal that has been criticized by human-rights groups as amounting to amnesty, but Uribe has been unwilling to broker a similar deal with the FARC. In the early nineteen-nineties, his father was killed during an attempt by the FARC to kidnap him.
In his attacks on Uribe, Chávez also claimed that the United States was using Colombia as a staging ground to plot his overthrow and assassination. In response, a senior U.S. diplomat in Caracas told me, “The things President Chávez accuses the United States of are just implausible. The United States has three citizens in the FARC’s hands in Colombia. We, in fact, supported President Chávez’s initial role as an arbitrator.”
Chávez continued to negotiate with the FARC on his own, and, in mid-January, he secured the release of two women. One of them, Clara Rojas, had been the campaign manager for Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped in 2002 while running for President, and is the best known of the hostages. The episode had all the melodrama of a telenovela, as Rojas was reunited with her three-year-old son, Emmanuel, to whom she had given birth in the jungle, and whose father was a FARC guerrilla. Her captors had taken Emmanuel from her, and he had ended up in an orphanage. The women told of hostages being held in inhumane conditions—some were kept chained to trees. Chávez, however, chose that moment to urge Colombia to recognize the FARC as a “belligerent party,” which would give it diplomatic legitimacy, and to call on foreign governments to stop listing it as a terrorist organization. Chávez’s statements left him isolated. In February, some four million Colombians demonstrated to repudiate the FARC; many were also critical of Chávez.
Gustavo Petro is an outspoken leftist Colombian senator who is well known for his opposition to Uribe, but last year he publicly condemned the FARC for its drug trafficking and its human-rights abuses. He attributed Chávez’s position to naïveté. “The FARC has latched on to Chávez and his good will because it is in need of political varnish,” he told me. “It behaves like an occupation force, and has abandoned attempts to win over a base of support among the civilians. It actually kills more indigenous Colombians than any other armed group in the country today. Chávez doesn’t accept any of this. He is a romantic. If he sees people he thinks are ‘revolutionaries,’ Chávez salutes them and says, ‘At your service!’ ”
In official circles in Caracas, I found a near-total disconnect with the mood in Colombia. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, Nicolás Maduro, dismissed the public’s support for Uribe as the product of “a media dictatorship, with the means of communication in the hands of the most rancid, racist, retrograde oligarchy on the continent.”
A few hours after I spoke to Maduro, I was summoned to meet Venezuela’s reclusive Interior Minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, a former naval captain. He was a participant in Chávez’s abortive coup, and, like him, served two years in prison. More recently, Rodríguez Chacín has been Chávez’s personal emissary to the FARC. It was widely noted in Colombia that, in television coverage of a recent hostage release, he hugged the guerrillas and urged them to “keep up the struggle.”
I met Rodríguez Chacín at night in a remote part of Fuerte Tiuna, the Venezuelan Army’s headquarters, in the mountains on the outskirts of Caracas. A small man in jeans and a red windbreaker, with a stubbly shaved head, he was waiting in a large, bunkerlike room. There were piles of military gear, a desk with half a dozen telephones on it, an exercise bike, and a cot. On a low table I saw the “Selected Works of V. I. Lenin” and “The Diary of a Snail,” by Günter Grass.
We went outside to talk. The lights of the city appeared far below us like stars in an upside-down sky. Periodically, bursts of automatic gunfire could be heard. Rodríguez Chacín said that a military firing range was situated on the side of the mountain. “Sometimes they miss, so it’s unwise to go too near the edge when they’re shooting.”
He told me that he was negotiating the release of four more Colombian hostages—members of parliament who had been kidnapped six years earlier. The FARC was to bring them to a rendezvous point in the jungle; he alone would be informed of the exact location, he said. He was just waiting for the word. (The hostages were in fact released, four days later.) Rodríguez Chacín said that the FARC wanted peace, “but a different kind of peace from what Colombia’s oligarchy has in mind.” Colombia, he said, was the United States’ “last bastion, practically the last secure beachhead it has in Latin America. So the real enemy, behind this whole circumstance, even more so than the Colombian oligarchy, is the Empire.” (In Bolivarian Venezuela, “the Empire” is the United States.)
At the entrance to a grimy traffic tunnel in downtown Caracas stands a statue of Simón Bolívar. One day, I saw a handwritten sign there, reminiscent of the revelatory messages on placards sometimes seen in front of the White House. It carried an admonition, in Spanish, saying, “Barack Obama will be the Beast, and the last President of the United States.”
The apocalyptic message was somehow fitting. Caracas is, in many respects, a failed city, and it looks and feels like a place that has spun out of control. The crime rate is shockingly high; there were an estimated five hundred and fifty murders in the first three months of this year. Indigents live openly in the public parks and along the embankments of the city’s sewage trough of a river, the Guaire. Here and there are skyscrapers built in the boom years of the sixties and seventies, their concrete carcasses discolored and crumbling. Hundreds of thousands of shanties scar the surrounding green mountains. Garbage lies uncollected, and the streets are choked with traffic—and, since Venezuela is flush with oil money, there are brand-new cars everywhere. Four hundred and fifty thousand new vehicles were sold last year. Wealthy Venezuelans, meanwhile, live in gated communities and secure apartment buildings on hilltops with panoramic views over Caracas; a nouveau-riche class has emerged from the official ranks and is known, disparagingly, as theboliburguesia, for Bolivarian bourgeoisie.
Five years ago, Chávez took direct control of the state oil company, P.D.V.S.A., after sitting out a two-month strike by its union. He fired more than eighteen thousand employees, replacing many of them with his supporters. Since then, he has used P.D.V.S.A.’s revenues to fund his most revolutionary schemes, which include the so-called missions to Venezuela’s poor. Rafael Ramírez, the P.D.V.S.A. chief, told me that Chávez intended to use P.D.V.S.A. as the vehicle for transforming Venezuela from an “oil sultanate to a productive society within a socialist framework.” Like a state within a state, the oil company has begun to replicate or supersede many of the functions of the national government. New P.D.V.S.A. branches oversee everything from agriculture to shipping, construction, and food distribution. “The plan is to make P.D.V.S.A. like Gazprom,” Ramírez told me, referring to the Russian energy giant, “but with a social role.”
Venezuela has a complex and volatile economy, with rampant corruption and high rates of unemployment and oil-fuelled inflation. A prominent Venezuelan economist, Orlando Ochoa, blamed Chávez’s policies and the inefficiency of his government for many of these problems. He described the situation to me as a “perfect economic storm.” He said, “No price of oil can forestall the rate of inflation and its social consequences.” But Ochoa acknowledged that, as long as oil prices remained high, the government could probably stave off collapse indefinitely.
Chávez’s current term ends in 2013. Last year, he held a referendum to amend the constitution and remove provisions that would prevent him from running for a third term. He let it be known that he would like to stay in power until 2050, when he would be ninety-six years old. The referendum was narrowly defeated; it was his first loss at the polls since becoming President, and it reinvigorated the political opposition.
Petkoff, who campaigned against Chávez in 2006, told me, “Chávez is a charismatic leader, and he understood that the result of the referendum meant that his popularity with the people had been somewhat eroded. He needed to find a way to reconnect more directly with the people, and so he has turned everything into a kind of personal ‘They’re coming for me’ drama.” Petkoff added, “Chávez is bipolar, really. One side of his brain is Girondin, and the other is Jacobin. He is prudent, and he is also radical.”
Petkoff’s wife, a psychologist, who was listening to us, demurred: “He’s a psychopath, in my opinion.”
Petkoff replied, “Yes, maybe, but a psychopath with a mission.”
José Vicente Rangel, who served as Chávez’s Vice-President from 2002 until 2007, said he thought that Chávez’s “infatuation” with foreign affairs and his neglect of Venezuela’s domestic problems had contributed to the referendum’s defeat. “Public insecurity is the scourge of Venezuelans, but Chávez never comprehended it,” Rangel said. “He sees the crime rate as a product of poverty, a social issue, and this is because he believes in a mythology of poverty in which all the poor are good, and it just isn’t that way; the poor are criminals, too.” Rangel said that the rebuke to his government was something Chávez took seriously—“He’s in a period of deep reflection.” The loss had shattered Chávez’s “myth of invincibility,” Rangel said, “and that has damaged us.”
In the early hours of March 1st, two days after the release of the four parliamentarian hostages, Colombian troops crossed into Ecuadoran territory and destroyed a FARC camp there. The FARC’s second-in-command, Raúl Reyes, was killed, along with twenty-four others. Uribe telephoned Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, to apologize for the incursion, but said that it had been done in self-defense—FARC fighters had fired on Colombian troops from the Ecuadoran side of the border.
On the next day’s “Aló Presidente,” which was broadcast from a plaza in Caracas, Chávez referred angrily to the “cowardly murder” of Reyes, whom he called a “good revolutionary,” and he said that the incident could be “the start of a war in South America.” Looking straight into the cameras, he added, “Try that here, President Uribe, and I will send you some Sukhois!” (Venezuela recently bought twenty-four Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia.)
Then Chávez turned to his Defense Minister, General Rangel, who was in the audience. Rangel stood up and snapped to attention. “Mr. Defense Minister, send ten battalions to the border with Colombia immediately,” Chávez said. “Tank battalions.”
In ordering the movement of troops on live TV, Chávez reinforced the unconventional aspect of his Presidency, in which statecraft is also a reality show. He then told viewers that he was closing the Venezuelan Embassy in Bogotá.
The next day, the chief of Colombia’s national police, General Oscar Naranjo, announced that three laptops and several hard drives had been seized during the raid on the FARC camp. According to General Naranjo, e-mail exchanges found on Reyes’s computer indicated that Chávez had offered the FARC three hundred million dollars; one e-mail message, allegedly from a FARC official, suggested that Rodríguez Chacín had asked the FARC to help train Venezuelans in “guerrilla warfare.” (There were also murky references to an attempt by the FARC to buy uranium for a “dirty bomb,” although these seemed less credible.)
Chávez dismissed the e-mails as fabrications. Uribe said that he intended to seek an indictment against Chávez before the International Criminal Court, for what he called “the patronage and financing of genocidists.” Uribe’s approval ratings soared to eighty-four per cent, while Chávez was viewed unfavorably by ninety per cent of Colombians.
Suddenly, there was talk of regional war. Television broadcasts showed Venezuelan tanks moving toward Colombia’s borders; trade between the two countries ground to a halt, and diplomats were expelled. One Latin-American diplomat told me he feared that the situation could easily escalate into a larger armed conflict. “Chávez is using this incident to divert public attention from his internal problems,” he said. “And I think he is also trying to demonstrate that he is the leader of the region’s popular forces. It is a very risky calculation.”
A few days after Chávez ordered his tanks to the Colombian border, I interviewed him at Miraflores, the Presidential palace. We sat under a large portrait of Simón Bolívar. Chávez was wearing black jeans, a green military jacket, and a red T-shirt. The next day, he was to fly to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, where some twenty Latin-American leaders were gathering for a summit, which would address the crisis. He intended to confront Uribe there.
I asked Chávez if his dispute with Colombia was getting out of hand. He replied, “If you look at the situation clearly, the reality is that you have an anti-imperialist revolutionary country here and, over there, a counterrevolutionary, pro-imperialist country. It’s an explosive contradiction.” Over the years, he said, he had mostly managed to maintain good relations with Uribe. He mentioned a dispute involving a FARC emissary kidnapped in Caracas at the direction of Colombian agents. On that occasion, Chávez had been about to break off diplomatic relations when Uribe asked Fidel Castro to intercede. “Fidel called me, and so we found a solution,” Chávez said.
“All this garbage is going to come back and fall on Uribe himself,” he said. “First of all, just to clarify, the mobilization of troops on the border, that’s all defensive—eminently defensive. Because we are faced with a government, the Colombian government, that has publicly assumed the Bush doctrine—preventive war, preëmptive attack.”
He expressed understanding for the FARC. When, during a ceasefire in the mid-eighties, the FARC established a political party, thousands of its members were murdered, Chávez said. He said that he couldn’t “dismiss the possibility that a group of guerrillas can cross the border—ours with Colombia is more than two thousand kilometres long—and install themselves, as occurred with Ecuador, here.” He went on, “Anyone would understand that I was obliged to reinforce the border. I had to warn Uribe that he should not dare to do here in Venezuela what he did in Ecuador.”
As for Uribe’s accusations and his threat to bring him before the International Criminal Court, “I laugh at them—they are risible.” Uribe was the one who should be investigated for genocide, Chávez said. “There are documents detailing the massacres by the paramilitaries in Colombia. It’s a horrible thing. They burn people, they cut them into pieces—into pieces! And Uribe supported that.” He added, “Uribe says I will be accused? Well, to paraphrase Fidel, who once said that history will absolve him, history has already condemned Álvaro Uribe.”
I asked Chávez if he believed that a confrontation with the United States was inevitable.
“Look, once, when I was a boy, I nearly drowned in a river,” Chávez said. “The current took me. Friends saved me when I was swept into a rock. Imagine if I had not been saved, and I had drowned at fifteen. This would have happened anyway. . . . If the oligarchies of this continent, directed by the United States and that group of extreme right-wing fascists with their imperial strategies of war who are in the White House, try to stop this revolution, Latin America will go up in flames.”
Chávez said that it was not his intention, as some said, “to be the leader of a continental revolution. Nor do we plan to export the Bolivarian revolution. It is a process that is happening—it is the people who are doing it. . . . Now, does this project necessarily have to confront the United States?” He paused. “I would say yes—not the United States as such but the imperial line of the United States. Confrontation is inevitable.”
Chávez’s jet took off for the Dominican Republic the next afternoon—“Hola, guerrilleros!” he called out to his Cuban doctors as we boarded. Maduro, the Foreign Minister, said, smiling, “Let’s go confront the Empire.”
The summit began the next morning, in a convention center set among the resort hotels and casinos on Santo Domingo’s seafront. At Chávez’s suggestion, I was given a lapel pin identifying me as a member of the Venezuelan delegation so that I could get into the Presidents’ session, which was closed to the press. President Uribe, a pale, small, trim-looking man, was the first head of state to enter the hall, followed by Chávez and Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s President. Ortega wore a suède jacket and jeans; all the other leaders, including Chávez, wore suits. (Ortega, the former Sandinista leader, was reëlected President last year, in spite of an unending series of scandals, and has begun to restore his image, thanks in part to Chávez’s financial and political largesse.) Chávez and Uribe ignored one another.
The Dominican President, Leonel Fernández, opened the meeting and gave Rafael Correa, of Ecuador, the floor. “The government of Colombia bombed my country,” Correa began. Ecuador, he said, was prepared to pursue its grievances to their “final consequences.” Looking at Uribe, Correa said, “Your insolence offends us even more than your murderous bombs.”
Chávez and the rest of the Venezuelan delegation gave Correa a standing ovation.
Uribe spoke next. He described Raúl Reyes, the FARC leader killed in the raid, as “one of the most frightening terrorists in the history of humanity.” (A Chávez adviser next to me rolled his eyes.) He conceded that his troops had bombed the camp in Ecuador—but said that the bombs had been launched from Colombian territory. As for the guerrillas who were killed, “they weren’t there preparing for Easter festivities.”
At one point, Daniel Ortega got up, walked behind Correa, and stared hard at Uribe, looking like a man spoiling for a fight. When Uribe suggested that he sit down, Ortega said, “I am not your son! Who do you think you are?” After a while, he sauntered back to his seat.
Following Uribe’s remarks, Correa said that Uribe would bomb the Dominican Republic if he suspected that it harbored another Raúl Reyes.
“Don’t inflict on me the cynicism of those who are nostalgic for Communism,” Uribe interrupted.
Correa, continuing, raised his arms. “These hands are clean and free of blood.”
The session seemed close to breaking down. Then Chávez spoke. He began by telling stories, goading the others and drawing them in. In the nineties, he said, he had been accused of giving arms to Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, who was then a cocalero activist and a congressman, and to another indigenous Bolivian leader, Felipe Quispe. Chávez said to Morales, “Evo—I think Quispe’s even more radical than you.” Morales smiled modestly.
Chávez said he found ironic the accusation that he was providing three hundred million dollars to the FARC, since he had recently financed a three-hundred-million-dollar gas pipeline for Colombia—he and Uribe had attended the groundbreaking together. Chávez looked across at Cristina Kirchner, the President of Argentina, whose populist, left-of-center government is supportive of his. “Witness the infamy that was invented that I had sent suitcases full of dollars to Cristina.” (Last August, a Venezuelan-American businessman travelling to Buenos Aires was found to be carrying eight hundred thousand dollars in undeclared cash in his suitcase. Although Chávez has denied it, the widespread assumption is that he was secretly financing Kirchner’s Presidential campaign.) “And now it’s suitcases in the jungle!”
By now, many of the leaders were laughing. Chávez had created an atmosphere of entente cordiale, and momentarily blunted Uribe’s charges against him. “I could have sent plenty of rifles to the FARC,” Chávez said. “I could have sent them plenty of dollars—I will not do it, ever.”
Chávez then had a surprise: the FARC, he said, had just informed him that it was prepared to release six more hostages. Uribe spoke in urgent whispers with his aides. Chávez asked President Fernández if protocol could be broken to allow the mother of Ingrid Betancourt to come into the hall. After some commotion, Betancourt’s mother, Yolanda Pulecio, an elegant woman in her late sixties (and a former Miss Colombia), entered. With her was Piedad Córdoba, a flamboyant left-wing Colombian senator who has worked with Chávez in negotiations with the FARC, and who was wearing a white turban. Uribe looked furious; Chávez was showing that he, not Uribe, was the one who could save the hostages’ lives.
By now, some eight hours had gone by, and waiters brought the leaders plates of food while they talked. Finally, an agreement was worked out, as part of which Uribe promised, reluctantly, not to conduct new cross-border raids. Fernández asked Uribe and Correa to embrace. After some hesitation, they shook hands. Chávez walked up to Uribe and greeted him, too, and the crisis seemed to be at an end. Then, moments later, Correa began berating Uribe, who bristled. The other leaders in the room looked alarmed. Chávez swiftly spoke in mollifying tones to Uribe, who relaxed.
I walked out with Piedad Córdoba and Yolanda Pulecio. Córdoba was gleeful. She said that she and Chávez and Cristina Kirchner had planned everything in detail—the revelation about the new hostages, and Pulecio’s dramatic appearance.
Chávez had shown himself capable of sparking a regional confrontation and then, by defusing it, appearing as the peacemaker. It was similar to the moment in 1992 when he called off his coup attempt. Uribe understood that he had been temporarily outmaneuvered, and had responded to Chávez’s gesture. Both leaders, to an extent, could declare victory, although it was clear that this was just a skirmish in an ongoing conflict.
We were boarding the flight that was to take us back to Caracas when Chávez announced that he had changed his mind: the plane was going to Cuba instead. A wave of elation swept through the delegation. When we arrived in Havana, it was nearly midnight. Raúl Castro, wearing a military uniform, a brimmed hat, and large glasses, which gave him an owlish appearance, was waiting to greet Chávez as he got off the plane. Chávez was exuberant, and called me over to introduce me to Raúl, who looked me up and down with a cautious smile and shook my hand. As the rest of the delegation headed to a state-run hotel, Chávez disappeared with Raúl.
The next day, Raúl saw Chávez off at the airport. As we taxied away, Chávez came to the rear of the plane. He was beaming. He had spent three hours with Fidel, who was “just fine.” He added, “Fidel asked me to say hello to all of you for him!”
Afterward, a senior Latin-American diplomat told me he learned that Chávez had lowered the tension with Uribe at the summit “because Fidel advised him to.”
In mid-May, the Interpol team investigating the captured FARC laptops announced that the hard drives had not been tampered with since their discovery. The investigators cautioned that they did not verify the authorship or the accuracy of the e-mails, but the report was damning. Chávez responded by deriding the investigators, calling Interpol’s secretary general, an American, an “international vagabond.”
Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said that he was “surprised” at Chávez’s flippant reaction. Two days after the release of the report, on May 17th, a U.S. Navy jet strayed into Venezuelan airspace, owing to what the Pentagon said was a navigation error. Defense Minister Rangel called the incident a “provocation.”
A series of embarrassments and setbacks for Chávez followed. A decree law, intended to bolster the country’s intelligence in case of “imperialist attacks,” passed on May 28th and came under immediate and widespread criticism; many Venezuelans feared that it would require them to inform on one another. Ten days later, on June 7th, the Colombian government announced the arrest of a Venezuelan officer whom they accused of smuggling forty thousand AK-47 bullets to the FARC. Chávez’s government said that it was investigating. Adding to the sense of disarray, theFARC was forced to confirm reports that its legendary leader, Manuel Marulanda, had died of a heart attack.
Chávez seemed to realize that he had gone too far. The day of the smuggling arrest, he announced that he would suspend the new intelligence law, saying, “There is no dictatorship here.” Then, on his June 8th “Aló Presidente” broadcast, he unexpectedly called on the FARC to give up its armed struggle and let its hostages go, saying that guerrillas did not have a place in today’s world. Chávez appeared—for now—to be withdrawing from the battlefield he had helped to create, pragmatically cutting his losses. Above all, he had shown the strength of his instincts as a survivor.
Whether his call to the FARC was more than a tactical ploy remains to be seen. “Those were very useful words,” Assistant Secretary Shannon said at a talk in Miami. “That does not mean we aren’t aware of what is happening, and the kind of relationship that has been built over time between some members of the Venezuelan government and theFARC.” The question is, Shannon said, will the Venezuelan government “use that relationship in an effort to get theFARC to come in out of the cold and end a four-decade conflict? Or will it continue to conspire against a democratic neighbor? . . . That, I think, is what everybody in the region is waiting for: how Venezuela will define itself.”
Bill Richardson said that, in April, he had travelled to Caracas to speak to Chávez on behalf of the families of three American defense contractors being held by the FARC. Chávez had been effusive and friendly—Richardson is Mexican-American, and they spoke for an hour and a half in Spanish. He told Richardson that he did not comprehend the Bush Administration’s hostility toward him: “He told me he didn’t like being demonized.” When Richardson asked him if he would get in touch with the FARC about the American contractors, Chávez said, “Sí, te ayudo”—“Yes, I will help you.” Richardson said, “We need to establish some lines of communication with him, and this—coöperation on the hostage negotiations—is a possible way to start. I think we should keep a stable relationship with Venezuela; it’s in our interest to do so.”
On June 7th, Chávez had also said, “Whoever is the next President of the United States, I’d like to start preparing the way to start working together.” When I asked Ana Navarro, an adviser to Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, about the offer, she said, “Senator McCain thinks that Chávez is a charlatan and a thug. The Senator doesn’t trust Chávez, and does not think it worth getting into a back-and-forth with him.” Last year, Senator Barack Obama was asked in a debate if he would be willing to meet with leaders who are hostile to the United States—Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Chávez, and Castro—“without precondition.” Obama answered that he would, prompting Senators McCain and Hillary Clinton to suggest that he was naïve. Obama subsequently said that high on his agenda in any talks with Chávez would be addressing “the fomentation of anti-American sentiment in Latin America,” and “his support of the FARC in Colombia,” which, he said, was “not acceptable.”
I asked Richardson if he had carried a message to Chávez on behalf of Senator Obama, whose candidacy he endorsed after dropping out of the Presidential race himself. Richardson said that he hadn’t, but that the thought had seemed to occur to Chávez, too. “He said that he had noticed my endorsement. And he said, ‘We could use better treatment from the United States.’ But I don’t think he sees me as a representative of Obama, but as a fellow Latin-American,” Richardson said. “His message to me was ‘Take me seriously, and treat me better.’ ”
The slogans covered the walls of occupied factories and streets. “All power to the imagination.” “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” “We don’t want a world where the certainty of not starving to death means the possibility of dying of boredom.”
Forty years ago this month, France exploded in a wave of insurrection. Factories were occupied and universities shut down in one of the largest strike waves of the 20th century. “The children of Marx and Coca-Cola” left their unfulfilling lives of work or study and went into the streets, launching a collective experiment in living differently — a moment when everything seemed possible, even if it only lasted a month. May ’68 is perhaps the emblematic uprising of the global wave of revolt that peaked in 1968, putting “the establishment” on the defensive across the world.
The movement started modestly, with the March 22 student occupation of a university building in Nanterre, a Parisian suburb, in solidarity with students arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. The solidarity movement spread to other universities and when radical organizations went into the streets to celebrate May Day, battles between cops and students broke out in the Latin Quarter, the student neighborhood of Paris. The University of Paris was shuttered and within days, the fighting spread: Barricades were erected and cars burned throughout the Latin Quarter. By May 9, students across France went on strike and declared their universities liberated zones.
From the universities, the strikes spread to factories, starting with car manufacturer Renault and catching like wildfire. By the end of the month, 8 to 10 million workers were on strike, paralyzing the nation of 50 million.
While their situations were different, students and workers shared a sentiment of alienation, of being caught up in a stultifying life centered on work (or study) and consumption. May ’68 was a revolt against boredom, alienation and social control rather than for “bread, land and peace” or any such material demands.
But as quickly as the upheaval of May ’68 spread, it subsided. Toward the end of the month, the Communist Party-controlled union, the Confédération Générale du Travail CGT, ushered workers back in the factories in exchange for hefty pay raises. And as the workers re-entered their workplaces, the students left the streets.
In the midst of the rioting, French President Charles de Gaulle had called for new parliamentary elections. By the end of June, his party won by a landslide, a devastating defeat for the electoral left. Soon after, the cobblestones of the Latin Quarter were paved over with asphalt — far harder to throw at cops — while in 1970, the University of Paris was broken into 13 sections to make strikes less likely to spread. Veterans of the movement of May ’68 returned to their lives, some permanently radicalized by their experiences but many others putting in a few years in left-wing groups — mostly Maoist — before returning to mainstream society or writing off the possibility of radical social change.
The victory of the Socialist Party in the 1981 presidential elections was initially hailed by many as a delayed triumph of the generation of ’68, but as the Mitterrand government shed its left-wing commitments under the pressure of circumstances, the fanfare quieted. Nonetheless, the steady rightward trajectory of the Socialists, taking many former militants of ’68 with them, does seem emblematic of the “reconciliation with reality” of the mainstream French left. From then on, the demands for autonomy and a less alienated form of life raised by May ’68 were dismissed as “utopian” and May ’68 characterized as a fleeting exception — however glorious or important — from the regular humdrum reality of politics.
With the 40th anniversary of May ’68, innumerable ’68-ers have published memoirs of their youthful engagement, contributing to an indigestibly large and growing pile of writings on the subject. Much as with “the sixties” in the United States, most of their contributions simultaneously rue and celebrate the naïve idealism of their youth or take credit for the change in work and gender relations while disavowing their immature dreams of revolution. Some marginal figures have chosen to defend their youthful radicalism or even call for a new wave of uprisings. Others claim that the shattering of traditional social roles in May ’68 ushered in the amoral culture of consumption in which we live — love it or hate it.
Forty years after the fact, May ’68 remains a central reference point for French politics. On the left, activists born well after the event study it, measure themselves against it and even try to recreate it.
The discourse of class, let alone revolution, has been deemed passé and the Socialists, having ceased to be socialist in all but name, fail to offer any significant alternative to the logic of untamed capitalism. But the right continues to be haunted by the specter of May ’68 and the radical revolt that it represents. On the campaign trail last year, current President Nicholas Sarkozy spoke of the need to “liquidate” the legacy of May ’68, blaming it for what he called the moral crisis of French society.
It borders on the bizarre that Sarko — a professed Catholic on his third wife — would claim that France’s moral renewal hinged upon the need to “do away with May ’68, once and for all.” After all, it would seem to the casual observer that the country has already practically done away with May ’68. If anything, those on the right, with their attacks on the social welfare state, are the radicals in France these days. Far from their days of posing utopian demands, the left dares little more than a rearguard defense of public programs. A contemporary re-enactment of an uprising on the lines or the scale of May ’68, a radical rejection en masse of the existing society, is unimaginable.
But revolution is always unimaginable until it happens. In 1788, it was unimaginable for the French people to claim their liberty by seizing the Bastille, hated prison and symbol of the ancien régime. And in 1967, it was unthinkable for a student-initiated movement to throw into upheaval the entirety of France. Stillborn as it may have been, the failed revolution of May ’68 still symbolizes the promise of the irruption of the impossible into French political life: the creation of the new.
The Imagination of the New Left
By George Katasiaficas
A brilliant and inspiring global analysis of the revolts of 1968, focusing on the United States and France.
Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative
By Daniel and Gabriel Cohn-Bendit
A recounting of the events of May ’68 and argument for a political left outside the Communist Party by leaders of the student movement, written in the five weeks following the restoration of the authority of the French state.
May ’68 and Its Afterlives
By Kristin Ross
An incisive study of how the official retelling of the events of May ’68 has defanged it, reducing a mass political movement with roots in years of anti-imperialist struggle to the cultural discontents of Parisian students.
The trajectory of the French daily Libération provides a snapshot ofsorts of the journey of the generation that came of age in 1968 (as well as the French left) over the last four decades. Founded in 1973 by Maoist militants who had cut their teeth during May ’68, Libération was intended to provide a source of information unbeholden to ads or shareholders. In its founding manifesto, the paper vowed to fight “against groveling, complacent journalism.” Jean Paul-Sartre, its first editorial director, elaborated, “We have refused to become an industrial and commercial undertaking.”
By 1982, Libération had decided to accept advertising. In his editorial on the first day it published ads, editor and co-founder Serge July stated that he wanted advertisers to join “us in making the leap of creation, audacity and provocation.” The year before, July had claimed that “the left and the counter-culture had ceased to be creative forces.” By 1986, he would state, “The real rupture is claiming to be liberal in the 18th-century sense of the term.”
Along with its audience of ’68-ers, Libération took steps to “normalize” itself and cast off its dissident past throughout the 1980s. By 1988 its advertising department put out a brochure stating that, “Libération is framed for upwardly mobile professionals.” A year later, the marketing weekly Stratégies declared Serge July its “man of the ‘80s” and a “modern winner.”
Only nostalgics could have been too surprised when July declared in 2002,“Personally, I am for neoliberalism. Personally, I am all for competition.” Nonetheless, it was a telling irony when Libération, founded to provide an alternative to the capitalist press and “give the people a voice,” was bought in bits and pieces by financier Édouard de Rothschild in the following years. Rothschild brought the story to an end of sorts in 2006 when he fired July for failing to produce adequate financial results. —M.W.