An Interview With Antonio Sosa (Part 1)
Antonio Sosa was born in Caracas, Venezuela. As Hugo Chavez strengthened his grip on power, Sosa immigrated to the United States, got an undergraduate and then a graduate degree and did some writing for several American publications. His most recent work has been in Reason magazine, with an article called “A Tale Of Two Majorities,” and in The Daily Caller, with an article called “Politics and the Spanish Language.” The latter is a review of a book, by Cuban political activist Yaoni Sanchez, not yet available in English.
Sosa and I crossed paths in Washington D.C., where I was doing an internship. D.C. is full of some of some very bland, intellectually closed people and Sosa stood out to me in how widely read he was and his exceptional writing ability. Since we had lunch and hung out, I’ve been turned on to many political philosophers and books while communicating with him. His politics are eclectic and I’m trying to talk him into becoming a Lizard.
You live in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. How do you see the effect of Chavez’s policies on everyday people?
People are afraid of getting shot, would be a blunt way of putting it. Crime rates have (understandably) made people more paranoid and anxious and you can see this in everyday attitudes. When you’re driving, you’re nearly always on the lookout. I would describe this state of affairs as the result of government negligence with respect to the escalating and scandalous murder rate, and therefore as an effect of government policy (or lack thereof).
The most political significant change I’ve noticed is the combination of self-censorship and fear that has slowly taken hold since Chávez came to power. It’s nowhere near the totalitarian fear of not being able to criticize the government at the top of your lungs in the middle of the street, say. Rather, it’s about having to measure your words carefully when criticizing the government on television or on the radio (or in media outlets in general). In March, for instance, Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, a veteran politician, was temporarily jailed for daring to repeat, on television and in print, what a Spanish judge had already said: that there seem to be links between Chávez and the FARC and ETA. He was released after about a month, but the point being made by Chávez was clear: you cannot say this, and if you do I might jail you indefinitely.
I should add, however, that there are cases of average people getting arrested merely for expressing discontent, such as the recent arrest of a mechanic, Miguel Ángel Hernández, at a baseball game for wearing a t-shirt that said, “Hugo, I shit on your revolution.” He is apparently going to be indicted for the crime of “Ofensa a los Jefes de Gobierno” –– meaning he has offended the heads of government.
There is also deep polarization between Venezuelans who favor and Venezuelans who oppose Chávez. One of the opposition’s slogans during the recent legislative elections was “I want to live without fear”––which referred both to the national murder rate but also the bellicose climate of hatred and confrontation our president has enjoyed sowing during his interminable speeches.
What do you think has led to Chavez’s opposition taking 52 percent of the vote?
Primarily, I would say it has to do with the gruesomely high murder rate, which has gone almost completely unaddressed by his government. It’s nearly impossible to stress the negative impact that crime levels have had, and must surely continue to have, on Chávez’ popularity levels. According to Venezuela’s National Statistics Institute, Caracas is currently the most dangerous city in the world, with one murder taking place every hour and a half, and 7,676 murders taking place in 2009. And these are the modest figures put out by a government outfit, though. The New York Times has (finally!) reported that the actual death toll for 2009 is upwards of 16 thousand (in a country of roughly 25 million people).
And although crime obviously affects every Venezuelan to one degree or another, it affects the poor primarily.
Personally, I can’t think of a single Venezuelan who doesn’t have a story about something that happened to a friend––in some cases, some pretty revolting stuff. You hear stories of people who’ve gotten shot over a BlackBerry or of those who were kidnapped for a day, or kidnapped and raped, or kidnapped and murdered. According to the National Statistics Institute, nearly 17 thousand kidnappings took place between July of 2008 and July of 2009.
To the perpetrators, it is clear that life has lost all value; your awareness of this fact only exacerbates your fear, since you realize that the line between getting mugged and getting murdered is absurdly thin.
Additional problems include a skyrocketing rate of inflation (which annoys people like me but makes life materially and palpably harder for those living in poverty), water and electrical shortages, corruption, inefficiency, and the repressive weight of a despotic government.
Another factor that’s probably helped is that fact that the opposition has gotten more organized from an administrative and strategic point of view: it has managed to found and maintain the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (the political coalition under which the principal anti-chavista parties have united). Without La Unidad, many opposition lawmakers would certainly not have been elected, given that they would’ve had to run merely as candidates for their respective individual parties.
On a doctrinal level, however, the opposition remains immature, in my opinion. By this I mean that, though they oppose Chávez, they’re still far from formulating a coherent political doctrine that makes their opposition to Chávez necessary. To some degree, this is unavoidable, since a coalition, by definition, combines different parties into one political bloc ––hence a great degree of compromise is essential. But there are areas like security, oil policy, and human rights where the formulation and dissemination of a single unified doctrine is a must. Once the newly elected National Assembly convenes in January, and opposition lawmakers have to continually face Chavista lawmakers in debate, we’ll see how cohesive and prepared La Unidad really is.
Hugo Chavez has provided a large degree of social services and does maintain a strong following amongst the poor. How would you meet the argument that his social programs assist Venezuela’s underclass?
That argument never fails to remind me of Christopher Hitchens’ quip about Mother Theresa being a friend of poverty and not of the poor.
To my knowledge, it’s never been conclusively proven that Chávez’ social programs have sustainably improved the lot of the Venezuelan poor. Chávez has provided a large amount of social services ––free healthcare in certain areas, subsidized grocers, and literacy campaigns. But these programs have not, and by definition cannot, alleviate poverty on a structural level, since they merely distribute oil wealth in a pell-mell fashion while doing nothing to contribute to job creation in Venezuela.
Without a doubt, these services have helped many Venezuelans, but they function like part of the propaganda arm of Chávez’ party rather than as the genesis of a sustainable, tax-funded welfare system. There is nothing institutional about these services, which is part of the reason it’s so difficult to get reliable data on them. And there’s also the matter of how far into disrepair these services have fallen. There’s just no accountability and no way to know in advance what the state of these services will be in the near future. This is no way to establish a welfare state, which is what I presume European and American lefties think Chávez is accomplishing with his famous Misiones.
It’s also been very easy for Chávez to fund these programs, because oil prices have been high during most of his time in office. But that could change. And then, what? Are the poorest Venezuelans supposed to mortgage their welfare to the price of oil in the global market? And I’m supposed to say that this is an example of social justice?
I would add: crime predominantly affects the poor. By not providing law and order –– which has resulted in the avoidable death of tens of thousands of Venezuelans (mostly poor) every year since (at least) 2007 –– the government denies el pueblo a very basic social service, perhaps the most basic. In other words, no government can call itself socialist (if we are to take that term seriously) if it cannot stop its poorest citizens from being murdered in large numbers every year for several years.
Chávez –– currently Venezuela’s most successful oligarch –– is providing alms, not jobs, for the poor, and certainly not the opportunity for the poor to improve their standard of living. If I were a Marxist, I would ask how anything he’s done has in any way changed the relations of production. Venezuelan workers haven’t become the “owners” of anything in Venezuela. Chávez has simply pauperized the poorest amongst us by teaching them to associate their livelihood with his largesse. He’s turned pork barrel-politics into a system of rule. It’s really astonishing how little Chávez mentions things like jobs, employment, work, wealth creation, etc.
What advantage does Chavez seek in allying himself with Ahmadinejad or making anti-Semitic comments?
It simply proves that anti-Americanism is the reigning ideology of today’s anti-globalization “Left” (I hate to associate Chávez with the “Left,” though, since I still think the term, if used properly, should convey, or once conveyed, something worth respecting).
Chávez’ unabashed hypocrisy in this regard is truly remarkable. Chávez calls the mainly social democratic opposition to his government the “extrema derecha” (extreme right), but has no problem forming an alliance with a sadistic and millenarian theocracy that gleefully executes homosexuals and adulterous women, amongst other grisly and primitive acts of barbarism. In Caracas, meanwhile, he occasionally calls himself a feminist during speeches.
What unites men like Chávez and Ahmadinejad is simply hatred of the United States and, more generally, Western civilization. They are aching to see it crumble. This is why I have a great deal of respect for American politicians who don’t give men like Chávez the benefit of the doubt or try to act like Chávez’ hatred for the US is due to some kind of misunderstanding.
Chávez is aching to see the United States fall. He’s waiting for the moment when, like the First Murderer in Macbeth, he’ll be able to say, “Let it come down.”
Since Castro’s comments about that the Cuban model “doesn’t work,” do you see any change in Chavez’s policies?
None whatsoever. In fact, Castro made a quick volte-face (presumably after discovering the public relations victory his comments were affording anti-Communists throughout Latin America) and was soon insisting that his comments had been misinterpreted.
Such a comment, in any case, could never have signaled or motivated a major shift in economic policy on Chávez’ part. It was simply an ideological faux pas. The Castro brothers know that they need to liberalize the Cuban economy significantly if their dictatorship is to survive, but I think they also know they can’t liberalize too quickly or too deeply, since such a move might inspire further economic reforms and a greater and more vocal expression of dissent by dissatisfied Cubans.
In contrast, I think Chávez knows he needs to continue to nationalize the Venezuelan economy if he wants to permanently consolidate his power. To this end, Chávez has been hard at work. The Venezuela-based Observatory on the Right to Property calculates that, between 2005 and 2009, Chávez’ government has made over one thousand expropriations. Recently, Chávez has been even more aggressive in this regard, particularly since losing a majority of the national vote during last September’s legislative elections. He’s just nationalized the American glass bottle company Owens-Illinois –– probably as a way to hurt Polar, which is Venezuela’s largest beer company and largest private enterprise all around, I believe –– and he has also just nationalized the Spanish farming company Agroisleña (renaming the company Agropatria).
I’d say he’s going to continue to expropriate until it’s clear to Venezuelans that all significant forms of economic activity may take place only with el Comandante’s consent.
And I have the foreboding presentiment that Globovisión, Venezuela’s last privately owned opposition television network, will not make it to the 2012 presidential elections. Judging by his recent speeches, I’d say Chávez is determined to neutralize Globovisión, either by taking them off the air or buying them out. One way or another, Globovisión’s dissent represents a serious problem for this government.
How has Venezuela changed since you left?
The brightest and most educated Venezuelans have either left or are planning to leave. This translates into a sapping of civic energy: you wonder whether you’re being prudent by staying, since you’re likely to have less opportunities for advancement and self-cultivation if you do, but you feel guilty for thinking about leaving, since you know that educated Venezuelans, of the kind that are able to dedicate themselves to public service or creative entrepreneurial activities, are really the last best hope the country has. By educated, I mean those with college degrees or more, who speak or have at least some knowledge of English.
On a more frivolous level, the traffic situation has spun out of control. Two-hour gridlock in certain areas, at certain hours. It’s been bad since I was a kid, but now it’s the stuff of magic realism. And also, as I’ve already mentioned, the level of crime, which, aside from Chávez, is the number one topic of conversation for Venezuelans.
Part 2 of this interview will be posted later today.