From Exile to Radicalization in Venezuela – Edgardo Lander on Reality Asserts Itself (1/9)
Mr. Lander tells Paul Jay that in ’98, when he saw the whole of the establishment getting together to defeat Chavez, he voted for him even though he had a lot of reasons not to like him
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. And welcome to a new series of interviews on Reality Asserts Itself.
We’re going to be talking about Venezuela. And for us that’s a somewhat complicated topic, because it’s a revolution with failures and achievements. But when you place it in the American media environment, it looks like it’s authoritarian, it’s a dictatorship. In fact, over the last few years before Chávez died, President Chávez died, it was almost impossible in mainstream American media to see Chávez’s name without the word dictator in front of it. It didn’t matter how many elections were won; it was still dictator Chávez. Now, this is the same media and the same country that can treat Saudi Arabia as an ally and not say a single word about the fact that it’s not just an absolutist monarchy; it’s a monarchy that spreads the ideas of medievalism and a monarchy that’s even been involved in terrorism, according to the joint congressional report into 9/11. So how is it Venezuela becomes the evil empire here and Saudi Arabia is somehow an ally of democracy in the United States and the Middle East? So the amount of hypocrisy is almost too much to believe.
On the other hand, we don’t want to do puff pieces about Venezuela. We want to talk about honestly the achievements and failures, as I said, of the Bolivarian Revolution, of the leadership of Chávez and now Maduro. And that means we will be making critique and talking to people who make critique.
So, all that being said, our guest now joins us in the studio. Edgardo Lander is a sociologist and professor at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. He was one of the main organizers of the World Social Forum in 2006, which took place in Caracas, and has been involved in labor unions and social movements. He’s a well-known supporter and critic of the Venezuelan Revolution under former president Hugo Chávez. He holds a degree in sociology from the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas and an MA and a PhD in sociology from Harvard University. His publications include modernity and universalism [Modernidad y Universalismo, 1991]; neoliberalism, civil society and democracy [Neoliberalismo, sociedad civil y democracia, 1995]. He’s a fellow of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam and part of the Permanent Working Group on Alternatives to Development, funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Quito.
Thanks for joining us.
PROF. EDGARDO LANDER, UNIVERSIDAD CENTRAL DE VENEZUELA IN CARACAS: Thanks for inviting me, Paul.
JAY: So, off-camera you told me that you were a political exile from the age of six. So you’re either a very sophisticated six-year-old or your parents were activists.
LANDER: My father was an activist from his student days. After the long dictatorship in Venezuela in the first decades of the Gómez dictatorship, there was a transition period. And then by 1945 there was a so-called October Revolution, in which Acción Democrática, which was a sort of quite left-leaning social democratic party, took power and there was a huge transformation in the Venezuelan political system. There was a new constitution. There were voting rights for the whole population for the first time in Venezuelan history, women were allowed to vote, etc., etc., and there was [incompr.] reform, like, high level of union organizing, and quite a bit of confrontation with the United States government in terms of the control of the oil industry and prices.
That ended with a coup in 1948 backed by the United States, a military coup that overthrew the government of Rómulo Gallegos, the first democratically elected government in Venezuelan history. And my father’s put in prison for ten months. And afterwards–.
JAY: Your father was part of this–
LANDER: He was part of this. Yeah.
JAY: –leftist government.
LANDER: Yeah. Yeah.
JAY: And he’s put in prison for how long?
LANDER: For ten months, and then taken from prison to the airport. And he was exiled for most of the almost ten years of the dictatorship.
JAY: So do you remember that day as a six-year-old getting on the airplane?
LANDER: I absolutely remember. There was one airline, Pan American airlines, that was used by the government to put people into exile. And my grandmother talked to the people at the airline and asked them to reserve some seats for part of the rest of the family as soon as they got word that my father was going to be on the plane. So she got a call from the airline saying, you have a reservation for tomorrow. And so we went to the airport, got on the plane, and once–we didn’t know if our father was going to be there, but he was on the plane.
JAY: That’s how you found out he was being exiled, because she’d made a deal with the airlines. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have known he was being–.
LANDER: We wouldn’t have known. Yup. No way.
And so we lived in Mexico for some time, almost three years, and then in Montreal for a while, a couple of years, then in Boston, then in Puerto Rico, then in San Juan, and then in Costa Rica. And we went back to Venezuela just after the overthrow of the Pérez Jiménez government.
So, as you can see, it was a very political childhood.
JAY: So you were 16 when you go back.
JAY: Fifteen, 16.
JAY: And so you grow up in this whole milieu. So the house is filled with these conversations–
JAY: –about what’s going on in Venezuela and–.
LANDER: Yeah, absolutely. And my parents’ friends were all political exiles or involved in some way or another. So that was sort of what was talked about, basically. Very, very political.
JAY: So do you remember the day you go back? I guess you would. You’re grown up then.
JAY: But when you go back to Venezuela, what’s that like?
LANDER: I remember the date. It was a week after the overthrow, which was on January 23, 1958. So we arrived in Venezuela on 31 January. And it was a hell of an experience. I mean, it was a very intensive experience, both politically and family-wise. I have a huge family, and most of them I hadn’t seen for [incompr.] from six to 15, so meeting all those strange people, with my uncles and my cousins and my aunts, and it was really an amazing experience. And the political movement in Venezuela was just amazing.
JAY: What was the mood?
LANDER: Well, it was a very politicized situation in which a military government had been overthrown. There were great expectations for democracy and participation, freedom, and all those sort of things [incompr.] There were two serious coup attempts by the military that same year, so people came out in the streets and there were general strikes. So a very, very politicized and very intensive situation.
JAY: And you’re in the streets with them?
LANDER: Yeah, of course.
JAY: So your political ideas are starting to get more formed now. You’re old enough to make more sense of all this.
JAY: What do you do next?
LANDER: I was involved in the youth sector of this social democratic party, Acción Democrática, for some time, until it split in the ’60s, in the early ’60s, around 1960, with a revolutionary left movement [incompr.] as a consequence of the more repressive policies carried out by the government by then, after the election of Rómulo Betancourt as the first president in this new democratic period.
And so I sort of withdrew from Acción Democrática and sort of participated for some time at the high school, which was a public high school, which was an incredibly good high school by then. And after that I stopped participating in politics for some time.
JAY: Why did you stop being active at that time? How old are you then?
LANDER: I’m seventeen.
JAY: So what happened?
LANDER: Well, I had been sort of emotionally attached to Acción Democrática as a party since I was born, actually. I mean, my whole childhood had to do with Acción Democrática, and, I mean, most of my parents’ friends were members of Acción Democrática. So most of the [people] I knew were from Acción Democrática, and that was when–sort of where I grew up.
And then, when it split between the old guard and the leftist younger generation, so it sort of left a void and–.
JAY: Which way did your father go?
LANDER: He stayed in the old guard for a while, not for long.
JAY: What was the split over, if you can say quickly?
LANDER: It had to do with a lot of things, but it was–I mean, it had to do with Cuba, had to do with sort of the beginning of the guerrillas against the government. And during the dictatorship, the youth of Acción Democrática and the Communist Party that remained in Venezuela were very active in opposition together, and sort of had very, very close ties. But the old guard that had been in exile had quite a different perspective when they came back. They had sort of shifted to the right and were sort of more concerned with guaranteeing continuity of their being in government more than any sort of more radical transformation that they had proposed before they went into exile.
JAY: And where were you on the split?
LANDER: I was split. So sort of ideologically I was with the left, but more sentimentally [incompr.] So I sort of withdrew from politics for a while.
JAY: And what did you do?
LANDER: I studied. I went into the university. I studied physics for a year. I studied sociology for a year, and then I studied physics for a year. And then I went in–and then I studied psychology for a year, then physics for a year, and then eventually went to sociology and decided to study sociology. And at the same time, I was studying psychology at nights, so I was, like, a full-time student.
JAY: Now, there’s still a lot of politics going on. You’re just kind of staying away.
LANDER: Yeah, I was sort of involved in university politics and student politics, but not very active then. I became more active later.
JAY: And what year do you graduate?
LANDER: From the university in Caracas in 1966.
JAY: And do you go right in–when do you go to Harvard to do the–?
LANDER: Yeah. Immediately. Yeah.
JAY: Right away you go to Harvard.
LANDER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And that was about four years.
JAY: Was that a–in terms of leaving Venezuela and the politics and everything going on, was it a conflict for you to go to Harvard? Or was it actually, you need to get away from here and have some perspective?
LANDER: Well, I was really interested in academic work. I wanted to have good training. My father had been at Harvard in part of his time in exile, had a master’s degree in urban planning. So I had a choice of going to Columbia, Berkeley, or Harvard. And because of my childhood memories of Cambridge, I decided to go to Harvard.
JAY: And when do you come back to Venezuela?
LANDER: I went back to Venezuela the beginning of 1971.
JAY: And now you’re at Harvard during the–
LANDER: The Harvard strike [crosstalk]
JAY: –the ’60s, the Harvard strike,–
LANDER: Yeah. Everything.
JAY: –the fight against the Vietnam War. Does this–what does this do to your politics?
LANDER: I got absolutely re-politicized and radicalized. There were, I mean, mass mobilizations all the time and marches on Washington, and it was very, very active. And when I look back onto my Harvard years, I appreciate much more what happened out in the streets and in sort of informal meetings than the actual lectures, and it was much more–had much more of an imprint in my life than going to lectures, seminars. It was a very fascinating period of time.
JAY: [Do you remember] a specific incident that was sort of a big turning point for you?
LANDER: Well, not a turning point, but I do remember the–well, the whole combination of civil rights and the antiwar movement and the cultural–I mean, having Joan Baez come to campus and sing, I mean, and the whole thing was [incompr.] intense and active and vital. And so it led to sort of talking with friends, so–over and over and–.
JAY: Was it surprising for you to see such dissent in the United States? When you were growing up, the United States was this country that had helped organize the coup in Venezuela. And I’m assuming in your household that–I mean, I even find this now in Latin America. There’s an under-appreciation for how much opposition there is in the United States. It’s all kind of seen as a monolithic bad guy. In fact, I use the term North America is the bad guy, which always pisses off Canadians. But was that an opening for you to see so much dissent?
LANDER: To some extent, but I don’t think I was really that surprised.
JAY: Were you there when the police attacked the strike?
LANDER: Yeah, yeah.
JAY: You were there at the time when the cops attacked.
LANDER: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
JAY: What’s your memory of that? Were you surprised at that level of violence?
LANDER: I was surprised, ’cause, I mean–.
JAY: Or imagine police beating up white Harvard kids.
LANDER: That surprised me.
JAY: So you graduate. And do you go back to Venezuela?
LANDER: And I got back to Venezuela and I immediately started teaching at the Central University.
JAY: And what year is that?
LANDER: Seventy-one. This was still during the–Caldera’s government. And I had been working at the university for about, I don’t know, a couple of months when the government took over the university with the military, and the university was closed for about ten months.
So that led me to shift in more sort of university politics to labor union politics during that whole period. And then I got involved with labor unions for the next, I don’t know, 20 years.
JAY: So where are you in 1989, when the protests known as Caracazo are launched and the attack on the protests takes place?
LANDER: Yeah, I was in Caracas. Yeah.
JAY: So are you involved in all of that?
LANDER: No. Actually, the Caracazo was a very sort of surprising event in the sense that it wasn’t really organized and it was highly unexpected. So people on the left in general weren’t aware of any sort of previous preparation or any sort of–the left was as surprised as the government in terms of how massive it was and how many people were really involved and how it was escalated.
JAY: We’re going to tell the story of this more in detail in the following segments. We’re going to do, as I said, more of the modern history of Venezuela, so we’ll get into the detail of it.
Hundreds, thousands of people were killed. How did that–first of all, how did that affect you and how did it change in terms of–how you saw your role in all of this?
LANDER: Well, by then I had a very sort of leftist, radical critique of the government and the way it acted, so that sort of confirmed the type of government we have in Venezuela is–I mean, the scale of the repression was surprising, but not the repression itself. It’s hard to tell how many people actually died. It’s from 500 to 3,000s. It’s hard to tell.
JAY: And just quickly–.
LANDER: But this was a turning point in Venezuela. Real turning point.
JAY: And, quickly, if I have it right this was a protest against–one of the first against neoliberal type of policies, and it was violently attacked by the government.
LANDER: The first government of Carlos Andrés Pérez coincided with a huge increase in oil prices indeed. And as a consequence, Venezuela’s state’s income increased fourfold from one year to another. And so there was this sense of “Saudi Venezuela”. And there was a whole notion that Venezuela was, you know, a very, very, very rich country and it was going to get richer and richer, and oil prices were just going up and up and up.
So there was an image in Venezuela of Carlos Andrés Pérez as a sort of populist that would sort of reactivate the economy and be able to guarantee jobs, etc., etc., and this is what he offered when he became candidate for the second time, when by then oil prices were much lower and there was an economic crisis in the country. So he announced this sort of new age of Venezuelan abundance. And the week after he was elected, he signed the letter of intent with the International Monetary Fund, in which the whole works of the Washington Consensus was to be applied–the whole works, I mean, the whole thing.
And one of the first things that was decided and acted upon was to increase the price of gas. It wasn’t announced, except, I mean, it was decided on a weekend, and it started to operate on a Monday morning. When people tried to get the bus, leaving the outskirts of Caracas, tried to get the bus to get to work Monday morning, they found out that the price of the fare had increased enormously from Friday to Monday. And people started to sort of revolt.
And for some reason, which I never got to understand, the media, the private media, started to reproduce this over and over and over and highlight–and this is happening here, and this is happening here, and the more they did it, the more it happened. So it just went on and on and on [about] three days, and [incompr.] the government was against the [incompr.] and they had no notion of how this had happened. And it was really the first massive popular reaction against neoliberalism in North America.
JAY: I mean, did the elite media not like Pérez? I mean, he was the one–.
LANDER: No, no, no, no. No.
JAY: I mean, he was the one that nationalized oil and such.
LANDER: Yeah, yeah. No. No, no, no. They had nothing against them. They were–I think they were sort of competing for rating or something–really, from their point of view, absolutely irresponsible.
JAY: So in ’92, Chávez is involved in a different coup.
LANDER: Well, if we’re going into Venezuelan history now, let me say something else.
JAY: Well, no, we’re going to get–it’s more just your personal stuff now, and then we’ll get into the real story. I’m just trying to get–in terms of you personally, you know, when so many people are killed and then Chávez and some colleagues of his in the army attempt a coup that fails, where are you personally? How do you react to this?
LANDER: I wasn’t aware of the preparations of the coup, although many people on the left were, and I wasn’t particularly happy with the coup itself, because I had no reason to trust a military leadership with Venezuelan and Latin American experience with the military. So I recognized the reasons why there was a coup attempt.
JAY: And just very quickly–and as I say, we’re going to get into this in more detail, but Chávez was a colonel?
LANDER: Yeah. Yeah.
JAY: Yeah, in the Army. And that level of leadership is what attempted the coup, which failed. And I guess, just quickly, later he comes back and wins an election. So you’re saying your first reaction is you couldn’t trust something coming from the military.
LANDER: Yeah, basically. But that whole period from ’89 to ’92 was sort of the final crisis of the Venezuelan democratic model from ’58 on. It was obvious that things were just collapsing, in terms of backing for Acción Democrática and the social Christian party Copei, and the whole thing was sort of falling apart, and it was obvious that something had to change, something had to give.
JAY: And you personally, you’re now fully immersed. This is–you are part of trying to be involved with, help organize some kind of revolutionary transformation in Venezuela.
LANDER: Yeah. I was working, basically, with labor unions, first with the basic industries [incompr.] in the south of Venezuela, and then in the textile unions in the central region of the country–in Caracas, in Valencia, in Maracay and the whole central area. And there was a big struggle against sort of bureaucratic labor unions from sort of class-based and more radical leftist labor unions. And this was [incompr.]
JAY: And in ’98, when Chávez runs in the election and wins, how did that feel? I hate asking questions how did that feel, but in this case I actually want to know how it–. How did that feel? And what did you think of it?
LANDER: I wasn’t really sure what to make out of the situation. I remember the day I decided to vote for Chávez was a day in which all the traditional parties got together on television and announced that they were retiring all their candidates except one, to guarantee that they would defeat Chávez. So this was, like, the whole of the establishment getting together and sort of–to guarantee that they would be able to defeat Chávez. At that moment I decided, no way, I’m voting for Chávez, even though I had a lot of reasons why I didn’t like Chávez. I mean, he didn’t have a clear program. He was military. He didn’t have any sort of tradition within the left. He didn’t have any sort of grassroots organization or backing. His program was very sort of abstract.
JAY: And not even all that radical at the time.
LANDER: No, no, no, no.
JAY: But the elites still didn’t like him.
LANDER: No, they didn’t like him at all. They didn’t like him at all.
JAY: Okay. We’re going to leave it there.
JAY: And we’re going to start, in the following series, what I said was a modern history of Venezuela. We’ll do a kind of quick catching up on the pre-Chávez days. And then we’ll get into a lot more substance and detail, tracing the development of the Bolivarian Revolution and President Chávez’s presidency.
So please join is for the continuation of our interview with Edgardo Lander on The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself.
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