I’m sitting in the ‘Sky lounge’ at Heathrow. So sleepy. The person at the check-in desk told me I have a business-class ticket, so I’ve got all the perks. The priority lane in security, priority boarding, and free use of this lounge.
Don’t think I’ve ever been in this situation before and feel very out of place. There’s a buffet breakfast. Free food and uncomfortable white chairs, so this is the life of the one-percent.
I went to the toilet before the flight, they were piping upbeat music into the stalls. So you’re there, straining to empty your bladder, all along to the smooth tune of James Blunt singing “you’re beautiful…” ♫
Absolutely dire experience.
This might be my first time flying business class, the meals on the flight were very fancy.
I feel self-conscious about the space I’m taking up. Not only am I taking a transatlantic flight for a visit of only a couple of days, but I’m also taking up the space of about 2.5 regular seats.
Still, for a ten-hour flight on very little sleep, I really needed this. I put my seat back into a bed position and had a nap.
The terminal building of Simón Bolivar airport reminded me of Cuba - concrete pillars, polished stone floors, and lots of tropical plants indoors.
There are some of the new housing developments (from the Gran Misión Vivienda) on the road out of the airport. They’re medium-rise buildings, with narrow gaps between them, and they look a bit like student housing blocks. Later on, I met someone who lives in these towers near the airport, he told me he was happy with his accommodation. Places in these buildings are usually provided for free, or at subsidised rents.
There’s a lot of Chavista graffiti around the place.
I was impressed by these vast tower blocks in the centre of Caracas.
I didn’t hang around for dinner once we’d arrived, went straight to bed.
I slept a solid 10 hours, from 8pm to 6am. Caught the sunrise glinting off the block across from my hotel.
There is intermittent/weak WiFi signal in the hotel, and at the conference centre. I don’t have a SIM card for mobile internet here, and so… I’m basically disconnected. It definitely has an effect on organisation, in that you can’t rely on being able to text or email people, if you want to set up a meeting you sort of have to hope you bump into the person you want to talk to.
I thought about this a lot when I was in Cyprus, the fact that when voting on critical issues I was able to quickly check in with people back home for guidance. There’s also something just quite cathartic about narrating the day’s events to your friends, and I just can’t do that here. I camped out in the hotel lobby for a long time in order to post a couple of photos on twitter, the upload kept timing out so I had to compress them first.
Before coming here I made some more optimisations to my contact page. The whole thing is contained in a single 7.7KB file, and that’s only one HTTP request. So it loads fast, although it’s fast in a way that nobody really cares about until you find yourself in this particular situation.
I sat in on the conference discussion on student affairs, the panel asked if I wanted to speak and I declined. They talked about the municipalisation of universities, and the introduction of free education, although I didn’t really learn much about the system. Later on I spoke to one guy who seemed about my age, and he mentioned that he had two degrees, one in engineering, and another in law (I think). Without projecting too much of my own experience, this seems like the problem of young people cycling through higher education when they can’t enter the labour market.
I am curious why sustained investment in education hasn’t developed into a significant scientific specialism. Consider the following constraints:
- US sanctions
- Over-reliance on oil revenue
- A low level of manufacturing
Balanced out by:
- A welfare state which takes care of most social necessities
- 23 well-established universities which pump out a steady supply of new graduates and research
It seems like it would make sense to build a specialism in a couple of concentrated high-tech projects. If you can’t build a mass industrial base, you can at least keep a couple of long-running research initiatives ticking over, and those might eventually produce valuable innovations.
Cuba is always a good practical example here - there are 47 universities for an island of 11 million people, spending on education makes up 10% of GDP, and access to education is free. Cuba has a fantastically low ratio of teachers-per-capita and doctors-per-capita, and that’s a product of decades of sustained investment in health and education. If you wanted to put it in horribly economistic terms: they invest in human resources (human capital). And, what comes out of all that investment is a strong pharmaceutical sector.
There aren’t many third-world countries which can independently make their own cancer drugs. So, while Cuba is constrained by sanctions and other problems, it’s still got an unusually competitive edge on biotechnology. Given the way Venezuela is heading, I would expect there to be some similar high-tech sector which they could direct research into.
In the afternoon we went off to the Miraflores Presidential Palace to see Maduro speak. I sat up in the stands, underneath the presidential helipad.
The sun was glaring, my colleague fashioned a sun-hat out of conference papers, and I got a single line of sunburn across the back of my neck. After a while Maduro appeared and gave his speech (warning, this one was pretty loud, I’ve reduced the volume at source).
It was a long speech, and I didn’t catch much from the translation, although I did get that he was summarising the situation since this time last year. In between criticising the Washington Post, Maduro asks: what progress have the right-wing forces made in a year?
Do they control the national assembly? No.
Do they control the constituent assembly? No.
Do they control the army? No.
Are there protests in the streets? No.
In all cases the regime-change effort has basically floundered. The ‘self-proclaimed interim president’ Juan Guaidó is busy touring Europe and the USA to drum up support, he even spoke at Davos. Without a popular movement inside the country the only way Guaidó is going to end up in power is by convincing the US, Brazil, or Colombia to launch an invasion.
Maduro also emphasised the line that ‘we cannot fail, it’s us or nothing’, and we can excuse the dramatic rhetoric, but there’s really something behind his argument. Observers in Venezuela are acutely aware of what happened in Bolivia only three months ago, where the ‘liberal opposition’ declared the presidential election invalid, staged a coup, and immediately revealed themselves to be fantastically reactionary.
We remember very well, sympathetic liberals cried that of course they didn’t want military rule in Bolivia. They just prefer a leader with the right background, a president who speaks Spanish with a slight Texan accent, someone who is ‘a good christian’. There were allegations of ‘electoral irregularities’ echoing from the US State Department, Evo Morales was a ‘populist’, he was dodgy, corrupt, he had to go.
These same liberals have (wilfully) misunderstood that US-backed coups and destabilisation of progressive governments don’t result in the kind of friendly pluralist society they have in mind. In case this point needs repeating, the CIA is not and never has been, an agent of democratic change.
So it’s useful to underline what is actually at stake here. At best, Guaidó appears like an inoffensive social democrat, he doesn’t look like a dictator, and yet we’ve seen how these things end up. If the socialist government falls, Venezuela will face rule by US multinational corporations enforced by right-wing death squads. This is what is meant when Maduro explains that his government ‘cannot fail’.
Afterwards we all got fed in the building which houses the presidential guard. There are some pretty stained glass windows in there.
I chatted with a guy from Haiti in the morning, we understood each other pretty well in french. He told me he doesn’t feel like there’s as much racism here, although he hadn’t stumbled across the wrong crowd yet.
It’s often useful to get the perspective from people living in the exploited countries, they see Cuba and Venezuela from one third-world country to another. There’s a sense that those who criticise underdevelopment in Cuba have not seen what conditions are like in Jamaica, or Haiti. And this matters; someone coming from one of the leading imperialist powers will not really see the socialist countries in their proper context.
There is talk about the failure of socialism, yet where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America? Where is the success of capitalism in places where thousands of millions of people live?
We went to Los Caobos Park for another speech by Maduro, along with a few other people.
This event ended in Maduro being awarded the Order of Lenin by a visiting (CPRF) deputy of the Russian Duma. I was interested in all the different PSUV sections present. Maduro deliberately addressed each group in turn: the unions, the women, the youth, the military, the communes, and finally the political allies of the PSUV - ORA, Podemos, the Venezuelan Tupamaros, the Communist Party, etc.
I spoke with someone from the women’s organisation of the PSUV, via a comrade who helpfully translated for me. She explained their reforms to increase the time required for an accusation of sexual assault to be treated as a grievous offence.
She was handing out little purple booklets with information for women - an outline of their basic legal rights, details of support services they can access, as well as how to get involved in the women’s organisation. There was also someone from an LGBT organisation who spoke at the student meeting.
Here’s a meeting of the PSUV youth wing.
From all this I definitely got the characterisation of the PSUV as a broad tent party. It’s not a centralised political unit, it’s the alliance of social movements which make up ’21st Century Socialism’. I think this is an overlooked aspect of the pink tide governments, that they’re grounded in a very particular moment of early 90s alter-globalisation politics.
However much the western media presents Bolivarian movements as ‘parties of the leninist type’ they actually have more in common with the likes of Greenpeace or Oxfam. That’s been a point of criticism from the left, but once you’ve understood that it goes a long way to explaining a lot of the contradictions in Venezuela.
I wandered around the Teresa Carreño theatre, had a moment in the cool shade to admire the lovely modernist architecture.
I was hovering around watching a guy who was buying juice at a street stall using Petros, a government-backed cryptocurrency pegged to the price of oil. It’s not mined independently, new currency is issued by the state, and it can be used in informal transactions.
The juice stand relied on swapping codes between cheap smartphones. There’s also apparently a system in supermarkets which works using fingerprint scanning.
The guy showed me his Petro app.
And here he is paying for his tasty fruit juice.
If I’ve understood it correctly, the ₽ is a way of developing a new currency to combat hyper-inflation and pose an alternative to dollarisation. I’m really excited about it, there have been theoretical arguments over the potential of a ‘socialist cryptocurrency’, and here the experiment is being rolled out in a real national economy. Imagine how proud the architects of Project Cybersyn would be if they saw this, I love it!
Finally, in the evening I got back to the hotel, shared a bottle of local raspberry wine with my colleague, and watched the cars zipping down the Francisco Fajardo motorway in the dark.
Conference business is over, I’m going home today. I saw a stall from one of the barrio organisations, they’d made a creative little model of their neighbourhood.
Here’s the comparison with reality.
I didn’t go inside the barrios, as apparently it’s not wise for foreigners to enter them unannounced. If I ever come back here, maybe I’ll be able to negotiate a visit to these places.
I saw the lines of people queuing up for food assistance provided by the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP). I was given this bottle of detergent at one of the stalls.
The CLAP programme evidently covers more than just food aid - it deals with all the daily necessities. Interestingly this programme is also targeted by US sanctions.
I went round the market and picked up a bunch of Cuban and Venezuelan films on DVD for a dollar each:
- The Liberator - Simón Bolívar biopic
- Memories of Underdevelopment - looking forward to watching this one!
- Evo Pueblo - Evo Morales biopic
- Death of a Bureaucrat - already seen it twice, but it’s such a great classic
- El Siglo de las Luces - no idea what it’s about but the cover looks wizard, it’s a Franco-Cuban production?
Before leaving Caracas, I went for a cautious little wander around the block and spotted this urban agriculture project. There was a sign outside reading ‘Tierra y Hombres Libres’ - it’s part of the Misión Zamora land reform.
The airport is bigger than I realised, it took a good 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other, and considering there were only a handful of international flights for the whole day… it was not busy. Due to some conditions of the sanctions they ask all passengers to be at the terminal extra early, so there was a long wait before the flight.
I got this maltín drink from one of the airport shops. I didn’t have any change so the shopkeeper just let me have it for free.
It was sweet, but not as sugary as Cola. I vaguely remember seeing this drink (or something similar) in the foreign food aisles in Morrisons. I’ll have a look when I get home.