Monday, November 19, 2007

¿Por qué no te callas?

In an exchange little noted outside the Spanish and Portuguese speaking Americas, Hugo Chavez and King Juan Carlos of Spain engaged in a dialog of sorts at the Latin American Summit held in Santiago de Chile during the second week of November 2007.
As reported in the English press, during a speech at the Latin American Summit

Mr Chavez, the outspoken Left-wing leader who called President George W. Bush the "devil" on the floor of the United Nations last year, triggered the exchange by lashing out at the former Spanish prime minister José Maria Aznar."Mr Aznar, a conservative who backed the US-led war in Iraq, "is a fascist", Mr Chavez said in a speech to leaders at the Ibero-American summit in Santiago, Chile. The Venezuelan leader added: "Fascists are not human. A snake is more human."

Ben Quinn, Spanish King Tells Hugo Chavez to 'Shut Up,' The Telegraph, Nov. 12, 2007. 

The initial Spanish response was muted and neutral: "Spain's current Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, responded during his own allotted time by urging Mr Chavez to be more diplomatic in his words and to respect other leaders despite political differences. "Former prime minister Aznar was democratically elected by the Spanish people and was a legitimate representative of the Spanish people," said Mr Zapatero, eliciting applause from the gathered heads of state." Id. But Mr. Chavez was not done and attempted to interrupt this response. His microphone, however, was off. Undaunted Mr. Chavez continued to try to get a word in edgewise. Irritated, "King Juan Carlos, seated next to Mr Zapatero, angrily turned to Mr Chavez and said: 'Why don't you shut up?'" Id. ("¿Por qué no te callas?").
But no matter. From the perspective of Chavez, perhaps, he was able to elicit the sort of reaction he required. After all, baiting supposes as its object the rousing of the object of the exercise so that the real objective of the device--the response to the reaction, can be elaborated. And so it was. . . . Mr. Chavez had his chance--thanks to the good offices of the Nicaraguan delegation whose head, President Daniel Ortega, ceded some of his allotted time to Mr. Chavez. And from this momentary grace the response, both empty and telling: "'I do not offend by telling the truth," he said. "The Venezuelan government reserves the right to respond to any aggression, anywhere, in any space and in any manner.'" Id.
And thus Mr. Chavez was able to achieve an important symbolic objective--his baiting paid dividends. With four words, the King provided Mr. Chavez with a means of marginalizing his opponents, playing the victim, and transforming a conversation about provocation, into a suggestion of another veiled threat by the powers of European colonialist imperialism against its former colonial subalterns. The right chord was struck by Fidel Castro Ruz, who from his hospital quarters expressed the required reaction elequently:

En ese instante todos los corazones de América Latina vibraron. El pueblo venezolano, que debe responder sí o no el próximo 2 de diciembre, se estremeció al vivir de nuevo los días gloriosos de Bolívar. Las traiciones y los golpes bajos que recibe diariamente nuestro entrañable hermano, no harán cambiar ese sentimiento de su pueblo bolivariano.

Fidel Castro Ruz, El Debate de la Cumbre, Reflexiones del Comandante en Jefe, Nov. 12, 2007. The official Cuban English translation renders this in English: "All hearts in Latin America raced at that instant. The people of Venezuela, who will be called upon to vote “yes” or “no” next December 2nd, were shaken by the emotion of living the glorious days of Bolivar again. The betrayals and the low blows that our dear brother endures each day cannot change the way the Bolivarian people feel." The Summit Debate. Indeed, Mr. Chavez must, as a result of his great ideological victories, now become a great fodder for assassination at the hands of the Empire (the United States) or its creatures. Thus Castro continues:

comprendí con absoluta claridad que, dadas las circunstancias actuales y la victoria ideológica de gran trascendencia obtenida por él, un asesino a sueldo del imperio, un oligarca envilecido por los reflejos que sembró la maquinaria de publicidad imperial, o un perturbado mental, podrían poner fin a su vida. Es imposible apartarse de la impresión de que el imperio y la oligarquía se esmeran por conducir a Chávez a un callejón sin salida poniéndolo fácilmente al alcance de un disparo.
Fidel Castro Ruz, El Debate de la Cumbre, supra (in the official translation: "I had the extremely vivid impression that, given the current circumstances and the highly significant ideological victory he has attained, a paid assassin of the empire’s, an oligarch corrupted by the reflexes that the empire’s propaganda machine has inculcated into people, or a mentally disturbed person could put an end to his life. It is impossible to avoid the impression that the empire and the oligarchy are doing everything in their power to lead Chávez to a cul-de-sac, that they can easily place him in the line of fire." The Summit Debate).

Of course, Spain was, by the rules of the game, in an impossible situation. It could have ignored the comments and appeared, in some sense to have approved them, or viewed them as benign. This would have been difficult for reasons of internal Spanish politics. Yet any reaction would be translated into the symbolic realm to the detriment of Spain, at least within the parameters of Latin American propaganda battles.

And in this case, both Castro and Chavez will turn the language of justifiable frustration against its speakers. King Juan Carlos will serve Mr. Chavez well as he seeks to campaign among the poor and ill educated in these efforts to reform the constitution to become a more permanent president. That requires a positive vote to the constitutional changes he seeks to be made at the plebiscite Venezuela will hold on constitutional reform at the beginning of December.

En el caso de Venezuela, la victoria no se debe convertir en terrible revés sino en victoria mucho mayor, para evitar que el imperialismo conduzca al suicidio a nuestra especie. Hay que seguir luchando y corriendo riesgos, pero no jugar todos los días a la ruleta rusa o al cara o cruz de una moneda. Nadie escapa de los cálculos matemáticos. En tales circunstancias deben usarse preferiblemente los medios modernos de comunicación que transmitieron al mundo en vivo y en directo los debates de la cumbre.

Id. (in the official English translation: “Venezuela must ensure its victory is transformed, not into a terrible setback, but into a much greater victory, to prevent imperialism from leading our species to suicide. We must continue to struggle and to face risks, but we must not play Russian roulette or flip a coin every single day. No one escapes the logic of probability. In such circumstances, the modern means of communication through which the summit debates were aired live are preferable.” ).

And thus we come to the real issues. The Spanish thought they were dealing with a buffoon with no political manners. This is certainly the image of the man in the United States. And on that basis, both the Spanish and the Americans miscalculate. Because while he may well come across as a buffoon with no manners, those characteristics are cultivated for a purpose. Chavez was engaging in Empire baiting. For that purpose, even a country one step removed from Empire, and indeed a country that is now a subordinate unit of a larger economic empire of sorts, would do.

The baiting had a particular purpose. In this case, the Venezuelans were looking for another opportunity to strengthen and legitimate their world view about the eternal hostility of the old imperialist states, the continuity of cultures of subordination and exploitation, and the purity of the new order built on Marxist Leninist state organization with Latin American characteristics. History, as moral behavior currently interpreted, disadvantages Spain, the old imperial master. Mr. Chavez can play the boor; King Juan Carlos may not play the king. When the Spanish king told Mr. Chavez to shut up, Mr. Chavez was able to play the post-colonial discourse card. Not against Spain itself, but in favor of the internal political agenda of Mr. Chavez in Venezuela. Post colonialism has again shown its propensity to serve as an instrument of subordination and political control as its use as fetish is deployed by leaders across the developing world for their own ends. And it is powerful enough, in its imagery, history and symbolism, to make it difficult to resist. Tough Mr. Chavez is not Simon Bolívar, invocation of the Bolivarian discourse remains powerful in Latin America in general and Venezuela in partcular.

Mr. Chavez means to do successfully within Venezuela what certain European leaders of the 1920s and 1930s were able to do in their states. He will use the mechanics of rule of law process constitutionalism to perpetuate himself in office. All the legalities will be observed. The rule of law will be scrupulously followed. King Juan Carlos certainly did not anticipate the connection between his lesson in good manners among leaders and the perpetuation of Mr. Chavez’s rule in Venezuela. But Fidel Castro did. While the rest of Latin America’s leaders clap politely for the conventional sentiments expressed by the current Spanish Prime Minister, Mr. Chavez’s supporters from the lower orders of Venezuela will be fed a very different political fare. While the West worries about whether Mr. Aznar is, as Mr. Chavez suggests, not a human being, Mr. Chavez will be turning his boorishness into a symbolic expression of anti-imperialism. That the imperialism is a historical artifact makes it all the better to use.

Most importantly, that use serves to cement Mr. Chavez and Castro's project the objective of which is to create a socialist multilateral trading block to be deployed against the forces of global imperialism. That trading block, ALBA, now includes Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba. It is grounded in calls to recapture the revoluntionary spirit of independence from colonial masters first successfully employed by Simon Bolivar in the early 19th century. Against that sort of ideological imagery, the actions of the King of Spain were almost perfect. And thus it is not surprising that an ALBA member, Nicaragua, permitted the leader of Venezuela, the traditional center of anti Spanish (and now anti-imperialist) machinations in Latin America, to have his say. And it is not surprising as well, that the Venezuelan leader would treat the suggesiton to mind his manners as a disguised form of threats to the independence of Venezuela. Thus, the King of Spain's post colonial moment was both much less than and much more than a mere suggestion to silence. The symbolism, history and political agendas against which it played out provided a window on the complexities of relations between Latin America and the outside world.

Postscript: But the symbolism can cut in both directions, as Chavez discovered to his annoyance in the months following the exchange. “La frase—“¿por qu’e no te callas?”—se convirtió en el arma favorita de los opositores de Chávez dentro y fuera de Venezuela y dio origin a toda clase de caricaturas, videos, chistes y hasta arreglos musicales.” Clodovalho Hernández, Chávez acepta la invitación de Moratinos par visitar a España, El País, June 21, 2008 at pp. 23 (“The phrase—why don’t you shut up –became one of the favorite weapons of Chavez’s opponents both inside and outside of Venezuela and became the source of all sorts of caricatures, videos, jokes and even musical arrangements.”). When he was recently invited to visit Spain by the Foreign Minister Migel ÁngelMoratinos, and perhaps greet the King in Madrid, Chávez accepted saying, “Estoy dispuesto a darme un abrazo con el Rey. Eso sí, que no me mande callar porque hablo más.” Id. (“I am prepared to give the King a hug. That is, if he doesn’t ask me to shut up if I speak some more.”). His comment, it was reported was made jokingly, “señalo en tono de chanza.” Id. Even he understands that the joke is now on him.

No comments: