domingo, 30 de septiembre de 2007

My Lina Ron (*)

A few weeks ago, the alarm over the government education proposals after another Sunday radio talk show of the president, rang again.These days, the education sphere (and specially the one inside the universities not founded by this government) seems to be the only one that remains independent but it’s constantly under government’ menace. This was even, the first issue that broke the nerves of the Venezuelans (specially middle and high class ones on that time) against the president, in a year as early as 2001, translating into mass protest. It was all about a now forgotten “1011 decree” which if I remember correctly, established the figure of some communal leaders outside the authorities of the school itself; with the power to watch how the schools were working and even make decisions about it.

It’s been a while since those very early pretensions of control over education, especially private education. But similar ideas has remain constantly in the government speech so, to hear now a new education project its nothing new at all. In fact, the Revolution has entered the schools in a way I doubt many people have noticed. For me this is inevitable, after all Chavez has been ruling the country for nine years so it is very naive to pretend that there’s no influence of it – directly or not – inside the classrooms.

When Chavez was first elected on 1998, I was in my 8th year of school or how is also called here: the second year of high school (bachillerato). The elections were a very hot topic inside my girl’s only catholic school every time we had a break.
“Alfaro is too old and Irene it’s like a Barbie doll. At least Chavez is young” – A classmate, which I remember well because she had the particularity of using a lot of ridiculous stuff for her hair– “What about Salas Romer?” – I asked her about the other candidate who had the strongest chances to beat Chavez (of course, if you compare it with the other two) – “Oh those yellow suns (the symbol of this candidate party) everywhere, they are so annoying!” – She continued – “Would you like to see yellow suns on Caracas streets everywhere?” – I made a quick gesture that was hard to translate into a “yes” or a “no” and sink in my desk, I was pretty lazy to argue or even talk back in high school. After we graduate I never saw this girl again, so I never had the chance to tell her that I would happily trade now all this madness for some yellow suns.

I don’t think the opinions of a 14 year old can be made without a very direct influence of their homes, so my classmate and I were basically talking in a reflection of what we heard on the dinners at home… no wonder why you don’t vote until you are 18 years old. A drill of the elections was made in my school, as in many others. And Chavez won; as he won in real elections in the rest of the country.
One year later we started the 9th year by meeting our teacher of “Cátedra Bolivariana” (A class basically all about Bolivar- and yes, it has existed before the Revolution, the Bolivar cult its nothing new, Chavez made it bigger and more vague). She was quite a strange character for a school ruled by nuns.

Definitely not a nun, she had very long- dyed with the most horrible blonde tone you can imagine- and straightened hair that she moved from one side to another pretending to be a Miss Venezuela. Of course, every woman with curly hair knows – I belong to that crowd –the pain and the time that is needed in order to straight your hair so she only did that once a week and I could feel a real pity (if I wasn’t the one with the bad luck) about the girls who had to take classes with her on Fridays since the fat and the dirt of her hair – that looked perfectly on Monday – can be seen now from the distance.

Besides her looks the evil inside me made me talk about, she was a strong and a very idealistic supporter of the “process”, a process that was just a baby on that time. Over reacting, if you didn’t write on her exams that Bolivar was the most amazing man on earth, you could pretty much expect a zero on your grades.

Things got a lot worse about this woman the next year where we had to study a horrible class of whom I was always on strong disagreement called – believe it or not – “Instrucción Premilitar” (Pre – military Instruction). I could never stop wonder over and over again that if the military wasn’t exactly the career I wanted, why I had to study military tactics. Soon I realize that this class was more about patriotism than military tactics and that my fake blonde teacher – very Lina Ron style – had always enough words to speak wonders about the government’ initiatives supported by some contents on the books needed for that class.

The next year – my final year of high school – we had to take that class about patriotism with the same woman – don’t ask me why – all over again (well, part II, not very different from part I). But it wasn’t any year: I finished the high school on 2002, probably the year where you could say that “everything started”.

One day in January I was attending to a silly – but very elegant -high school party: the 15 year birthday of the little sister of one of my classmates; wearing – Isn’t it funny to think about it now? – a beautiful long red dress (when red it was just a color that looked nice on me). And just a few days later I was attending to my very first protest. Ever since then, inside and outside the classrooms; nothing about my life was ever the same: two months later a general strike started and finished with the painful April events on which we had three presidents on two days.

When we came back to class after more than one week of protest and riots and disturbing political affairs, I had a first meeting with the country I’m dealing today: a country perfectly divided in two, subdued in a deaf dialogue.

One teacher telling us about how concerned and worried she was and with her voice all partially cut giving us the advice of studying as much as we could before leaving the country if we had to. Advice that the reader might have notice that I’m still following.

And another, with her books of “Instruccion Premilitar” and “Catedra Bolivariana” in her arms making a strong critic about the events: “Instead of marching like sillies for asking a resignation, you guys should started to pick up signatures to ask a referendum (recall) that, like we have seen in class, its part of the new Constitution. You went there, and you went there – She said pointing a couple of classmates who had just told to the class, absolutely terrified about how they run through El Calvario (Caracas downtown) protecting themselves from the gun shoots that they didn’t knew where they came from on the demonstration of April 11/ 2002 – Did anyone asked for your signature?” – The two girls looked at her with fried egg eyes making a timid “No” gesture – “There you go” – She said, proudly, retiring with her books just in time to catch his boyfriend dressed in black waiting for her on his noisy motorcycle.

On July I was celebrating my high school graduation; on October I was starting the university and just a few days later a few men from the military decided to leave their weapons aside and gather in a square as an act of “pacific resistance” against the government. They gathered there for over two months – If I remember correctly. And a few days after my 18 birthday, December started with the astonishing news of a shooter who killed several people that were also gathered in that square in the middle of an undefined general strike.

I never saw my fake blonde teacher again, otherwise I would have ask her, at least just using my eyes about the million times the government rejected under lame excuses the signatures picked by the opposition in order to ask for a recall against the president rule; just as the 1999 Constitution established. And would have look at her even deeper asking about the Tascón list. Or I would simply not look at her. As the reader might notice, is not easy to escape of my country’s deaf dialogue, although I have tried – without hardly any success – on several times before.

This is pretty much the account of my high school years. You would have to be quite crazy if you even suggest that I, as a kid/ teenager (still haven’t decided what the hell I was), I was protected in class of any political influence. I even had to see my own Lina Ron version for three years several times a week. But from commenting the news and having an exotic professor to force teachers to adjust to the government’ ideology is quite a step I hope the society is not ready – and wont allow – to be taken.

About the title: Lina Ron is a communal leader, strong and radical government supporter known more for her looks and temper than for her thoughts. The most notorious feature about her is her fake blonde hair and her annoying voice.
Note aside: The reader could criticize here the absence of any comment about the Vargas tragedy that took place during that year, specifically in December. It’s probably because when this happened we were pretty much on Christmas vacations so my memories on the Vargas tragedy are more related to my home environment rather than my school environment. When we came back to school in January, the conversations were more about the human than the political side of the tragedy.

lunes, 17 de septiembre de 2007

(Part III) So what?

But my next encounter with a pro-Chavez student has been completely different than this “coin attack” experience: Without expecting it, I just recently got one of those rare chances of testing my tolerance when a professor offered me a scholarship for taking a course about governance and political management.In this course there are students of all ages, all political tendencies (its rare for me to find myself in a class with a real variety of political tendencies) and very different backgrounds although the most seem to be related with the public or/and the community sphere (not my case, but this is not the place to talk about my main academic interest). Among those students there’s a girl who is my age, more or less, and goes to one of the universities recently created by the government.
She passionate supports the regime and class by class, I’ve been understanding why. In part it is because her environment: she is surrounded by pro- government teachers, pro- government classmates while I’m surrounded just by the opposite. But mostly, her government supportive attitude has been the one made by her youth illusions. She’s really looking forward to do something about things that are wrong (mostly things related with basic living conditions); but she doesn’t seems to go farther than that, until reach to the political way under those conditions are given or not. She has no questions about it what’s so ever. She’s a lucky girl, because in her world, everything is working exactly as it should – and if its not- it’s only a matter of time combined with the suppression of obstacles (that they are always outside the system) for things to work exactly as they should.
In class we mostly discuss about how to make a social program and for make the story short, all sides of the political spectrum are agree that when someone is sick, it needs to heal. The ways we think are the best ones for reaching that goal its what makes us different. So probably for that, I quickly forgot her political position and we got along pretty well, while others outside my class couldn’t even understand how.
However the comments in the class two days ago made our differences way more obvious, mainly because this time the professor was criticizing the government in a very rough way. So every time she raised her hand in class, her speeches ended using a word or an expression that you could easily find on any government speech. Never saw her doing that before in the four months I’ve been attending to this course and its just amazing how she do it, and how natural it looks in her… just like the way doctors manage those complicated medical terms. “The people this”, “the people that”, “the people organized”, “we are building a new process”…
The intervention that impressed me the most was one related with the mechanism of social participation – like the community councils (in Spanish “Consejos comunales” – I don’t know if I’m translating it right). We were talking about the advantages and the disadvantages of that system and the general opinion was that things weren’t working exactly as they should.
Then she raises her hand and says that since we have established how difficult it is to build the “participate democracy” created in the speech, to the practice; we needed to understand difficult tasks takes time; specially since “we don’t know exactly what are we building, but we know its something different and great”; so we need to wait to see the long term results and learn from the pass mistakes of this “beautiful” process.
So the revolutionaries argue to be in the process of building something new, none of them know exactly what it is, but is supposed (more likely, they are certainly sure about it) to be different, and therefore, good. Is the promise- empty by definition- of an amazing life in the future. Of course, everybody knows how hard is to build something, even harder when you don’t know exactly what are you building. Hard things, by definition, requires more time than simple things.
So, since the revolutionaries are doing something hard, they need more time and they ask for it. How much? That’s imposible to know if they don’t even know what they are building. So they need to confirm and reconfirm the project (or more likely the illusion of a project) over and over again. And since it seems unlikely to have Chavismo without Chavez (for some reason it is called chavismo), thanks to my classmate I finally understood why the revolutionaries are not bothered about the reelection and consider it even a secondary issue.
Their discussions are no focused on the consequences for a democratic system - and not because they are no democrats - but because they are almost standing almost over nothing, building a new system.And in front of this new system, everything else, like I said, its secondary.
Immediately I decided to not bring up the topic of the Constitutional Reform on a conversation with her. I once thought that everyone in their sane judge would not be agree about given a president the possibility of ruling for life. I was mistaken. My sane judge, no matter how hard it is for me to admit it, it’s not the only sane judge out there. I think the professor noticed how I looked down to my desk and started playing nervously with my ring passing through my fingers.
At lunch break several classmates engaged in a discussion about previous student movements in Venezuela (since the topic of the day was social participation, the recent phenomenon of the students protest was brought up over and over again). She confessed that she was about falling sleep during the hours the professor spend talking about Venezuelan recent history related with social participation.
“All I know its Chavez, and the revolution; and I’m a revolutionary” – She said, smiling. Then I answered back, trying to keep the most calm tone: “I do know something different than Chavez, I do have reference of a country before Chavez” – I also thought of bring up the couple of coups attempts leaded, at least the first one, by Chavez back in 1992 when this girl and I were just kids. But that would have mean to touch a sensitive place which could put an end to the peaceful atmosphere of the class. Since the rest of the classmate that were sitting on the same table are over than 30, I didn’t want them to think that every Venezuelan in their 20’s only know about one possible world: the revolutionary one.
To see her eyes shinning while she was talking about the months she spend on Cuba and about how beautiful the participation mechanism promoted by the government looks; made me think that there is another country out there, supposedly mine but yet it presents to me like a foreign land.
I used to think of Venezuela as a coin, with two sides impossible to get together again. But goes farther than that: it’s like two parallel universes having lunch together in an unknown table, and the food taste the same to all, but still whatever is separating us, it’s so strong that cannot be described in words. Its a sea of confusion where all it remains its the resignation locking yourself inside your own sphere; while life goes on out there in a way that makes you reach to the famous childhood conclusion that you must be definitely an alien. A bad alien even. And there is nothing you can do to change it.
Anyway, a few hours later, the night was starting to welcome us still at the same class and when we heard some thunders announcing a heavy rain (and as a result, the terrible expectation of loads of traffic on our ways back home), we all started to feel kind of desperate to put an end to that class. So she gave me this look of “When is this professor going to shut up?”, smiling and I smiled back, thinking: “A lo mejor tu eres una revolucionaria, y a lo mejor yo no lo soy; ¿Y eso qué?” (in English, roughly translated: “Maybe you are a revolutionary, maybe I’m not – well I’m certainly not! – and so what?”.
While my friends still can’t get why I’m able to share a class with people who work for the government, I have reached to the conclusion that it’s harder to live in a world divided between friends and enemies than in a world divided between just people. But to reach to that conclusion, to go from hitting a car’s window to the “So what?” is an assignment as big as mountain that I had not climbed completely yet. I still don’t know if is possible to go farther that smiling look. I gave her my instant messenger address but she never added me – or maybe she doesn’t use it. And what’s going to happen when new riots and strong crisis meet us again? What look would she give me the day after the reform elections if for some amazing surprise Chavez loses? What look would I give her back if the reform becomes a reality?
I don’t know, I want to pursue the illusion that after years of hate, we can met in the same classroom as equals, as we did a couple of days ago. And if it happens, it will be a lot easier to live here.

domingo, 16 de septiembre de 2007

(Part II) So what?

The White Hand Movement brought up the issue of the intolerance between Venezuelans in a brand new way. Most of us in our 20’s, after growing up with the revolution, were just saying that we don’t care where does it comes from, but we are sick and tired of the hate – just in the same way you get tired and sick of eating the same all the time, even if it seemed to taste good at first – and we ask everybody (specially the government) to put an end to it.But those principles the White Hand Movement established were soon put into risk at least one time.
As the reader might remember, the day the students from the Movement went to the – red- National Assembly to make their speech and retire afterwards; a few students who supported the government stayed in the room and made their speeches defending the revolution as passionate as they could.

One of them goes to my university –the UCAB: Catholic University Andres Bello – than its well known for being mostly filled with students against the government. So his speech offended most of the students, specially the parts where he attacked directly our university. He said that the university should pay him back (it’s a private university) because of the classes he missed during the protests just after the RCTV clossure. I heard the rumor that some professors went to his classroom in the usual schedule like they were no protest around to wait for him but he never show up. However, this is only a rumor; so obviously, I don't know if it’s true.

Then, the day the students decided to go back to the normal class schedule, this guy showed up at the cafeteria wearing a red jacket. Some people started insulting him; others throw coins at him for “paying back the classes he missed during those two last weeks”. I don’t know who were the ones who did it, how it started, or how it stopped because I wasn’t at the cafeteria at the moment. But the minute I heard some students talking about it I knew it was a huge mistake that will certainly going to bring troubles to the movement. For reasons that I also ignore, the state channel recorded the scene.

An assembly was called at noon that very same day, and the main auditorium was crowed. It impressed me the amount of journalist also gathered at the assembly.

The president of one of the students center at the university (social communication); a very funny, short guy who is great given speeches to the masses during any demonstration and we always tease him about it; took the microphone and started telling the story about what happened that morning at the cafeteria and said that he has invited the student who suffered the aggression for being a Chavista because he deserved a public apology. The students leaders one by one spoke about how sorry they were and how disappointed they felt about that morning events.

The leader who first took the microphone slaped at the back of the Chavista student and said he was welcome to the assembly anytime he wants to. Then he offered the microphone to the student to make his stance. I don’t exactly remember his words, he said he appreciated the apologies and that in the university should be plain space for everybody.

I could feel that the students sitting around me were mad about what happened and strongly believed in the student leader’s words of apology. The “I’m sorry” spoken there was authentic and I felt relieved. But beyond those considerations about the authenticity of the event, that public apology was more than necessary for the White Hand movement to survive.

After that show, the White Hand Movement leaders plus this student were inmediatly hunted by several reporters filled with questions. Since I’m very short and skinny, I could easily sneak in and hear all that they were saying. I stood behind one of the leaders first, he was saying that he hoped situations like that wont repeat ever again, that this is why the movement is working so hard to promote reconciliation.

Then I walked a little and managed to stand behind the pro- Chavez student who suffered the aggression. He was being interviewed by one of the pro- government channels and with his forehead sweating he told the reporter: “They throw coins of 500 Bolivares against me. And we all know how much damage a 500 Bolivares coin can cause. They…”. I sighted: “Could this guy would, please, for a minute, try to cooperate?”. – I thought. I mean I'm not saying he has no right to complain, because no words can justify the students behavior against him...but when was the last time you heard of someone going to the hospital because of a coin attack?

This reconciliation process is not as easy - and even less as fast- as painting your hands with white.

(Part I) So what?

Many could consider the following as the typical middle class complaint. This is an issue indeed, on which I've have talked about on several entries. However, recent events made me think that I haven’t said the last word about it yet. If someone asked me what is the hardest part of living in this country under the current situation my answer wouldn’t be the fear about the upcoming and past government mad ideas; or the food shortages, or inflation or the limits to our basic human rights. None of that, those issues are the result of inefficient government policies and from where I see it; they are not hard to fix.

The hardest part of living in this country under the current situation is the personal relationships you establish or not with the people who find themselves in the other side of the political spectrum. It’s already an old story commented by the news over and over again: families separated, friends split and so on. It had even became one of the flags (if not the main one) of the white hand movement (students). For me, it’s a tragedy.

In my case, my family seemed to have always similar political opinions so it never broke as a consequence of the revolution. My grandmother supported the regime for longer than the very few members of my family that were initially “chavistas” did, and it became really annoying especially during the crisis of 2002. Was kind of weird to see her happily watching the state channel during those days, but we just decided to ignore it and never engaged in pointless discussions with her. And at the university I was never able to establish a close friendship with a Chavista and it never passed of a few polite coffee talks; perhaps because there are only a very few government supporters in my campus. Yet, it was incredible hard for me to come back to class after some major political event or crisis and even look at the Chavez supporters at their faces.

More than once I considered them just very stupid people who are being paid by the government. For me they were not legitimate supporters and believers of a cause, and if they were, they were simply “crazy” – “Who could in their sane judgment support this madness?” – I asked to myself over and over again.

Especially from 2002 till 2004 I developed the tendency to look at the world as one generally divided between the ones like me and the “others”, the chavistas. The “good” and the “bad ones”. On some occasions I was even afraid when I happened to meet even a small group of “chavistas” gathering in one street.

It’s so easy to talk about peace outside a conflict and fight about peace outside a conflict. The hate goes different from watching it than from actually experience it. When you happen to be, for one reason or another, at one side of an extreme polarized situation and the events comes so quickly one after another that you don’t have time to think about them; the hate grows up inside you as easy as brushing your teeth and you demonize the other side in an incredible way that definitely goes beyond reality; even if at first, it had reasons to be demonized.

About three years ago I was at a protest just near by home and we built a barricade for blocking one of my neighborhood entrances. Most of the cars that approached to the protest just turned the way back and use the other entrance; also since they were riots everywhere in Caracas, the traffic was extremely low anyway. But one car found it difficult to turn the way back and it tried to pass the barricade for one side, the nerves were very high and the people (myself included) ran against the car to block completely its possibilities to pass the barricade.

It was crazy. Before I knew it I was right next to the drivers window and I noticed the face of a young guy just confused and visible scared trying to fix the situation but the people were in such a crazy state of mind that if it wasn’t because of some man that stopped the madness; the situation could had developed in a much worse result.

This guy inside the car looked straight in my eyes like saying: “What the hell are you doing?”. I step back feeling dazed in a way that the images of the men trying to make the people step back passed by in slow motion for me. I walked back home immediately, terrified and ashamed of what I just had done. Years later, I’m still very ashamed of that, If I could only tell this guy how sorry I am.

That day I suddenly understood the real nature of wars, and conflicts and all those scenes that you comfortable sitting in front of your TV just comment that “those people are animals”… If you could only feel for one day what those people are feeling.

It’s not enough by saying the hate it’s a Chavez offer and our feelings are his fault. What it amazes me the most is not that it’s a Chavez offer, is not the speech about “those oligarchs that we are going to turn them into dust”; is that the people are buying this offer even if they are against the regime. After all, is not natural to a guns offer with flowers in return.

The path to heal that extreme hate is rough, takes time, takes pride and it's not an open offer to everybody as the hate is. It isn’t a matter of suddenly decide to be a better person and love everybody and sing the peace anthem. And unless the opportunity of being forced (because it is also a lie that you would do it voluntarily) to establish a personal contact with the ones you consider enemies show up; the hate and the ideas around it will remain the same. But like I said, at least for the Venezuelans, the market of these opportunities is not as wide as the offer of hate is.