Chávez confronts the "Empire from the North"

On Saturday, April 16, my good friend Vilma Soto Bermúdez presented her report, “Education in the Bowels of the Empire,” to nary a dry-eyed partisan audience at the “III International Meeting of Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution” in Barinas, Venezuela. Prof. Soto, a Puerto Rican by birth and spiritual identity, was unofficially representing Puerto Rico in this symposium on education.

Three years ago, Venezuelans took to the streets to defend what they passionately call a “revolutionary process.” These people were for the most part a cross-section of society’s least privileged, all backing the legitimate and duly-elected government of Hugo Chávez… a government which was under siege. For the entrenched social and economic powers which permeate every nook and cranny in the nation Chávez was, and continues to be, too much of a revolutionary… a true Castro wannabe.

These annual meetings of “international solidarity” with the Bolivarian peoples are held in eight different locales of this vast republic, and deal with many social and professional endeavors, with education as the current government’s essential centerpiece in its grand design of transforming this nation of great resources into a humanist society, one that encases not just freedom, but social justice for all. Unellez, the experimental university in Barinas, was the see for this colloquium on education with attendees from many nations, including the US, who as one would expect, gave an anti-capitalistic tone to a professional, if passionate, pedagogical get-together.

Among the educators congregating in Barinas was none other than Peter McLaren, the world renowned academic and co-architect of critical pedagogy, and a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA (my Alma mater, I might add). A Marxist-humanist philosopher and social theorist, Dr. McLaren had a place of preeminence with an audience one assumes to be well versed on his theories in the political sociology of education, and the recent essays he has written- compiled and published last month under the title, “Capitalists and Conquerors: A Critical Pedagogy against Empire.”

My exposure to McLaren’s writings dates back to1999 when by chance, and a fortunate introduction, I got to read his “Revolutionary multiculturalism: pedagogies of dissent for the new millennium.”

But it was not McLaren, Soto Bermúdez, or other educators of note who made the greatest impact on me, but the comments expressed by a member of the French delegation, Ana Cauwel, on how this Bolivarian Revolution had changed the world’s perception of Venezuela .

Prof. Cauwel was quick to point out how in the past Venezuela had been known for its prevailing corruption, thus casting an undeserving image of its people. She added that at the start of Hugo Chávez’ presidency, Europe was skeptical as to what social and economic changes could take place to improve conditions for every Venezuelan. And it wasn’t just the European Right that was thinking that way, but the Left as well. That image started to change, according to Madame Cauwel, after the April 2002 coup d’état. Now we look at Venezuela in a different light, she said, knowing that there are changes taking place in the nation, with a process to integrate all sectors excluded in the past, such as the native people and the humble classes… getting them to know and enjoy their rights.

Perhaps what had greatest resonance for me was Cauwel’s acknowledgement that Europe and much of the world recognize that Venezuela is being forced to confront the US in defense of its dignity, and a foreign policy that is generating a positive image about the Bolivarian Revolution and its objectives, something that is finding solidarity throughout the world: a changed image for a changing nation.

Unfortunately for Chávez, he is not going to have clear sailing in his quest for what one would hope to be a model revolutionary socio-economic evolution (no contradiction in terms intended). The turbulent waters from the menacing North and the hurricane winds from a well-entrenched upper-middle class can combine to capsize his ship of state. But if he proves to be a good tactician, and enlists the better nature of that sizeable, fence-sitting professional class, he can moderate the winds… and calm the turbulent waters by seducing the US with a fix for its petro-gluttony or addiction.

President Chávez fears for his life… and reasons are plenty. But he, and those who have chosen to follow the revolutionary process, must proceed with their plans and dispel that fear, or it could turn prophetic. It might serve Chávez well, however, to make that revolutionary process strictly “his own”- a model, not a replica. Chávez needs to be Chávez, and no one else. World opinion and moral progressivism should provide the best armor against foul play… whether from without or from within.