Review of "The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century"

The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century by Iain Bruce is a predominantly first-hand, journalistic account of the former BBC’s authors time in Venezuela as witness to the changes going on in Venezuela at the time. The author visit a number of the social economy collectives, workplace councils and some of the sights of the co-operative networks. By giving a first hand account of them, he seemingly seeks to show how it is why Venezuela and Chavez is an inspiration to many on the Socialist left. It is in this area, the framing of Marxist debates over the policies of the Chavez government that Bruce does his best. In so doing he will advance quotes by Gramsci, Trotsky, Luxemburg, et al., but stays away from substantive analysis following such the theoretical pronouncements that applies to a specific situation. Unfortunately this sympathy seems to inoculate Bruce from the circumstances as he presents them as his depiction of a sufficiently “revolutionary” Venezuela shows an economy insufficiently productive if truly wishing to shake itself from some amount of the import dependency that so distorts their country.

Besides an initial and compelling account of the normalization and legalization of much of the barrio dwellers occupied housing, the author’s major investigations on the functioning of Nucleus for Endogenous Developments (NUDEs). In so doing he presents three failures and a limited success. The author first goes to Fabricio Ojeda nuclei, the first constructed of these NUDEs which combines space for health, education, leisure and economic activity. The obvious problem with citing the first, “model” construction of such a facility is that, like the “model” regions displayed by the USSR to foreigners, is that it provides a non-typical experience. While people there did do work for PDVSA, it is clear that were the high oil price to be gone so would they. Recognizing this the author travels to other similar developments and is not met with as compelling a location or circumstance.

In Cabimas, the NUDE there is not centered on clothing production but assisting local fisherman. The idea is that through the production of a space similarly described above and with attendant financial assistance from the government the capacity for the local fishermen to compete with larger, pre-existing, better capitalized local fisherman will reduce the cost of fish to the community. The project, however, is then described as being dropped due to the amount of time it takes to organize. Several other attempts at NUDE formation are described which also flounder amidst lack of interest, financial irregularities or charges of corruption.

The one successful example, besides that of Fabricio Ojeda, is in the service industry and is a combined restaurant and taxi-company that provides patrons with a ride to and from the waterside dining establishment. Hardly a model for nationwide development. While all of the above described experiments are indeed novel, as a whole the study of the “real” Venezuela shows many of the failings of the Chavez government policies to diversify the economic base. The author clearly shows how it is that the NUDEs are dependent on PDVSA, haven’t organized production to a very high standard nor sufficiently train their “employees” enough so as to be able to do export quality work.The economic foundation of their production stems from relationships that can be called at best social welfare at worst corruption.

In the case of ALCASA, Bruce shows how the attempts at co-mangement have failed given an individualistic culture and lack of state support in relations with management, how the state is unwilling to reinvest in new equipment to increase production and thus protect workers safety, not to mention how now workers fear talking about these issues in public lest they be sacked for criticism against the government. Additionally, as the traders an transporters of the goods they were producing were not in a similar situation, they were able to increase their profits through speculation and wage negotiation on the open market. In effect, the workers had their wages cut and their protections diminished – hardly the stuff of a socialist paradise. Towards this effect is perhaps also worth mentioning that the Cuban advisors vote against such an undertaking, as “they are at the factory to work and not to make votes” and that a second attempt to co-manage the factory has since occurred, and also failed. Whether this is due to the inefficiency of such an organization or is due to something else cannot easily be determined, however the brief depiction of the situation which Bruce supports the claim by capitalists that they should have the prerogative of how to organize labor lest production devolve into the situation illustrated in the old soviet joke “You pretend to pay me, I’ll pretend to work”.

These criticisms on the part of the author or those put into the words of other’s mouths are often de-emphasized in the face of enthusiasm over an alternative to capitalism and the unmistakeable growth of a leftist political culture. The author clearly seeks to raise more questions about our Anglo conceptions of political correctness in the face of such inequality, but seemingly doesn’t think it’s worth functionally analyzing the results yet. To this reader this presents a rather unusual situation, wherein we can see that the NUDEs and CLPP’s create big problems, but these are explained away as just steps in el processo.

Review of "Miami"

Joan Didion’s book Miami is a New Journalism account that delves into the relationship between the large Cuban exile and Anglo communities in Miami and Washington D.C. While the type of political assassinations that were making headlines at the times of the book’s first publication is no longer a normal occurrence, the book is still insightful for understanding Miami’s official as well as their “underwater” history. As a caveat, however, Didion also engages in an unfair essentialization of Latins by framing their exile politics, as anyone familiar with 19th century radical exile politics London knows is always full of passion and intrigue, as being “Spanish” and a product of a hot environment. Her connection of their militancy to these, in the end, imperialist and orientalist notions is a mar on an otherwise compelling work.

The notion of the underwater narrative refers to the manner in which Cuban-American’s interact with the Federal government, specifically how the state deals with a body of foreign nationals which seeks to overthrow a neighboring country’s government during the Cold War epoch. Didion doesn’t examine many archival documents or policy proscriptions, but instead infers the underlying beliefs of policy advocated by the Cuban community and the American’s tasked with handling them. Handling their passionate excesses is seen as “disposal problem”, especially following the Mariel boat lifts when tens of thousands of refugees, normal, mentally disabled and criminal, were now considered “American citizens”. This problem of disposal is both one of housing, a la the tent cities created in the parking lots and empty spaces along stadiums, as well as how to deal with groups that, now free from the Cuban police, want to provoke a war between the two countries by attacking Soviet bloc ships in the Miami port and hit-and-run incursions into small Cuban ports. The solution to the first problem, how to house tens of thousands as fast as possible, isn’t mentioned but the latter is given an accounting. Simply put, the militants that left are given further training at the Ejercito Cubano Anticomunista camp in Homestead and other places around the Everglades.

At this point, the US backing of a foreign for to ostensibly invade another county, runs into a problem with this style of writing. Specifically, the paucity of sources allows for subjective inferences which may be far from the objective reality. While Didion can correctly claim that JMWAVE existed, that in the early 1960’s Miami the CIA had assembled the third largest Navy contingent of battle and retro-fitted ships in the event that they wanted to invade Cuba, she also states that there may have been anywhere from 15,000 to 150,000 anti-Castro operatives fielded by the CIA. While it is unlikely that she would have access to actual numbers so close to the time period she’s writing, the result is that the account only gives a small picture of the events rather than a larger, more coherent narrative. She drifts from inference to inference in a highly suggestive manner that feels true to life, but it’s still hard to say how much of it is true and how much of it is a reading of her own fears of the situation onto it. Instead of deep investigative reporting that gives detailed descriptions of the actors involved, she relies mainly on what is reported in the newspapers and is “known on the street”. People drop in and out of the book, only mattering insofar as Didion is able to get a point she wants to make across – usually how this group of exiles has led to a third-worldization of politics in Miami. The picture that she presents is one filled with conspiracy, martial ideas of political behavior, killing of people open to dialog with Castro and wealthy Cuban’s fundraising for la causa. It is a dark, paranoid and ultimately tragic portrait, but one can’t help but wonder if the focus on a small, sensational and militant contingent of people leads to a distorted view. Because while Didion shows that this group is able to gain a significant modicum of local political power and can gain access to upper-level bureaucrats in Washington DC, the latter’s instance on IR realism always checks the “poeticism” and volunteerism of the Cubans.

One of the poetic metaphors that Didion uses several times that I found fitting was the the manner in which Washington D.C.’s vacillating policy towards Cuba, indeed all of Latin America, leave traces on the board. People, the moving pieces on the board, end up resenting and feeling antagonism to their handlers for their perceived lack of commitment. This is especially clear in the section detailing the manner in which media strategy has come to dominate the presidency. This need to address the variety of issues prevalent in the United States disallows the type of intensive attention and concern that the Cubans would like to see given to their sense of purpose. As Cuban-American and American interests overlap only at limited points, especially towards a stable government widely perceived as legitimate by their own people, the American willingness to act is seen as weak as their capacity to act and change the government is seen as definitive. Such sentiments are shown in Didion’s excerpt from conversations with the elite, in the volunteering and fundraising for the Nicaraguan contras compartmentalized in the slogan seen on stickers at anti-Castro businesses “Hoy Nicaragua, Manana Cuba”. Additionally, these traces are visible in the varied treatment of the policing apparatus to Omega 7 and Alpha 66. Sometimes they are considered acceptable and given access to advanced military training and weaponry while at other times the membership is prosecuted for crimes. Salon has an article on their website that updates some of Didion’s writing. Most important as it relates to Didion’s work is the manner in which these groups changed when no longer coddled or assisted by the CIA and the American government’s prosecution of individuals in the United State which were arrested for attempting to gather information on these groups to prevent their action or to help arrest and prosecute them following actions.

Another interesting point that Didion makes is in hinting at the similarities between the former ruling class of Cuba’s beliefs and those of Castro. Perhaps it is because of an unrecognized fear of retribution that she is never heavy handed in pointing it out, but at several scenes the parallels between them are clear. The violent retribution against collaborators and the disruptive counter-demonstrations to silence “non-Cuban” speakers highlight the qualities which the exiles exhibit yet claim as cause for the Cuban regime to be overthrown. This dissonance finds itself in other places as well. One of the ways in which she speaks of correcting Castro’s unacknowledged or repressed presence is in the corrective she makes to other’s claims by pointing out that Castro has had a big if not one of the biggest effects on the development of South Florida as a community. As none of the people she interviews would likely be there if not for him, she does this to show how it is that their ideology has scrambled their worldview to the point that the conditions which lead to the revolution and his role in it is simply transformed into a target that, once killed, would solve all of their problems.

Review of "The Savage Detectives"

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño recounts the lives of two aspiring poets, Ulisses Lima and Arturo Bolaño, along with their circle of poets that, for poets, spend a surprisingly small amount of time writing or publishing poetry. Despite the paucity of presses willing to accept their work, however, the poets still continue in their roles as seekers and the narrative takes the two protagonists on a series of trips or varying adventures.

The first and third sections of the book are set in Mexico City and told from the third person while the substantially larger middle portion of it approaches those characters from the perspective of strangers and friends, not always in chronological order, which they encounter in Spain, Nicaragua, France, Israel and Monrovia. The split sections are not just changes of style, but in time as well. Chronologically the first sections is first, the third section is second and the second section is the third. This break-up of the events is at a significant point, just after the boys have spirited away a prostitute from her pimp, and the results of this, which surely inform the subsequent chronology, isn’t learned until the end. I’ve not normally liked the results of the authors that have written in such a vein, what immediately comes to mind is Nabakov’s Pale Fire, Bolaño’s work isn’t as purposively alienating though he too does have his moments of seemingly excessive erudition.

Moving from this issue of time and going back to the protagonists, Lima and Bolano’s lives, just like those that in one way or another look up to them, are tragic. It’s not just the poverty of many of the characters, such as Luscious Skin who lives in a shack on the roof of an apartment building, but the manner in which they all seek for a truth leads them to be so far alienated from those around them. They are tragic people, largely outcasts from society with limited capacity to feel connected to it, they have tragic loves, obsessing over people that they can’t have, they are tragic actors, who flirt with death and wandering as a coping mechanism over their variance and even antagonism to official Mexican culture and preference for the classical and avant garde. It is in fact their love for the latter that informs the name of the poetry group that consolidates around Lima and Bolano. They call themselves the “visceral realists”, as an ode to another group of Mexican poets who went by the same name forty years before and they connect it to the Flores Magon, Tristan Tzara and the stridentists.

Lima and Bolano are seekers after poetry in a religious sense. Their obsession is not just with reading the works of various famous literary circles but in learning all of the history between the authors. This is evident later in Belano’s life in his deep reading of the Generation of ’98 once he is in Spain, but is first seen with his concern in learning about and interviewing the surviving members of the Mexican stridentists and seeking to learn about one of their members Cesarea Tinajero. The search for her takes up the majority of the third section and is almost a quixotic tale as for all intensive purposes she has published only one poem in a small run journal and this poem consists solely of three lines without text – a straight line, a wavy line and a jagged line. The energy which they exert and the results they end up getting is highly telling of their tragicomic embrace of the literary arts. As such a polyphonic work ought to suggest just by such a categorization, their perspective is not the only one highlighted and this anomie and aimlessness, at times excruciating detailed in Belaño and Lima’s account outside of Mexico highlights their general aimlessness and anomie following the discovery of Tinajero, and they are contrasted with several other poets of people whose politics is not limited to poetry. There are numerous Trotskyites, the fault them for their lack of real political commitment, there are the peasant poets, followers of Octavio Paz, publishers and just normal people for whom the literary world is not so much of a drive which all mock them for their pretensions and posturing.

Having just read The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide before this I completely agree with James Wood’s comments on the novel that despite these divergences from character and form it is in Many ways like Gide’s work in that one of it’s major themes is what exactly does it mean to be a writer. Chapter 23 specifically, is where I believe that Bolaño accomplished some of the best of his writing in this regard, not as letters to a young poet a la Rilke, but as Diogenes Laetrius. Bolaño even puts in a Marxian-Hegelian twist in the ending of all of their stories by rewording the famous “first as tragedy, second as farce” line in what I think is one of the most compelling sections of the book. Here we can see not just fragmented details of the journey of the spirit of these two poets, but how it is that the others writers relationships to society, their notion of truth, etc. informs their station in life.