Latin America’s revealing reaction to the Venezuelan election

The Bolivarian Revolution vs. the Brazil model.

As the whole world looked on, the indefatigable Hugo Chávez overcame his strongest obstacle yet to claim another six-year term as Venezuela’s President, keeping him in power until 2019.  

“Venezuela will continue along the path of democratic and Bolivarian socialism for the 21st century”, Chávez thundered from the balcony of Miraflores palace, holding aloft the sword of Latin American revolutionary Símon Bolivar.

This election was so salient because it showcased a clash of two different ideologies; of two different futures. It was a battle of two visions that pitted a leftist firebrand against one of the Venezuelan 1 per cent; between a populist demagogue and a wealthy elite out-of-touch with Venezuela’s bulging underclass.

Henrique Capriles promised major changes for Venezuela. He pledged to move the country away from quixotic idealism to pursue a more pragmatic foreign policy; away from pariah states such as Belarus and Iran and towards a more sanitised global image.

He promised to depoliticise the economy through spurring private investment and reviving oil deals with outside partners - a notion unimaginable under the current government that holds economic self-sufficiency and state nationalisation as sacrosanct principles of governance.

Crucially for Chávez, Capriles threatened to undermine Venezuela’s role as the flag-bearer for the continent’s radical left; as the leading extoller of Latin American anti-imperialism.

Naturally, for supporters of the chavista cause, Sunday was most certainly a red-letter day; a democratic endorsement of the Bolivarian revolution espoused by Chávez.

“Forward, comrade Chávez”, tweeted Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. “All Latin America is with you and with our beloved Venezuela”.

“The victory of President Chávez is a victory for democracy, for the Bolivarian alliance, and all of Latin America”, declared Bolivian President Evo Morales.

“Your decisive victory ensures the continuity of the struggle for genuine integration in our America”, proclaimed Raul Castro, Cuba’s de facto President.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also paid effuse tribute to him, labelling him an “indisputable leader that will continue leading the Latin American revolution”.

These sentiments were echoed in Argentina as well, with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner praising the victory whilst Argentines rallied outside the Venezuelan embassy in Buenos Aires to celebrate the news.

However, the response from other major regional players, particularly Peru, Mexico and Brazil was muted, highlighting a degree of indifference to the radical model of leftist politics extolled by South America’s chavista movement.

There is no question over the importance of Latin American independence on the continent. Last year, the establishment of a 33-country “Community of Latin American and Caribbean States” (CELAC) intentionally excluded Washington and other “Western” powers from membership, cementing the region as a power bloc with its own interests and agendas.

But the “Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas” (ALBA), conceived by Chávez in 2004, is a step too far for some. That only the most radical of Latin American governments claim membership (Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela) is a telling indicator of the state of South American leftism.

Many often interpret the left-leaning approach of most South American states as a unified, cohesive ideological movement against imperialist forces, but a more nuanced approach reveals some major fault lines.  

To some, Bolivarian governance has hit a crisis. With soaring inflation rates, over-reliance on nationalised industry and bloated bureaucracies rife with cronyism, much of Latin America’s far-left finds itself in an unenviable position.

The alternative model, embodied by Brazil, offers a different brand of leftism; one that embraces private property rights and upholds the sanctity of democratic institutions. Since the election of Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva as President 2002, Brazil has shown that you do not have to stack the courts, censor the media, and politicise a country’s financial system to ameliorate poverty. As an emerging player on the world stage, Brazil has also shown that you can have sovereign independence whilst integrating into the global economy; that you can resist imperialism without having to denounce capitalism.

A signal that the Brazil mould is gaining momentum in Latin America came with the Peruvian election of Ollanta Humala in 2011. Humala originally campaigned under the chavista banner in 2006 and and lost. For the 2011 election, he rebranded as a more moderate socialist and has governed as such ever since.

Does this reveal a political schism in Latin America? Not exactly. Whilst fault lines have appeared, it doesn’t mean incompatibility. Nevertheless, the Brazilian model shows that Latin American governments can have their cake and eat it too; they can remain economically and politically self-sufficient without resorting to authoritarian and isolationist policies that breed malaise.

Whilst Sunday’s election victory has not derailed the Bolivarian revolution, its tight victory margin and the increasing appeal of the Brazilian mould has certainly taken the wind out of its sails.

A pro-Chávez mural in his hometown of Sabaneta, Venezuela. Photo: Getty

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster