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the O12 statue-toppling debate: round 1!

charley allan | 27.10.2004 00:13 | Venezuela | London

wonder if VA will print it, and if dawn will respond...

original text at

>Those Who Toppled Columbus Statue Must Bear Responsibility For Their Act
>Saturday, Oct 23, 2004

>By: Dawn Gable

Response by: Charley Allan, Tuesday, Oct 26th, 2004

>Based on the account of the October 12 destruction of the Columbus statue that was written and disseminated world-wide by the organizers (some of whom do not live in Venezuela) and based on the fact that this was a pre-planned theatrical show, it appears that those arguing for the amnesty of those detained are either misinformed about what took place, or do not understand the danger of the act or of the damage it has done to the Bolivarian government.

As someone who has "disseminated" (both through the world wide web and by word of mouth) accounts of the O12 Columbus-toppling, and also an organiser here in the UK of solidarity actions with Bolivarian Movement in Venezuela, I feel compelled to respond to Dawn Gable's clear, if not complete, analysis of the aftermath to the statue-toppling. However I must make it clear that in no way did I help organise the Caracas demonstration, any more than those claiming responsibility for what happened in Plaza Venezuela helped organise our solidarity demonstration outside the US Embassy in London that day.

I'd also like to mention that neither I, nor the campaign "Hands Off Venezuela" (who joint-sponsored the protests here), have ever argued for the amnesty of the O12 prisoners. Nor for that matter has anyone else I've read online (in English) including the prisoners themselves! In fact, by all accounts they (and the over 200 activists who assume collective-responsibility for the action - see their document "We are responsible") are very much looking forward to defending themselves to a jury of their peers. The reason we demonstrated outside the Venezuelan consulate last Thursday had nothing to do with amnesty; it was to support their demand for the prisoners' bail until trial.

As for not understanding the "danger" and "damage" this has caused the Venezuelan government, I fully accept that here, far away from the Caracas political heat, my personal judgement of these issues must be rather clouded, but I genuinely believe there are far greater dangers to the Bolivarian Revolution than peaceful anarchists and autonomists toppling statues, and that debates like the one generated by this action can certainly help the Movement avoid them.

>All Revolutionary activities must be done with not only with the symbolism of the act, or the motivation for the act in mind but also with the end result in mind. While it is certainly understandable to take out ones anger on a statue of the symbol of 500 years of cruelty and injustice, the fulfilling of this impulse at the expense of the only government in the history of the world to ever make any REAL attempt at returning rights to indigenous peoples is unjustifiable. Especially when, at the same moment in another area of Caracas, the mayor Freddy Bernal was signing an agreement to take down ALL of the Columbus statues in the city and replace them with statues of Chief Guaicaipuro (although Bernal admitted that the enforcement of this agreement was not solely up to him).

Chávez himself talks of the "Revolution within the Revolution". At the same time, the government line is to portray the O12 prisoners as extremists. By all accounts, this is not accurate. The statue-toppling was carried out in broad daylight, announced and unmasked. Over 200 people have claimed collective responsibility, and their names are on the internet. This was not an angry act of vandalism. It was peaceful, principled protest. Yes, it made a lot of noise. Yes, it was illegal. Yes, they should stand trial. But they should not be in jail. As for Bernal signing such an agreement, if it is true then why is he spending public money to repair the broken Columbus statue? Why not just put it back up in pieces, as the protesters have suggested? And what exactly is the "end result" of refusing these three prisoners bail?

>The participants of the action could have been satisfied with symbolism of knocking down the statue. But they were not. They were looking for response. So they dragged the statue down to the Teresa Carreño Theater where the day’s formal celebration was happening. The National Guard of course, protected this event. Bringing the statue to the theater resulted in also bringing the Metropolitan Police who are run by the opposition and who are often in conflict with the National Guard. This was a dangerous and careless thing to do. Creating a disturbance while positioned between two rival armed forces is not only irresponsible but it would have been unforgivable if an exchange between the two would have broken out.

This is probably the most worrying part of Gable's writing. It describes an atmosphere of perpetual danger, where at any moment violence can break out and soldiers could be dragged into raging gun-fights with police, as of course has happened in the past. But for this still to be the situation, where a crowd of statue-dragging, samba-playing hippies could (but didn't) trigger off some kind of civil war, is at least at odds with most of what I've read and heard recently, especially since the referendum victory in August. To blame over-zealous protesters for "creating" such a dangerous environment surely misses the point, which is that any country proud of its democracy should be able to safeguard the security of those exercising their democratic right to protest. It is unfortunately true that in many countries, like the UK and the US, and of course Italy, where Carlo Giuliani was shot dead by an inexperienced riot cop at the Genoa 2001 demonstrations, this right is sorely lacking. It is sad that Venezuela appears not to have progressed very far beyond these countries with respect to such a basic human right as this.

>Luckily this did not happen and after some discussion between the organizers, the National Guard, and the police, the statue was confiscated by the police. At this point the participants surely had made their point AND have gotten a response. But this was not enough either. The small crowd began to taunt the police who responded, as one would expect of this notoriously trigger-happy group, with tear gas and rubber bullets. In the end a hand full of participants were detained.

I believe this is simply untrue. From all the accounts I've read and heard, the Caracas Police (under Bernal's command) fired tear-gas and rubber bullets at the peaceful crowd without warning and without provocation. The protest was winding down, the point had been made, the National Guard were standing, watching, doing nothing, when the police arrived and immediately dramatically and violently escalated the situation. Arbitrary arrests were made, particular activists (such as Roland Denis) were targeted and shot at. Indeed, this might be as one would expect, but to blame the crowd for the violence by taunting the police is disingenuous, again.

>At this point it would have made sense to wait for the situation to calm and then send a few people to talk to the police who may have released the detainees. But instead this group escalated their self-made confrontation by going to the mayor’s office expecting him to intervene and get them off the hook. Here is the worst part of the whole mess.

The writer's sudden good-faith in the police may or may not be justified, however we have come to the most important issue (that Gable assiduous obscures): that the demand is not for amnesty (or getting them "off the hook"); it is for them to be treated fairly and equally under the law, which is not too much to ask from a self-proclaimed progressive government. It is a fact that in Venezuela you can topple a government and just be held under house-arrest. If you topple a statue (of a hated and divisive figure), you are refused bail. Maybe this is because Pedro Carmona is a millionaire member of the elite, while William Escalona, Freddy Tabarquino and Jorge Freites are not. In any case, the activists who went to the mayor's office went there to demand the release of the prisoners on bail or the arrest of them all, as they were jointly responsible for toppling the statue. This is the living definition of solidarity, and the writer chooses portrays it as another type of corruption.

>Regional elections are the end of this month. The last thing the government needs right now is fighting among the ranks, especially over an act that had no objective in the first place aside from the venting of a little rage. Pleading that Freddy Bernal save them from the law is not only cowardly, but is patently an expression of a fourth republic mentality. Expecting special treatment from the government for expressing a government held sentiment through illegal means is exactly the kind of favoritism and corruption of power that the Chavez government is fighting against and it is expressedly forbidden by the rules of the Fifth Republic.

"Cowardly" is not a word I'd use about the activists who went to the mayor's office and offered their liberty in solidarity with the three. And to repeat, they were not looking for Freddy Bernal to "save" them (the notion is laughable), but to treat them fairly and equally under the law. Which among other things means releasing the three or arresting everyone who claims responsibility. To accuse them of exploiting favouritism or corruption is a little like blaming the victim for the crime, something of course that people do to Chávez all the time.

>While the perpetrators continue to claim that they are willing to take responsibility for their actions they have on the other hand continually attacked Freddy Bernal’s loyalty to the Bolivarian Revolution for not tossing aside the rule of law and coming to their rescue. Freddy Bernal is a strong supporter and friend of Hugo Chavez, and he is the mayor of a very important part of Caracas. The protesters have put both of these men in an impossible situation forcing them to take action against their own constituents. The turmoil that this fiasco has created within the Chavista camp must be making the opposition laugh with satisfaction and has undoubtedly left them wondering why they didn’t think of perpetrating such an event themselves. In fact, this has been so beneficial to their cause; it makes one wonder if the hands of saboteurs were not involved.

Pretty serious stuff, except for one thing: we all know Chávez is going to win these elections with a landslide, probably even more so than the last eight, and it really doesn't matter if Freddy loses a few votes because his cops are known to go off the deep end (just ask the numerous peaceful squatters who have been violently evicted by his thugs over recent months in Caracas). Just to put this in context, and I know I'm on the other side of the world from the intrigues of Miraflores, but as I understand it, there is no democratic opposition left in Venezuela. The CD have irrevocably split, AD are more hated than ever, and nobody else even merits a mention. Which, by the way, is a very dangerous position for any democracy to be in, even if it lets Chávez' chosen candidates off the hook.

Let us be clear, the reason for this "turmoil" is that these three activists are still in jail. And I'll make a prediction: the longer they stay in jail, the worse this "fiasco" is going to get. We know they're not being tortured, or going to "disappear" or anything like that, but from one particularly persuasive perspective, these are Bolivarian Venezuela's first political prisoners. The fact that the Bolivarian government seems to be making an example of these Bolivarian grass-roots activists by isolating them is a worrying development that will inevitably raise questions among Bolivarian solidarity campaigners worldwide, questions that will only be answered when they are finally released. The fact they are facing up to four years in prison, when Chávez himself only served two for leading a coup, might explain how ludicrous this all looks internationally.

>On this same day, in many countries around the world there were protests against governments that are still perpetuating the oppression and misery imported by the colonialists 500 years ago. This makes sense. Protesting against current colonial tendencies is valid. Protesting against colonialism in Venezuela at this time when the government itself is fervently fighting it, is not. However, demonstrating in favor of the current government’s steps to correct the atrocities of the past is. The day would have been better spent celebrating the advances of the indigenous cause brought about by the Chavez government. Or better yet, the organizers could have spent their organizing energy doing something constructive for the indigenous community such as volunteering in the Missions.

Putting aside the condescending tone (and what were +you+ doing that day, Dawn?) we get to the heart of the matter - whether the government really is "fervently fighting" colonialism in Venezuela. Many on the left would say this fight is rather taking the form of a courtship ritual, albeit with more dignity than before. Others would say (neo-) colonialism is just a fact of life in Venezuela and the Bolivarian Movement's most effective strategy is to work within this framework reforming it more favourably in the interests of the people. Whatever, in a democratic society, it is not up to one person, whoever they are, to determine what is a "valid" protest or not. A protest is validated by the act of someone carrying it out, and taking responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of their actions.

As to whether they were justified, politically, for destroying public property, that's really up to a jury. Was the statue artistic, political, or both? Was this action a form of "participatory democracy"? During the "Revolution within the Revolution", activists must be free to debate differences of opinion with their leaders when they disagree, without having to concern themselves as to whether their timing is embarrassing or if they're offending the wrong people. Especially now, when the Bolivarian government is more powerful than ever before, the grassroots have the greatest responsibility to keep their leaders on the right path, even if that means protesting against them, in the most respectful way possible.

>Many of the arguments both in support of and against this action have centered on the person of Columbus. This has nothing to do with Columbus. These arguments only serve to illuminate the immaturity and lack of political preparation of those arguing. The real question here is about tactics. Revolutionaries must not act out of pure emotion, but instead must weigh the utility of their actions in respect to the effect it will have on strengthening and advancing the Revolution. Any act that results in a weakening of the Revolution is unacceptable. Above all, Revolutionaries must know WHO their enemy is and must stay focused. This kind of deviation from the goal can and will destroy the Revolution.

In a sense, this issue is beyond Columbus, rather is it about the people's right to rise up and shape their environment in the manner they see fit. It is also about the right to challenge leadership when it loses touch with the grassroots. But it is also about a very divisive and provocative figure, who Chávez himself, as leader of the Bolivarian Movement in Venezuela, has described as "worse than Hitler". Well, when your leader says that about someone, while continuously invoking the people's revolutionary spirit to support him and his government, you have to expect that the people will eventually act. And they will do so without being given permission. And as long as they don't hurt anybody, they should be supported in this right. As Che said; "A true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love." Again, we are not talking about mindless vandalism here, because, as admitted by the writer, above, a great deal of effort has been made to describe the political significance of their action by the organisers themselves, which isn't something vandals generally do.

What's most interesting is that, whether people agree with the statue-toppling or not, no-one on the left, and certainly no Bolivarian I've spoken with, believes that these people belong in jail. That they are still inside is the antithesis of what makes us Bolivarian or support the Bolivarian Movement. The real question, as Gable draws attention to here, is whether this action and its aftermath strengthens or weakens the peaceful, democratic revolution in Venezuela. And indeed that is a question of knowing WHO the allies and enemies of the revolution are, both in and outside of Venezuela. We'll all find out the answers soon enough, but it must be pointed out that Revolutions aren't destroyed by protesters toppling statues, rather they are started by them.

charley allan
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  1. VA pick it up... — bolivar
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