The Bearded Leader Daring to Push Alternative Socialism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Venezuela’s experiment with socialism is failing — and this lawmaker could save it.
By Wesley Tomaselli
A whole time line of ink drawings covers the body of Venezuelan lawmaker Miguel Pizarro, and when you get to the most recent one, you get the story about Petare. It’s the one about how his family lived squished into a tiny apartment in that notorious slum; how when Miguel was 13 years old, a tattoo artist moved into the room below that his parents rented to make some extra cash. The tattoo artist convinced Miguel to be one of his “first victims.” That’s how one tattoo led to another, and then another. And then came punk rock, guitar playing and civil disobedience.
“I lived the other history of Venezuela. There’s an opposition, and I’m in the opposition, but I’m from the other side,” he says, making a reference to the Caracas-area slum where he grew up, where 7 out of every 10 people, he says, live below the poverty line.
Pizarro’s is the kind of upbringing usually associated with the followers of the late Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s socialist president. But Pizarro is sick and tired of Chavez-style socialism. He’s on the side of the opposition, and yet he’s not a right-wing anti-Chavista. Pizarro wants Venezuela to stay left of center. Instead of a plan to topple the government with a U.S.-backed military coup, Pizarro favors a nonviolent struggle, and he wants the opposition to make a deal with the Nicolás Maduro government. “I’m radically against how militarism has been telling the story of our country,” says the 30-year-old.
The self-described social democrat, who says he borrows ideas from modern socialism, is already thinking about how to define the next chapter of Venezuelan history.
Pizarro used to dig some of Chavez’s social policies. But others, like mandatory military training in school, provoked his rebellion. Shortly after gaining entrance to a university on merit, Pizarro emerged as a loud student leader critical of Chavismo. By 2007, he was leading protests against a national referendum on socialist policies that many believed would concentrate the president’s power. That year, Pizarro was instrumental in getting voters to cast their ballots against Chavez’s socialist effort. When he was 21, he was elected to Congress as a representative for Petare. On Sunday, May 20, Pizarro says he will boycott what he considers to be Venezuela’s sham presidential election, in which Maduro will seek another term.
Maduro has been inching toward full-scale authoritarianism. “Anyone who really threatens [the government], anyone who really poses potential competition — they electorally disqualify them or judicially harass them,” says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights advocacy organization. Years of economic mismanagement have the country’s economy in a tailspin. Meanwhile, the opposition has “seriously underperformed … they assume that everyone supports them, and they assume that everyone is against Chavismo,” Smilde says. “Miguel is different.”
Beyond the elections this weekend, the self-described social democrat, who says he borrows ideas from modern socialism, is already thinking about how to define the next chapter of Venezuelan history. Pizarro argues that the current affair is “where one history denies the other.” He wants to reconcile two narratives — the 40 years of exclusive democracy before Chavez and the 20 years since Chavez took over — with a more just social democracy. That means keeping strategic assets like state oil company PDVSA under public control. But Miguel wants to use oil revenues for funding education and entrepreneurship. He wants small and medium-size companies that can thrive and compete with the large ones. “My big thing is that oil should be a facilitator for development … it should not be at the center of our economy,” he says. Instead of directing spending to military and bureaucracy, he wants more spending on education. Pizarro’s centrist Justice First party is the largest of the opposition groups in the legislature, which gives him a considerable platform — though the body is not recognized by the Maduro government, so its sway is only symbolic.
Pizarro’s full, black beard and glasses make him look bookish. He is. When he’s not out cruising Petare and talking with people or giving speeches in the National Assembly, Pizarro is reading something off the wall-to-wall bookshelf in his studio apartment. George Orwell’s 1984 is on his mind these days. His partner, Marivi Marín, remembers him from his university days, before they started dating, as “kinda weird … and rebellious.” She also remembers his fervor. “He just had this way about him where he could stand up on a chair, and, in a second, he could have the whole room fired up.”
Still, Smilde thinks Pizarro has his limitations as a national figure. “I don’t know if he’s got the charisma, but that can be developed,” he says. Gabriel Hetland, a Venezuela expert and professor at SUNY Albany, is even warier and sees contradictions in Pizarro’s pledge for nonviolent protest. He says the young legislator’s call for a boycott is part of the opposition’s “foolish strategy that invites foreign regime change from the U.S.” Hetland argues that boycotting the elections could “lead to a really difficult impasse where the current government is going to stay in office, and they’re going to have a degree of legitimacy among Chavista base supporters.” Pizarro and his followers proclaim peaceful aims, “but their actions are leading inevitably to this doomsday confrontation,” Hetland says.
For all his flaws, Pizarro seems conscious of his continent’s flawed experiments with socialism as well as the dangers of dictators and unbridled capitalism. His mother was part of Venezuela’s Communist Party. His Chilean grandfather supported Salvador Allende’s socialist government in the 1970s. Leftist politics are in his blood, even as he seeks a new way for a polarized nation in crisis.