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The Life of Hugo Chavez and the Death of the L.A. Elections

hugo-chavez3-580x333On Tuesday, March 5, 2013 two events happened of diametrically opposed moral and historical significance—the end of the life of the great world leader Hugo Chavez and the death of the Los Angeles mayoral elections.

In between yawns and "oh, was there some kind of election in the news that I missed?" 8 candidates ran in the "fight for the soul-less city" mayor race. The results: City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Council member Eric Garcetti will run in another soul-less run-off on Tuesday May 21 to see who will carry out the bidding of Eli Broad, the downtown business elite, the transnational capitalists, and the LAPD for the next four years—the job officially called "Mayor of Los Angeles." This election was met with such a yawn that even the "voting class" -- the group of middle-class people with no power and the illusion that they have some, forgot to vote. ("Hey, did you know that my brother-in-law knows Wendy's nanny who knows Eric Garcetti's mechanic and they said...blah blah blah.") L.A. like most urban center is a city of color—of the 4 million residents 12 percent are Black and 46 percent Latino. But you wouldn't know it by listening to the candidates. Police brutality, low-wage and no wage jobs, choking air pollution, police and ICE suppression of immigrants, deteriorating social services, were not on the agenda—but all the candidates, including Jan Perry, a Black city councilperson, debated how many more police they wanted. These are the "free elections" that are so free that nobody gives a damn, only 16 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls and the rest just stayed home and debated whether Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, or Rihanna should be number one.

Meanwhile, on the same day, in Venezuela, a true champion of the people, the amazing Hugo Chavez, died-- an event of enormous world consequence. Hugo Chavez, a man of African, Indigenous, and Spanish ancestry was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, re-elected in 2000, 2006, and again in 2012. During the election of 2006, Manuel Criollo and I, representing the Labor/Community Strategy Center, were so fortunate to have witnessed history. We went not as "impartial observers" but on the invitation of friends in Venezuela as partisan U.S. friends of the Venezuelan people. On Election Day, we were awakened by bells ringing at 6 A.M. These were not church bells but bells of liberation—urging working class voters to get up and get to the polls before they even opened. But that was really not necessary. Most of the voters were awake long before the bells rang. By the time we got to the streets at 9AM, the lines to vote went on as far as the eye could see--an entire city ready to vote. We saw hundreds of thousands of Indigenous working people with Chavista hats, banners, red-t shirts, chanting, talking, laughing. They were not "waiting" to vote but having a "vote-in" that was an all-day event. In one of the more affluent downtown districts, I asked a woman of European-descendant, obviously a very affluent voter, what she thought of the elections. She told me, "Well, Chavez will win because he is for the poor and there are so many of them, but he does not represent 'us.'" I thought, well, she certainly knows her place in the class struggle, and fortunately, in Venezuela, so does the working class and the working people.

That night, the bells rang again, when Chavez won with 63% of the vote and a 74% voter turnout. Manuel and I stood in the rain in Caracas, along with what seemed like the entire city in the streets, crying with joy. It was impossible to explain to people in the U.S., the world's policeman, what a free election feels like and looks like. Certainly no one in L.A. could comprehend if they judged by ours. And ironically, as soon as Chavez won in free elections again, the U.S. government kept referring to him as a "dictator" to justify its plans to overthrow him.

But Chavez got elected because he had a program--social services for the poor, free health care, and challenging Yankee Imperialism. As the New York Times reported,

"In office, he upended the political order at home and abroad. Inspired by Simon Bolivar, the mercurial Venezuelan aristocrat who led South America's 19th Century Wars of independence, Mr. Chavez sought to unite the region and erode Washington's influence." In a 2006 speech to the United Nations he said, 'The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species," In the same speech, he called President George W. Bush "the devil." (Note that "the devil" remarks are repeated endlessly, a good thing in itself, but his context of the U.S. Empire is of course left out by the journalists of the U.S. Empire.)

As Simon Romero continues in the New York Times: "For years, he succeeded in curbing U.S. influence...Fidel Castro was not only an ally but also an inspiration. He forged a Bolivarian alliance with some of Latin America's energy exporting nations like Ecuador and Bolivia, and applauded when they expelled U.S. ambassadors, as he had done. He asserted greater control of Venezuela's economy by nationalizing dozens of foreign-owned assets, including oil projects controlled by Exxon-Mobil and other large American corporations. Though he met opposition at home, he enjoyed broad support. He did this in part by going into the slums to establish health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors and state-run stores selling subsidized food. These and other social welfare programs made the poor feel included in a society that had long ignored them."

Sadly, as we go back to Los Angeles, for now ("Por ahora! As Chavez explained") neither Wendy Greuel nor Eric Garcetti are running on a "social welfare state not the police state" campaign. They do not propose free medical care or subsidized food and housing—but the Strategy Center's Fight for the Soul of the City does. So, with the Mayoral elections run-off coming up on May 21, we are reaching out to candidates Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti to ask them to support our vision that includes:

• Restore one million hours of bus service lower the Monthly pass to $42 on the way to creating a first-class, 24/7, zero emission, free public transportation system based on a 5,000 MTA bus fleet (more than double the current fleet.)

• Restricting auto use, toxic air contaminants, and greenhouse gases by initiating auto free zones, auto free rush hours, reducing auto and truck traffic, and expansion of freeway buses.

• Stopping police sweeps of LA schools, eliminating police from any role in school discipline, and reversing LAPD's decision to put 600 "police patrols" inside schools.

• Reducing, not expanding the size of the police force and the overall police budget.

We know there cannot be "free" elections when the corporations control our society and the electoral process. But we are asking candidates Greuel and Garcetti to consider our alternative to their soulless city based on private profit and the interests of the corporatizing, policing, privatizing, and polluting classes. We are building a movement in Los Angeles that is based on the Black/Latino strategic alliance. We want to encourage a national urban insurgency in alliance with the movements of the peoples and nations of the Third World--as we continue to Fight for the Soul of the Cities—from Los Angeles to Caracas!

Eric Mann

Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers, where he spent ten years on auto assembly lines. He is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles and the author of Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer. He is the host of the radio show Voices from the Frontlines (KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles Pacifica. His radio show and blogs can be found at www.voicesfromfrontlines.com

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