Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Revolution Impersonated

Why does almost every revolution need a figurehead, a leader, a dictator? I suppose that it is a very human phenomenon, but it is a mistake. Since the English Civil War, which became associated with Oliver Cromwell, people have handed power over to individuals, who usually end up abusing it. In the 20th century, it became quite boringly predictable that every revolution should result in a dictatorship of some kind. Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Allende, and now Chavez, have become so closely associated in their followers' minds with the revolutions they took part in that the fate of the revolutions themselves became wrapped up with their individual fates. Communists believe, naively, that the Bolzhevik Revolution in Russia turned sour when Lenin died (Trotsky claimed that Stalin had poisoned him). For several years, people have been waiting for Fidel Castro to die, and tyranny in Cuba with him. I'm afraid that his friend in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, may precede Castro.

This is what was once called the Cult of Personality. But why is it that so many revolutions, intended to bring an end to tyranny, nearly always devolve into power struggles between individuals who want nothing but to become tyrants themselves? It is a contradiction of both democracy and of socialism, in which "the people" are supposed to rule.  Are people merely too stupefied from oppression to know the difference? Are they so unused to self-rule that they're incapable of running their own lives? Look at what is happening in Russian today. And think of what may happen soon in China.

But what will become of Chavez's revolution in Venezuela? The people - businessmen and landowners - whom he removed from power are probably awaiting a return to the saddle. But the majority of ordinary Venezuelans who have benefited the most from Chavez's reforms may not see it that way. Who will they find to replace their beloved leader? And will his replacement honor his memory and the revolution he led?

The Philippines recently (February 25) celebrated the anniversary of the 1986 "People Power" revolt that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos's regime and inaugurated a new era of democratic rule. Unfortunately, that bloodless coup swept another oligarchal family (the Aquino-Cojuancos) into power. The son of Cory Aquino, current President Benigno Aquino III, was on hand on the anniversary to reiterate the aims - if not the consequences - of People Power. His presence as Philippine head of state does not speak well for democracy.

The imminent demise of Hugo Chavez - "fighting for his life" as I write these words - put me in mind of a 1996 movie called Carla's Song. Starring Robert Carlyle as George, a bus driver in Glasgow, he meets and falls in love with a Nicaraguan woman, Carla, who is lovely and full of life. But George senses that she is troubled by something in her past. When he agrees to accompany her to her homeland, he discovers the true depths of her troubles.

In March 2000, I wrote about the movie in my journal:

Having sat through Ken Loach's film, Carla's Song, which is - roughly - about a young Scotsman's unfortunate affair with a Nicaraguan woman he meets in his native Glasgow, I'm faced with the same question poor George (the Scotsman, played by Robert Carlyle) must have asked himself at the end of his adventure with Carla: was this trip necessary?

If there is anyone left in the Western world [with me now ensconced in the Eastern one] who needs his eyes opened about the embroilment of the CIA in various revolutions and - more to the point - counter-revolutionary movements in Latin America, then I suppose Carla's Song will come as something of a shock. For the rest of us, such revelations are by now boringly routine. Just a rattling off of atrocities committed with CIA collusion, if not participation, wouldn't raise an eyebrow these days.

And Loach lays it on a bit thick, with the warm, feeling farmers and their faceless and brutal oppressors emerging out of the darkness to blow up their schools and hospitals. And the character played by Scott Glenn is as bogus as they come - a turncoat American field agent who once trained the Contras and is now helping the Sandinistas. Not that such things are impossible - it's simply that Glenn's presence in the movie is a trifle convenient for Loach's design.

And I guess no one can blame Carla for staying in her homeland with her cripple, disfigured campanero, singing his strident ballads as he strums his guitar (he must have had a lot of practice). But, I suppose, the only solace for George is seeing for himself what Carla and her country have gone through. Loach's sympathies are easy enough to locate (he's a Socialist). The poor bastard (George, I mean) should've spared himself the disappointment and stayed in rainy old Glasgow. And Ken Loach should've heeded - imagining he's even heard of - the words of a fellow Englishman, Vernon Young:

"Regarding the political issue: There may be times in history when every member of a regime you despise is a pig by any human definition; there is never a time when the opposition is totally composed of genially subversive heroes." (The movie he was writing about was, incidentally, Costa-Gavras's Z.)

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