A few years ago the American journalist David Brooks published a book of pop sociology called “Bobos in Paradise.” The subject was “bourgeois bohemians” (bobos)– well-to-do, well-educated professionals who try to incorporate elements of a 1960s countercultural, anti-establishment ethos into their lives.
In Venezuela, meanwhile, rampant favoritism and cronyism in the government of Hugo Chavez, combined with record oil prices, has produced a quite different phenomenon: the Boliburguesa, or Bolivarian bourgeoisie.
Reporting from Caracas, Alexandra Starr writes in the current issue of The American Scholar:
Boliburgueses had constructed mega-mansions in the most storied Caracas neighborhoods and bought spanking new jets. A journalist friend who shadowed one of Chávez’s closest allies was chauffeured around in a bulletproof BMW, flanked by Korean bodyguards who can allegedly brain a would-be assailant with a butter knife at a distance of 20 meters. “It was like something out of Goldfinger,” my colleague said, still somewhat incredulous. Just as bizarre was his description of a Caracas sushi restaurant that had been enthusiastically recommended: rare tuna could be served—for an exorbitant fee—on the belly of a woman in the buff.
To be sure, this hedonism is out of reach for the great majority of Venezuelans. Even with the billions of dollars that have arrived in the country, four out of 10 residents subsist on two dollars a day or less.
Venezuelan blogger Miguel Octavio (“The Devil’s Excrement”) elaborated last November on the Boliburguesa:
While Hugo Chavez has used the terms oligarchs and oligarchy to refer to his enemies and the opposition in a derogatory manner, after eight years the term has certainly worn off, more so when one realizes that the “old” oligarchy has been quickly replaced by the “boli-bourgeois” the name given to the new class of rich Bolivarians who defend the revolution and are part of the revolution only because they are getting rich beyond the wildest dreams of the “old” oligarchy, some of which actually even had to work for it.
The new oligarchy flaunts their wealth in ways never seen in Venezuela. Case in point is the fact that in 2005 the Government banned all private airplanes from landing in the La Carlota military airport of Caracas, saying that for the benefit and safety of the people only helicopters could land there. And for a while it worked. In fact, a while back I made a post of actually seeing and taking a picture of a jet plane land in La Carlota, because it not only violated the law, but showed that some people are more equal than others under the law.
This is no longer a rarity. Where I live is actually in the landing path of La Carlota and at least a dozen planes take off and land daily, with increasing traffic on Friday and Sunday afternoons, as the new boli-oligarchs take off for the weekend to the fancy resorts of the Caribbean where they can enjoy their anonymity their new found wealth, without annoying fellow Venezuelans recognizing them or God forbid, staging a protest against them. To hell with equality under the law or even the law itself which simply bans the any airplane from landing there, but the law can be skirted as the revolution is in a rush to have its leaders enjoy themselves or make efficient use of their new flying toys, which range from Cessnas to long range jets. Yes, Venezuela has become the largest growing market for private jets in South America and the planes are being bought by those affiliated with the revolution.
Then there is Scotch consumption, up from US$ 40 million to US$ 100 million from 2005 to 2006. It is, of course, presumptuous of me to assume that it is the new oligarchy that drinks 18 year old Scotch. But who else could it be? The old one was perfectly happy with your run of the mill Johnny Walker Black Label, why would they change all of a sudden?…
…[T]he rich revolutionaries do not want to give up neither their wealth nor their priviliges. They wear red shirts at rallies, but Cartier watches and Lanvin suits and ties in private, they do not fly commercial, have purchased the finest properties in the East of Caracas and their kids go to the best schools. How do you carry out a revolution like that.
The answer is you don’t. These guys are the revolution’s worst enemies. They no longer want change, they want to preserve their new status quo, they have become the new and rich oligarchy.
Alexandra Starr notes that Chavez has used some of the country’s oil wealth to fund social programs (“misiones”) that have helped many of Venezuela’s poor with cheap food and free medical care. But the huge gap between the luxuries enjoyed by Chavez’s cronies and the bare subsistence of the poor disturbs at least one old-fashioned Marxist curmudgeon.
Jose Rafael Lopez Padrino, a Venezuelan scientist, wrote recently in the opposition newspaper Tal Cual:
Certainly what the Lt. Colonel [Chavez] is proposing as “socialism” is in reality state capitalism, in which the dominant and production relationships of the past are preserved… The regime has demonstrated that it does not have the smallest intention of modifying the social relations of production and the forms of ownership with a true socialist sense. In effect, the forces and social relations of production, which act in Venezuelan society, have remained identical since about the midpoint of the XIXth. Century. Let us recall that it is the relations of production, which constitute the economic structure of a society, over which the political and legal superstructures lies upon.
Of which socialism can we speak about if this regime has allowed the rise of an ostentatious and spendthrift boli bourgeois class, as perverse and exploiting as those linked to the Adeco/Copeyano Governments [Venezuela’s two main pre-Chavez political parties]? On top of that, it has allowed a flexibilization of labor rules (cooperatives and other forms of management sharing at companies) which area aimed at lowering costs of production and thus at increasing the rate of return of the profits of the owners…
Those darned old-fashioned Marxists: always spoiling the fun.
Update: Miguel has some observations on May Day in the Bolivarian Republic.