03 February, 2006

Mr. Danger

So Venezuela-US relations have taken another sour turn. After Venezuela dismissed the US naval attache for espionage, the US responded by offing the chief-of-staff of the Venezuelan ambassador. I won't get into the details here, esp. the obvious martial implicational of this move. What I do want to shed light on is the oft-quoted nickname Chavez has bestowed on Bush. In fact, these references to a "Mr. Danger" have become so numerous by now, I have been remiss in discussing this name choice before.

Míster Danger ("Meester Danyer"), and it's alternate "Míster Peligro" (Gallegos uses both, but seems to favor the former, though he titles a chaper in the novel using the latter), for those of you that may not already be aware--including, it seems, many journalists outside Venezuela--is a character extracted from the fictional world of Doña Bárbara, the masterpiece novel of Venezuelan writer and once-president Rómulo Gallegos. (If you can read Spanish, I would recommend getting the Cátedra version of the novel, which includes extensive background on the author and the sources that inspired and influenced the work. You can find used copies of it here. Otherwise, there's a more expensive English translation available here. Get it, it's worth the read!)

Because there are several commentaries discussing this topic on the Internet, the following short article should suffice as a quick run-down on "Mr. Danger". You can find that article here (you'll have to browse through the appeals for donation on the top of the page before reaching the article). Now, Gallegos was a typical Latin American writer of his time. Like many before him (think Sarmiento of Argentina), he grappled with issues of the urban vs. the rural, the "barbaric" or untamed (even "wild") vs. the civilized, and of course, the US vs. Venezuela, two countries that had in then-recent history collided in international diplomacy and trade affairs. The history requires some extensive introduction, so I'll leave it up to those of you who either know Spanish and are willing to get the Catedra version of the novel, or are already acquainted with this history. Santos Luzardo, Gallego's hero, is a big city lawyer trained and raised from a young age in Caracas. He takes it upon himself to ride back into the untamed Venezuelan Llanos of his childhood to size up the property under his family's posession. Once there, he discovers that he would soon become the protagonist of a one-man mission to "poner cerca", or 'lay down fence,' in the Llanos. "Lay down wha?", you may be asking yourself. This expression, perhaps coined by Gallegos himself, refers to his protagonist's project to "civilize" the unruly Llanos by bringing law and order into the region. To put this into a clearer context, in contrast to his original cry for the wild in the opening chapters of the novel, "denme llano", or 'give me/bring on the llano', an expression that bellies the character's urge for the vast, open and wild Llanos, around the second half of the novel we find a Santos on a self-proclaimed mission to tame that Llanos by staking out property lines, laying fences that would clearly demarcate the end of one's private posessions, and the beginning of the next land-owner's keep. At the time, cattle herds that unwittingly tangled with one another were divided on-the-fly by a process that favored those llaneros who could string the most cattle to his/her side without risk to life and/or property.

Now, Mr. Danger comes into the novel as a conniving, moneyed Irish-American adventurer with plans to swindle lands from unwitting llaneros' hands for paltry sums. Doña Bárbara, who inspired the title of the novel, is a local land-owner with a reputation for amassing vast swaths of land through litigation. She gains favor in the courts by sleeping with, bribing and generally intimidating local politicians, officials and judges. She also has a reputation for employing black magic in attaining her means. Having like goals, these two characters partner up and they represent the main source of opposition to, indeed the target of, Santos Luzardo's mission to bring law and order into the vast, indomitable and mystified Llanos of Gallegos' creation. That said, there are two major implications and meanings that we can extract from Chavez's usage of this epiteth to address Bush.

In the context of present political relations between Venezuela and the United States, Chávez´s borrowing of this name may have several interesting implications. The first may be linked to Rómulo Gallegos' use of Mr. Danger as a foreign, American figure who seeks to amass Venezuelan lands through illegitimate means. In this way, the character may represent a statement on the author's behalf regarding the United States' then long-standing principal of "Manifest Destiny". Chávez has often made references to an impending invasion spearheaded by the United States military and recently pointed to a small but well-known island off the coast of Venezuela as a likely launching point (namely, the island of Curaçao). The current Venezuelan head of state has also used the term "imperialist" to refer to the North American leader, a popular term that points to the ever-reaching influence of the United States in world affairs.

Yet another possible explanation of Chávez's usage of the name "Mr. Danger" may point to a more complex and on-going stratagem alleged by the president and that would involve attempts by the Venezuelan opposition and the US government to overthrow his administration. These allegations have been present throughout Chávez's term, particularly following the April 2002 Coup that saw the temporary removal of the head of state from power. In particular, the alliance in Doña Bárbara between the character of the same name and Mr. Danger may represent, for Chávez, an analogous relationship with regards to the current alleged alliance between the Venezuelan opposition and the US government.

Ok, so now I must move on to my point, which is that it's somewhat jolting and contradicting to hear the self-proclaimed "leader of the Venezuelan people" invoke the language of Gallego's imposing, urbano-centric novel. Chavez is from the rural state of Barinas, large parts of which contain sections of the Venezuelan llanos, and he often invokes the culture of the llanos in his efforts to imbue his national image with the humility, resourcefulness and roughness (if the reader will allow the term) of the quintessential Venezuelan Llanero. For those of you who are familiar, this plays into national concepts of "criollo-ness" (the term "criollo" is used popularly to refer to anything that is culturally Venezuelan), which is something I won't get into in this post. In fact, Back in '04 he even invited the Venezuelan opposition to breakfast with "chiguire, yuca and queso llanero," all three typical foods from the llanos. Around the same time, a chavista campaign poster for the recall referendum featured Chavez as a galloping Florentino and the opposition as the effeminately pink diablo at the tip of his spear. Florentino y el Diablo is a very typical Venezuelan legend from the Llanos that tells the story of Florentino, a Llanero that beat the devil in a contrapunteo match (an improvised lyrical contest of wits, much like a freestyle rap battle).

So at this point we must ask ourselves why, if Chavez is so intent on employing the culture of the Llanos, does he use the language of "Doña Bárbara," a novel that panders to the debate over civilization and barbarism via Santos Luzardo's righteous, self-inspired mission to contain and subject the wild llanero to the laws of the capital ("Santos Luzardo" may be creatively interpretred, roughly, as 'Saints Lightfervor', from "luz" and "ardor")? Of course, Santos is rescuing the Llanos and its people from the strangling clutch of Doña Bárbara and Co., but he does so in defense of a people he sees as backwards and pronvincial. He is therefore fighting two battles, a battle against corruption and lawlessness, and a battle against the country, the periphery. Ultimately, Luzardo's struggle constitutes a pull towards the center, into the capital´s sphere of influence, via a sort of "domestication" of the LLanos. Indeed, Santos is a male lawyer educated in the capital, and the very fact that Doña Bárbara, his principal foe in the Llanos, is a landed woman should not be dismissed as coincidental. By invoking the urbano-centric, elitist language of the novel, then, Chavez is actually contradicting his own origins and, worse, betraying the dignity of the people of the Llanos.

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