This week’s Extra! Extra! considers the shocking indictment against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and what democratic action looks like during social distancing.
Stay tuned for COVID-19 news updates on Monday – including information on the stimulus package just passed by Congress.
Democracy during a Pandemic
Rachel: I’ve been thinking a lot about what direct action looks like now; there’s a near-universal consensus that the state is failing us, the likes of which I’ve never seen, but not necessarily a clear course of action for how to address it and demand something different. I’ve been thinking a lot about this piece I loved, which is in part about ACTUP and says: “ACT UP got in people’s faces to demand government and businesses respond faster and with more urgency to the AIDS crisis. The biggest currency they used was their bodies, gathered in mass. They laid down in streets to protest inaction, stormed the New York Stock Exchange and took over the Food and Drug Administration. In 1992, they even marched to the White House and threw the dead, cremated remains of people who had died of AIDS onto its lawn… they also used their bodies to transgressively maintain intimacy, such as at the 1987 kiss-in at St. Vincent’s hospital.”
The obvious thought, right now, is that what we can do with our bodies in public spaces is limited right now without further endangering ourselves and others. I’m thinking about the protest tactics that are being adapted, outlined in this article – some picking up on longtime approaches, like projecting or posting images and messages in public. I’m thinking about how much the rage and fear that we’d normally see channeled into street protests is being channeled into a politics of refusal – talk about rent strike, about walking out of jobs without paid sick leave. I’m thinking also about what it would look like to “transgressively maintain intimacy” in a time when so many of us are suffering so deeply from the disconnection that a pandemic forces – and the ways in which we’re being forced into contact that’s harmful instead of sustaining (a panicked customer harassing a terrified service worker about not being able to find toilet paper is the opposite of intimate, for example). Strategies that prioritize connection and choosing to witness the humanity of those most often denied it, like writing to incarcerated people, are more important now than ever, when systems of power are urging us to do the opposite.
Natalie: So, to speak specifically to Georgia first: the state was supposed to hold its Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday (March 23) but it was pushed back due to concerns about the ongoing pandemic. To prepare for the May primary, state officials — many of whom only have their jobs because of voter suppression — are now sending out absentee ballot request forms to all active voters. Note that they’re sending out request forms, not the ballots themselves…so voters have to go the additional step of filling out that form, sending it back, waiting for the actual ballot, filling it out and sending it back. And given Georgia’s recent court battles over what constitutes an “inactive” or “active” voter, who knows how fairly these request forms are being distributed.
But while what Georgia’s put into place isn’t ideal, it’s something that all states are going to have to begin evaluating in the next few months. We don’t know yet how long this pandemic will last so, if it threatens to impact the November elections, states have to act now. The Stimulus Bill that passed in Senate (and may pass in the House today) shortchanges the money that we need to ensure safe elections in the wake of a pandemic: state leaders and voting rights advocates had asked for $2 Billion, the Republicans in the Senate offered $140M and the compromise was $400M. The $2 Billion allocation would’ve given the states the resources to implement a complete vote-by-mail system, following the methodology of the six states that already conduct their elections by mail. By shortchanging our elections systems, Georgia’s system of absentee ballot requests is perhaps going to be the future of American democracy, if coronavirus persists until November.
As she is wont to do, Stacey Abrams summed the issue up perfectly in a conversation with Chris Hayes last night:
Natalie: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Too much, actually… because I don’t think the campaigns really have a good understanding about how campaigning will work from now on. I think, for as long as this goes on, it plays to the benefit of the incumbent who, through their role as legislator/governor/member of Congress/president, is provided with earned media on a regular basis. The challenger has to worry about injecting themselves in a narrative and turning a universal response to a crisis into a political issue. It is an impossible situation and it’s hard to know what campaigns should be doing.
That said, I think it’s fair to say that whatever Joe Biden’s doing right now ain’t it. He can’t compete with Trump’s daily press briefings — which have become psychopantic, misinformative replacements for his political rallies — in terms of reach or even Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s briefings in terms of comforting the nation. He has to do better or he’s going to give this election away.
Himani: And in a truly terrifying turn of events, the Trump campaign is trying to block stations from broadcasting a political ad that lines up Trump’s actual statements downplaying COVID-19 to the rise in cases and deaths in the US. The lawsuit might cause stations, which can’t afford to get into a costly legal battle, to self-censor and stop playing the lawful ads.
Venezuelan President Indicted
Himani: The situation with Venezuela reflects how impossible foreign policy can be. To be clear, I don’t think it’s right for the US to try to oust political leaders by military force, coercion or some combination of the two. That doesn’t change the fact that Maduro is responsible for the deaths and suffering of millions of people. For America to use its clout to influence a situation like this is reprehensible to say the least. If nothing else, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, let alone the Vietnam War and Korean War, show how utterly inhumane and irresponsible that decision is. For the world to watch idly and do nothing is still reprehensible, though. For instance, I think about the genocides in Rwanda and in the Balkans in the ’90s and the massacres in Cambodia in the ’70s that the world just watched and let happen. To do nothing still leaves us with blood on our hands.
When it comes to indicting Maduro, I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I am shocked by the news, and I’m skeptical of the charges because I just don’t trust William Barr or his Justice Department. The AP and LA Times articles lay bare Trump’s very obvious political motivations: this is an administration that has just been itching for war and believes that ousting Maduro might help Trump win Florida in November’s election. I’m conflicted to say the least and dismayed at best when I think of the consequences of this.
These articles also make clear how this approach does nothing to help Venezuelans who were already suffering and that these indictments will only push Maduro to act even more recklessly, putting Venezuelans at greater risk. COVID-19 has already shown up in the country, and I’ve been worried about what would happen when it did, given that the medical system was already, more or less, collapsing in Venezuela before the virus hit.
I hope the Trump administration doesn’t do anything else this reckless with regards to Venezuela. I hope Maduro doesn’t do anything reckless in retaliation. This is one of those situations, like so many around the world, that we have to watch and wait.