Venezuela Trip Report
by Marc Becker
I traveled to Venezuela in August 2003 with a Venezuelan Solidarity Group (VSG) delegation. VSG is a network of North American activists who support democracy and equitable development in Venezuela through education and people-to-people solidarity. Although I’ve traveled throughout most of Latin America, this was my first trip to Venezuela. My goal (as well that of the delegation in general) was to deepen my understanding of the Bolivarian Revolution and to build solidarity with the people of Venezuela.
Venezuela is one of the world’s largest oil producers and a founding member of OPEC. Rather than benefitting the country as a whole, however, the income from these resources enriched multinational corporations and a small domestic oligarchy. Since the 1950s, the country was controlled by two political parties (AD and Copei) who governed in favor of elite interests and excluded the vast majority from participating in government. Their neoliberal economic policies thrust the country into poverty leading to massive street riots in 1989. Deputy Ricardo Gutiérrez who currently serves as the First Vicepresident of the National Assembly noted that this “caracazo” was a social explosion like had never been seen before in Latin America. “It was the first expression of the awakening of people who wanted change but did not yet know how to achieve it,” Gutiérrez noted. In an attempt to break through this political, economic, and social exclusion, a young military officer named Hugo Chavez led a failed military coup in 1992. After spending time in prison, he returned to win the presidency in 1998. He proceeded to rewrite the constitution providing for a more participatory democracy oriented toward social programs, ushering in what is known as the Fifth Republic that seeks to govern in favor of the masses rather than the oligarchy.
Chavez faces significant opposition, largely from the old traditional conservative political elite and economic oligarchy who have lost their privileged position in society due to the current government’s policies that favor the poor and marginalized. For example, the oligarchy wants to privatize the state petroleum company PDVSA but instead Chavez uses this revenue to fund social programs. Furthermore, Chavez has proposed developing a “Petroamerica” so that Latin America’s petroleum reserves could be used for human development and social programs rather than corporate enrichment. Such policies lead to defamation campaigns by the opposition, often supported and encouraged by the Bush administration which has close economic ties to the petroleum industry. The elite has an almost complete stranglehold on the Venezuelan media, and uses these resources in a relentless propaganda war against the Chavez government. They fear that a deepening of the revolutionary process would further deprive them of their privilege. Many people in the middle and upper classes live in a virtual world where their view of reality is fed through the TV screen, and this endless bombardment has convinced them that Chavez must go. The opposition largely representing traditional political parties and elite economic interests seeks to oust his democratically elected government through any means necessary.
One of the currently hotly debated issues in Venezuela is a proposed referendum which the opposition hopes would remove Chavez from power. In a largely unprecedented move, Chavez wrote language into the 1999 constitution that allows voters to remove any elected official from office midway through their terms. Political commentators often note the apparent irony that Chavez’ own legislation would be used against him, while ignoring that such legislation indicates that far from being a dictator the president has not sought out unconstitutional means to extend his time in office. While polls indicate that Chavez would currently lose such a recall vote, his supporters believe that they will win based on his firm support in marginalized neighborhoods that do not register with middle-class polling techniques.
Next to the municipal building on Plaza Bolívar, Caracas’ main square, is what is called the “esquina caliente”–the hot corner. Chavez’ supporters gather here and loudly champion their hero. For many common people, Chavez represents their first engagement with political debate. It has, as people acknowledge, loosened their tongues. These new activists do not hesitate to pontificate endlessly about the virtues of Chavez’ government. For them, Chavez represents change and a hope for a better future. This converts into a “Radio Bemba” where, through word of mouth, networks in support of revolutionary changes in Venezuela develop.
Chavez’ supporters often note that the success of his programs are limited because while his party (the Movimiento Quinto República) is in government, they are not in power and the oligarchy still controls much of the country. For example, people who actively agitate against Chavez remain in leadership positions in places like the national petroleum company PDVSA and in Venezuelan consulates in the United States and Spain. Nevertheless, we witnessed the advances of the Bolivarian Revolution in three main areas of literacy, health care, and agrarian reform.
Misión Robinson (Robinson Mission) is a literacy campaign named after Simón Rodríguez, Simón Bolívar’s mentor who was nicknamed Robinson because of his fascination with the Robinson Crusoe novel. The program is based on the Cuban literacy campaign that largely eradicated illiteracy from the island in 1961. Venezuela, which has 1.2 million illiterate people, is the eighteenth country to use this model. The Cuban-designed program is very successful and has won five UNESCO awards. We observed a literacy class in a senior citizen center, and later met with Gilda Laya who works with the National Institute of Education Corporation (INCE) that provides technical assistance to the program. Although the program only started on July 1 and is still in its early stages, it is realizing notable success.
Barrio Adentro (Into the Neighborhood) is a government program that brings Cuban doctors and medicine to poor and marginalized neighborhoods. We met with Dr. Redelio Rendón Fernández, the director of the program, and Dr. Retilio Gordo Gómez, a doctor serving in the Progreso neighborhood of Caracas. The doctors are volunteers who receive a small monthly stipend for serving in this program and are motivated by humanitarian desires to serve people. For many of these doctors, this act of solidarity represents a sacrifice as they leave their family to work in conditions which are often more difficult than what they would encounter at home, fighting against common illnesses that have been eradicated in Cuba. The opposition denounces the program as evidence of Cuban intervention into internal Venezuelan affairs, but the doctors serve anyone in need without regard to religion, ethnicity, or political affiliation, and they do not engage in propaganda in favor of either the Venezuelan or Cuban governments. Rather, the program provides medical care in areas which previously had not received such attention. For Venezuela’s poor, it is a program which they see has evidence that Chavez cares about them and has led to a growing support for his government.
The Venezuelan government named its agrarian reform program Plan Zamora after Eziekel Zamora who, like Emiliano Zapata in Mexico, was a noted agrarian thinker in Venezuela. As Venezuela shifted in the 1950s from an agricultural to a petroleum-based economy, peasants became more impoverished and excluded while a small handful of families owned vast tracts of land that remained unused. Many people ended up living in slums without electricity, water, or work in poverty belts that surrounded the cities. Braulio Alvarez, national director of the National Land Institute (INTI), noted how Chavez’ government has sought to reverse that trend with the distribution of one million hectares of land and 250 tractors that benefit 43,000 families so far this year, with the goal of doubling that by the end of the year. Under Chavez, peasants have gained hope and become protagonists in developing a better future.
An irony we observed is people who benefit from Chavez’ programs who do not support his government. For example, María León, the director of the National Women’s Institute (INAMUJER) noted Chavez’ significant commitment to women’s issues including the establishment of a domestic abuse hotline and a shelter for abused women. Elite women who are otherwise opposed to his government embrace these polices as positive developments. In addition, Chavez was supportive of the inclusion of 100 percent of the institute’s proposals in the new constitution. These include women’s reproductive/family planning rights, the legal recognition of women’s work as mothers and caretakers and their right to social security or welfare payments from the government. The constitution is also groundbreaking in that the language used is gender-balanced, breaking through some of the sexism inherent in the Spanish language. For example, rather than referring to “parents” as los padres, it specifies las madres y los padres and rather than referring to “children” as los niños, it specifies las niñas y los niños.
Chavez’ supporters note that it is critically necessary for the government to communicate their achievements more effectively to the public in order to survive. Many activists also recognize the necessity of international solidarity networks in order to assure the survival of their political project. INAMUJER has an international solidarity component committed to linking up women around the world, to promoting the successes and advances made by Venezuelan women in addition to the social and economic policies of the Chavez government.
Chavez’ strongest base of support is from the most excluded sectors of society, particularly those in poor urban neighborhoods, peasants and Indigenous peoples, and Afro-Venezuelans. Andrés Antillano who works with the neighborhood association Comité de Tierras noted that “the victory of the president is the result of a long struggle of people in the barrios against exclusion. We identify with Chavez because he recognizes our rights as a people.” An Afro-Venezuelan woman added that “what we have no one gave to us. The only thing that Chavez wants is that we control our own destiny.” Nicia Maldonado, the General Coordinator General of the Venezuelan National Indian Council (CONIVE) noted that traditional political parties always attempted to manipulate Indigenous communities only to get their votes, but that with Chavez they live a different reality. “We want respect,” Maldonado stated, “and we support Chavez not because he is Black but because he represents dignity not only for Venezuela but for all of America. We are human beings, and he supports us.”
Competing visions of whom Venezuelan state structures should benefit threaten to throw the country into civil war. Having failed to unseat Chavez through legal and constitutional means, the opposition openly advocates for a military coup (similar to that which failed in April of 2002) or the assassination of Chavez. If the opposition does succeed in removing Chavez from power, some fear a repeat of what happened in neighboring Colombia after the popular leftist politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was killed in 1948. This bogotazo thrust the country into more than half a century of intense violence and ended lower class dreams of gaining social justice through peaceful and legal means.
Seventy agrarian leaders have been killed in Venezuela in the past year, but unlike in Colombia it is not the government or forces allied with it that has persecuted and assassinated popular leaders. Rather, it is the conservative opposition who has been implicated in these violations of human rights and the repression of other freedoms. As the deputy to the National Assembly Adel El Zabayar Samara noted, the lack of censorship or a single political prisoner even though the opposition attempted a military coup against the government last year demonstrates that far from being a dictatorship the government is very open.
Venezuelans we met with noted that although the United States government opposes the Chavez government, they do not harbor antagonistic feelings toward North Americans. As the artist El Tano observed, “el pueblo es uno y también el enemigo” (“the people are one and so is the enemy”). I was struck by the parallels between the struggles in Venezuela and the United States. Political discourse in both countries is shaped by a propagandistic news media that services elite political and economic interests. This oligarchy seeks to impose neoliberal economic policies that are designed to cut social services including education and health care from poor and marginalized populations while at the same time further enriching the wealthy. We need to unite our struggles in order to defend ourselves from these common threats. The theme from the World Social Forum that another world is possible is often repeated in Venezuela. Together we can build that better future.