I – The parallel revolution
On a parallel street, within walking distance from the presidential palace, you can find a squatted building taken over and run by communities. It is an old office building, very close to one of the most touristic squares in downtown Caracas: Bellas Artes and the huge hotel Hilton, which nowadays also hosts Bolivarian conferences and friends of the revolution. A theatre rehearsal is the activity on the Saturday afternoon when I visit the building. People of all ages are represented on that main floor built to be a fancy reception and not a centre for community activities.
The building was squatted one year ago, and apparently there seems to be quite a few central squatted buildings, but no network exists between them to serve you with more facts. This one has been flourishing ever since it was taken over. In this building people live, eat, make political and cultural meetings and most of the campaigns the president has set off are functioning there. El proceso, the process, as the revolution is popularly called is at work there.
The proclaimed Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela is a revolution made up of parallels. To win elections is not the same as to take state power and in Venezuela opposition still holds many posts in the various departments, state owned companies and media, and control much of the economy. The over cumbersome bureaucracy within the government although not partisan, is slowing down the process as they go on doing the way they always did, and they have not received an education in new Bolivarian public management.
In fact a new Bolivarian Public Management School doesn’t exist. Leaders of the revolution; governors, mayors, ministers, officials, bureaucrats, members of parliaments are persons that should be executing the paragraphs in the constitution and making them real, planning and organising the process, guaranteeing that the objectives are met but for various reasons it doesn’t seem to be working as smoothly as it should. Together they constitute a thick middle layer in society making change hard. The president’s answer to that has been parallelism – a political strategy not yet labelled. Parallelism is being practised by the president as well as on a grassroots level – the people.
An important part of what is actually being won in the process is created through parallels. If the health sector in the country is not willing to serve poor people – the president creates a parallel, brings in hundreds of Cuban doctors and lets them work.
If the educational sector is working poorly and apparently has not been fighting illiteracy – he creates a parallel, develops education programs and makes the communities responsible for their functioning.
If the shops are not selling affordable food – he creates a parallel, creates subsidised shops, and if people are still going hungry – he creates another parallel, provide food and make the communities responsible for cooking and sharing the meals.
And the parallels are working – soon illiteracy will be exterminated. The left-wing theory of creating parallel powers to break down and end the old order is here taken to new breathtaking heights.
President Chavez is not only creating a parallel bank, health and education programs, and a parallel to the CNN – Telesur. There is even a very popular soap opera, Amores de Barrio Adentro, (which is the same name as the health program) about love over class boundaries set in the political Venezuelan atmosphere – as a parallel to other soaps.
In the squatted building on the parallel street to the presidential palace, the community run revolution is effective. “Here we have mission Robinson and mission Ribas, people come here to learn how to read and write, we coordinate the Cuban doctors and we provide food for poor people. We also have Bolivarian circles, popular education and cultural activities, like the theatre you saw. I am an educator, and give courses on cooperatives. But we don’t want anything to do with political parties.”
The man who shows me around in the community centre underlines that they are not political. On the walls there are several Che Guevara posters, Arafat’s face with a message of a free Palestine, Bolivar the liberator, and Chavez, of course. I smile and repeat: so you’re not political and nod at Che. “We are not political because we don’t like political parties”, he insists.
After the No victory in the 2004 referendum Chavez proposed that all campaign activists should become social activists. The people in the occupied house have successfully taken on that transformation. “In many places it has not worked, the electoral units have ceased to exist, but here we work even harder” the man tells me. Some time ago the squatted house faced a possible eviction. The municipality wanted to do something else with the house. “We called for a big assembly, to talk about the situation and decided to fight to stay, and until now we are here, making the revolution”, he says with pride.
The various parallels launched by the president are all dressed in either a military language or named after historic personalities from important moments in liberation struggle. You could divide them into two main fields: electoral campaigns and social transformation movements.
To win all elections he has had to trust the base. He set up parallel actions to guarantee the votes from all those supporting the process, but not being touched by traditional campaigns or possibly facing harassments for being chavistas. The outcome has been a great success every time and for the 2006 presidential election Chavez has set up the goal of 10 million votes.
The social missions, misÃones, could be divided into four main areas: education, vocational training, health and nutrition. MisÃon Robinson is for basic education and is the weapon to erase illiteracy in the country. MisÃon Ribas prepares high school students for university education. MisÃon Vuelvan Caras is to train workers and prepare them for future employment. MisiÃ³n Barrio Adentro has taken in Cuban doctors to serve in small community built clinics in the barrios, the Venezuelan word for slums. MisÃon Milagro (miracle) performs operations on patients with cataract and glaucoma and makes people see again. Mercal is the name for the subsidized food shops you find all over the country. Another food program provides free food to barrios, community members prepare it and give one cooked meal a day to children, single mothers, pregnant women, elderly people etc.
All the missions are run by communities. They organise the set up of the clinics, the education halls, recruit voluntary teachers, make schedules and solve thousands of problems that come up. They do it on voluntary basis and they reach out to many. The health program, Barrio Adentro I, was launched in April 2003 and has already passed over 100 million consultations. People who have never seen a doctor in their entire life before has now had multiple encounters.
The parallels and their effects are an important reason for the massive popular support of the process. Interviewing a community activist in the legendary neighbourhood 23 de Enero, I ask what he thinks makes the process important: “The process has dignified people and given us an opportunity to express what we think, without being ashamed of ourselves. The Bolivarian revolution has also succeeded in mobilising people, and making us feel that this process is ours, we are co-responsible for it. If it doesn’t work I am responsible for that failure too. And we are included in education and health programs.”
People here know repression and exclusion; they have lived it on a daily basis since the squatting of the newly built colourful modern blocks on January 23rd 1958, the day the dictator, Perez Jimenez, was overthrown. That was a time of mobilisation and popular democratic aspirations, until the people were betrayed and the neighbourhood repressed. This time there has been no treason.
On my way down from 23 de Enero I see a slogan, written big in red and black on a wall: Al pasado no regresaremos jamÃ¡s! We will never return to the past! This seems to be very well rooted in people’s minds. They know things have changed, and to the better, that is why they are the ones making the revolution real, but not without criticism.
The opposition in Venezuela is called escualidos, and that term has been generalised to be used against anyone making the process difficult. People want the elected politicians, mayors, governors and officials to work properly for a common good and too often they see things work in the bad old way, with corruption, positioning, and meaningless fights over power. The parallels are the new tracks created to go around the old ones – parallel lines never intersect. In that way, you avoid confrontation in a country were opposition has been violent and people need time to consolidate and build and not only confront. But people are impatient to see the parallels become the main tracks.
President Hugo Chavez is a phenomenon, not so much for 8 hour long speeches which is rather old school, but for an amazing way of directly communicating with the base. Somehow he avoids the thick middle layer and puts forward the people’s thoughts and ideas.
President Chavez is the initiator, the developer, the ideologist and at the same time, the hardest criticiser of the process. The ideas he refines and puts forward in speeches are thoughts being formulated at the grassroots level. In the memorial speech three years after the coup president Chavez said that what has to die has not yet died, and what has to be born has not yet completed its naissance.
That is the core of the present Venezuelan parallelism – the old tracks are still parallel with the new ways. A change of tracks is not easy but it can be done. The squatted house is as close, or as far, as the various government institutions are to the presidential palace. If they are the ones stimulating the process maybe they should be recognised as a community centre, fed with resources, and on the other hand the institutions slowing down the process should be put on a diet.