Returning to the United States from Venezuela is a strange experience. Spending time with poor people hopeful about their future and the future of their children is a heady experience-and not one I’ve shared in a long time in the US.
I just spent 10 days in Venezuela, participating in a tour sponsored by the Marin Interfaith Task Force (MITF) of Mill Valley, California. There’s a lot I experienced that I’ll try to share, but ultimately this is an impressionistic account, since I don’t speak Spanish-although I had access to excellent translators; have never been further south previously than Mexican border towns; and have no formal training in Latin American studies, etc. That’s not to say I know nothing about Latin America, as I have learned a lot over the years, but is to let readers know my limitations so they can better judge what I have to say.
Despite these limitations, I have been in a “developing country” before: six times in the Philippines between 1986 and 1994, to be exact. I also have a Masters degree in Development Studies from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, where 90% of the students were out of developing countries. And I currently teach a course on the Sociology of Developing Countries at a regional campus of Purdue University in Indiana. So, I bring some knowledge to the situation, but limited.
With this background, and very cognizant of my own limitations, let me share some of my impressions from this quick trip. I traveled in a group of 16 North Americans-from both northern and southern California, and Washington, DC, as well as with two students from Purdue North Central who had just completed my Developing Countries course this Spring -and we traveled with an excellent guide, Lisa Sullivan. Sullivan is a former Marynoll lay missioner, who has lived over 20 years in Latin America, mostly in Venezuela. We spent a couple of days in Caracas, the capital, and visited the States of Lara and Miranda-and particularly the Barlovento region of the latter, which is the center of much of the Afro-Venezuelan population.
Although the US mainstream media rants on and on ad nauseum, incessantly repeating charges that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a dictator, that is incredibly ludicrous: Venezuela is a democracy-with the government having more democratic legitimacy among its people than the current regime has in the US, I might point out-and the society is open and freewheeling. A few minutes of watching the mainstream media down there, which hates Chavez, will dispell any claims of dictatorship. Even Caracas, the rowdy and unruly capital, did not have any feel of repression: there was very little police presence-there are many more cops on the streets in any single day in my adopted home town of Chicago than I saw in 10 days of traveling in Venezuela-and there seemed to be no tension between the people on the streets and the police who were there. People were relaxed, and quite friendly. Yes, there is crime and one has to be aware of what’s going on, but again, I saw nothing that suggested any more tension than in Chicago. Having been in Manila during Marcos’ rule, the difference was amazing.
Along with that, Chavez’ government has been putting massive resources into education and health care for the poor. Somehow, President Chavez got this insane idea in his head that the ordinary people of an oil-rich country should benefit from the use of their natural resources. What an idea-guess that makes him a “communist.” I know we can’t have any of that stuff in the US.
The question I had foremost on my mind, though, was this: who controls the many social programs that the Chavez government has initiated? Are they controlled by the government, top-down, or by the people, bottom-up? By sharing some of my experiences, I believe the answer will become obvious.
We traveled around Caracas. Caracas is a wide city, not very long, that is located in a “valley” between two sets of mountains on the north and south of it-until I got there, I thought Caracas was on the coast, but it is not.
The poor that have moved to the city have built cement block houses on the sides of steep cliffs from the valley upward-it is amazing how people have built on the sides of these mountains and have generally not been washed away. These “barrios” extend far above the city, stacked house on house on house and jammed together. The mountains are steep, and its difficult to access the area except in a jeep.
We visited Barrio Carapita, where we visited with community members. They told us about their new schools, and shared their excitement about the new resources for their children. The pre-school we visited was organized quite well for the children. The community members told us how they organized to take advantage of the government’s offer to support educational initiatives.
One of the interesting things we discovered was that, overwhelmingly, it was the women who were organizing to make their communities better. Apparently, most of the men travel into Caracas to seek any kind of work they can obtain, and those who remain in the barrio do not get involved with community work. Women leaders told us that the men have given up on keeping them from doing their community work, but that the men don’t want to be bothered. It was recognized that a major task was to get the men involved in the community.
Afterward, one of the community leaders taking us elsewhere decided we had to stop at Project Guire, a grassroots environmental effort to clean up the source of water for the city, Rio Guire. Venezuelans are not real careful with garbage, and it accumulates widely, both contaminating parts of neighborhoods and the waterways that rainwater empties into. We stopped and learned about this important initiative, and we smiled knowingly later on when we saw city busses with the Project Guire map covering them, or the big billboards the government has erected to inform people about the effort. This is an important grassroots effort that the government supports.
After lunch, we traveled to a bridge, Puente Llaguno, near the Presidential palace of Miraflores. During the coup attempt in April 2002, the mainstream media showed Chavez supporters (Chavistas) shooting from the bridge at the opposition rally heading toward Miraflores. However, the film “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” showed what really happened: Chavistas on the bridge had been shot at by snipers-a number of people were hit in the head-and only in efforts to drive off the snipers did people start shooting back. Susana Gonzales, who had been present on the bridge during the shooting, gave us a tour and explained developments -including pointing out that the opposition march that the Chavistas were apparently shooting pistols at unprovoked were, in fact, far beyond the reach of any pistols.
The next morning, the rest of the delegation got an overview of Venezuelan history, and met with the Assistant to the Vice Minister to North America from the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry. Lisa Sullivan had arranged for me to meet with leaders from two of the major labor centers that morning, and so I missed these events.
However, I rejoined the group in time to have lunch with Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American now living in Caracas. Golinger is the author of The Chavez Code, an in-depth expose of the role of the US in subterfuge and efforts to undermine the Chavez government. (Having used documents surfaced by Golinger and her colleague, Jeremy Bigwood, to expose the role of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in laying the groundwork for the coup attempt [please link to [email protected].