In January 2003, a delegation from the US-based Venezuela Solidarity Group (VSG) visited Venezuela on a fact-finding mission. In a previous interview Diana Valentine from the VSG discussed the so-called ‘National Strike’, the strength of support for the government and for the opposition in the population, and some of the reforms the government has pursued. In this second interview, Valentine discusses in more detail the politics and plans of the opposition, as well as some of what the Bolivarian movement has meant to the indigenous, to women, to students, and to workers.
What are the gender politics of the opposition? What are the gender politics of the Bolivarian movement?
None of the prominent leaders of the ‘strike’ or the opposition are women, but in the street demonstrations of the opposition you will see numbers of upper-middle class women participating.
As for the gender politics of the opposition, that is shown more in what they do behind the scenes than in their public statements. One example is the pharmaceutical companies. The drug corporations are linked to the opposition and the ‘strike’. Many of the elite who support it are ‘pro-life’, so one of the effects of the ‘strike’ has been to prevent birth control from getting to people. Thanks to this alliance of the anti-reproductive freedom opposition and the drug companies, women-especially poor women-don’t have access to birth control.
Another example is one of the decisions Alfredo Pena (the mayor of Caracas and one of the prominent leaders of the opposition) made. He used to work for the Chavez government before he joined the opposition. His last act in the Chavez government was to cut the budget of the Women’s Institute by 80%. At that level of funding, the Institute was ineffective. Funding has been restored since, but at the time the cuts hurt their reputation and their ability to do work. This is a recurring theme in this struggle-the use of the pre-existing bureaucracy by the opposition to make it difficult for the government and the movement to actually implement changes that are in the law or in the constitution.
What about the gender politics of the Bolivarian movement? The Women’s Institute I just mentioned is adamant in their support of the Chavez government and ‘el proceso’. It’s a good example of the way movements are able to work with the government. The Institute was founded in 1993 as part of the ‘Equal Opportunity Law’, to play a consultative role in implementing the law’s provisions for gender equity in things like equal pay for equal work. In 1999, under the Chavez administration, it went from a consultative body to an ‘Institute’, which gives it more power to develop policy. It was also democratized, opened up to poor women, women without education, women who had previously been denied access. They are now implementing a “National Plan in Defense of Women”, fighting against domestic violence, with a hotline for women victims of violence, shelters, an educational program.
Women’s rights are enshrined in the new constitution. There is a system of economic credits for domestic work, for women who work in the home. The Land Law is more explicit about guaranteeing women’s rights to own property. Today 4 of the 13 cabinet ministers are women and the expressed goal is a cabinet that’s 50% women. The government’s public expressions are sensitive to gender. The US constitution states that ‘all men are created equal’, but the Venezuelan constitution includes both men and women in its language throughout.
The opposition shows ads saying that Chavez hasn’t solved the problem of street-children. What do the community organizations say about this?
UNICEF estimates there are 7,000 street children here, but the community organizations think it’s closer to double that. I met with two women who have been doing community work in the barrios for over 20 years with street children. They are running a home for street children-now 2 years old, but it grew out of another project. To the opposition’s accusation, they answer that it’s a complicated problem that won’t go away overnight. They don’t blame Chavez for it and they don’t think Chavez made any false promises. They quoted him as saying that the plan was to ‘dignify the street children’, and they use that to guide them in their work.
They gave an example of this. The home they run is based on building trust. They go out and make an acquaintance on the street. They start to visit a child regularly, offer them food, then to invite them to the home for meals and showers and eventually, invite them to move into the home. By building trust over time they have a situation where even when kids run away they return. The program includes medical care facilities and resources for dealing with drug abuse. At Christmas, a group called ‘Clase Media en Positivo’ (middle-class supporters of Chavez) held an event where donated toys were distributed to children. Many of the boys who live at the home went to this event and brought toys for other children. The expectation was that they would go to get toys, but they went to give them, and that was a source of great pride and excitement for them to be able to give toys to other kids.
One of the new laws is the ‘Organic Law for the Protection of Children and Adolescents’, which guarantees the human rights of children. Again, there is a gap between the law and its implementation, because of the old bureaucracy and because, in this case, of the Mayor. The women I met actually met with Mayor Pena and said he didn’t take them seriously. The Institute that deals with children, INAM, is notorious for its corruption and inefficiency. It has become a monster inhibiting any real change. Chavez is trying to dissolve it, but even then there will be problems, because if it is devolved to the local level it will fall under the Mayor’s jurisdiction.
These community workers are overworked. They have foregone their own salaries for 3 months. They told me that if they got in touch with the president, he would direct more money to their project, but they felt this was a short-term fix they didn’t want to use.
What is the relationship between the Chavez government, the Bolivarian movement, and Venezuela’s indigenous? Where does the opposition stand with respect to the indigenous?
The opposition’s position on the indigenous is simple: ignore them as much as possible. Remember that the opposition’s constituency is the country’s white elite. In the past, the indigenous have had little voice.
This never prevented them from organizing, however. There are 30 different indigenous nations, most with their own distinct culture, language and customs. They comprise 2.5% of the population, which is about 530.000 people. The nations are spread over 10 states and cover 50% of the Venezuelan territory. Taking a census has always been difficult because of the geographic location of the communities and the lack of government interest.
The nations began meeting in 1979. They worked for 10 years to research until the first official congress in 1989. In 1992 Article 77 was established but this only served to give indigenous “leftover resources” and further establish them as second-class citizens. Indigenous communities realized they had to come into the political terrain to gain power but they had no access or representation. They began documenting the situation and sending it to international organizations, like the UN. They set the goal of establishing themselves in the constitution long before Chavez came to power. Here is another example of a movement that organized itself, that now has the chance to express itself in this government.
The indigenous were originally suspicious of Chavez because of his military background-the military, to the indigenous, was the face of state repression and attack against them. This changed when Chavez was in prison in 1992. In the statements he made and the interviews he gave, he referred to his indigenous origins with pride. They see in him someone who is willing to respect their autonomy and rights, but also who identifies with them.
But even with this level of trust, the indigenous occupied the Federal Palace to ensure their part in the writing of the constitution.
What is happening on the campuses?
The campuses have been more and more polarized over the past few years. Like the US, there is two-tiered private/public school system, where the private schools are privileged. Public universities are free or very close to it. Accomodations used to be free, food is extremely cheap on campus. The problem is that poor children who are in the public school system are in a deteriorating infrastructure, and many of them don’t get to finish even elementary school-so they can’t go to university even though it’s free. The rich go to the private schools that feed the universities. As a result, the class background of most students is middle class or wealthier. This has changed the face of the student body and the student movement.
With the ‘strike’, private schools are shut down and students are locked out. Some public schools are closed as well. Whether a school is closed depends on the faculty and the administration. Some schools are ‘partly closed’, with some departments staying open and some instructors still teaching.
The Central University of Venezuela (Universidad Central de Venezuela, UCV) is a public university with a reputation for being ‘left’. Even here, because of the class composition, the student movement is small. There is increasing consciousness though, because of the closings. I was at a meeting on campus and witnessed a packed assembly where thousands of students-who didn’t have to be there-were passionately arguing for their right to education. The faculty was supportive, but the deans and rectors are for the ‘strike’. In many departments, especially the humanities, the faculty is teaching anyway. There have been demonstrations-one where students dragged their desks into the courtyard. Most of the propaganda I saw on campus was pro-Chavez, pro ‘Proceso’, and anti-strike.
In more specialized sectors, like engineering or business, the schools are largely closed, by vote of the students. This isn’t hard to understand, given where these students are coming from and where they are hoping to get jobs when they graduate.
Campus politics is also the site of another one of Venezuela’s many role reversals. The Bandera Roja, a traditionally radical group associated with the guerrilla struggle of the 1950s, are now anti-Chavez. There were even rumors that they shot at Chavistas to keep the school closed. This has created a situation where the university administration has claimed they have to close the school because they can’t guarantee a minimal level of security-feeding the propaganda that the country is in chaos, ungovernable, requiring a new government and a US intervention.
The students were questioning this at the assembly, asking: what is this danger we are supposedly in?
How successful is the opposition’s attempt to call a transportation strike?
The focus of a general strike is usually the transportation system, but the opposition initially ignored the whole sector, with one notable exception: the bus driver they tried to murder by lighting the bus on fire in December. You can imagine how that incident shaped the opinion of transport workers towards the opposition.
The transport system in Venezuela is decentralized. Bus drivers live hand to mouth. The opposition calls for sacrifice. But transport workers can’t afford to sacrifice.
The opposition’s sabotage of the oil industry is apparent to the public in spite of all the propaganda (one ad says: ‘out of gas? Blame Chavez’). The first ones affected were, of course, the taxi and bus drivers whose livelihoods were threatened. They’re the last people who are going to support a strike because as I said, they can’t afford to stop working, they are hurt the worst, and last because they don’t believe in it.
I met with the Metro (subway) workers as well. The union bureaucracy of the metro workers is largely pro-opposition, so they organized in smaller groups, some in bolivarian circles. A similar process is happening in all the unions. The union leaders and bosses are illegitimate, elite bureaucrats who bought their positions with connections and are corrupt. The most striking example is Carlos Ortega. But the workers support Chavez and the ‘proceso’. They were well aware of the AFL-CIO connections and funding implicated in the coup in April 2002, were unsurprised that the US umbrella organization was corrupt, and wanted Americans to know they didn’t assume the same was true of the rank-and-file.
The Metro workers reported that they have two reasons to oppose the ‘strike’. First, because it’s not a worker’s struggle, it’s not a struggle that is in their interest. Secondly, because they have a work ethic and pride in public service, and do not want to deprive the Venezuelan people of their right to transportation. They said that government ministers ought to go to them to study what it means to be a public servant. They support the ‘proceso’ but their main goal is to keep other people’s politics out of the Metro. They sent a letter to the Organization of American States (OAS) secretary Cesar Gaviria declaring exactly this.
A press conference of the opposition stated that the metro workers would go on strike. They showed an audience full of ‘metro workers’. The workers explained that 70 of those ‘metro workers’ were really metro workers, and the rest were just opposition members acting the part. The metro employs 4500 people. 70 out of 4500 is not a strike-but it is enough to make sabotage a problem. The workers have contingency plans. One plan was developed officially, by the union bosses-the workers studied it and realized that it was designed to fail. They have since developed their own contingency plan.
Does the concern about sabotage extend to other sectors as well?
Yes. I said earlier that most people agree that what is happening isn’t a strike. But there is economic sabotage by an opposition that is willing to commit even economic suicide. Some are doing it because they’re fanatics. Others consider it an investment-suffer a little today in order to oust Chavez and protect their interests tomorrow. One of the effects is on the middle class-much of this ‘middle class’ doesn’t own very much and has a fairly weak grip on its ‘middle class’ status. So if this keeps up, the middle class will join the poor and there will be an even larger gap between the rich and poor. The super-elite might lose millions, but they have them to lose, and can weather this crisis.
But as I said before, the poor are suffering. The poor use gasoline to cook. The poor are finding it harder to get the cornmeal they need to make arepas. They are finding it harder to get medicines, staples. They don’t have savings to fall back on and no way to even store food. Any change in the distribution of food hits them especially hard.
I interviewed Samuel Moncada at the history department of the university. He estimates that it will cost $2 billion USD just to restore petroleum production to pre-’strike’ levels after all the sabotage. And that next month the economic crisis will get worse, as the effect of the losing 90% of national income that comes from the oil industry is felt. The state relies on this income, so its loss will impede the implementation of the reforms. That’s the purpose of the elite plan of economic sabotage-to make Venezuelans suffer and prevent them from receiving the benefits of the reforms, while the media keeps up a barrage of anti-Chavez propaganda.
Someone was just arrested in New York City during Chavez’s visit to the United Nations for plotting to assassinate Chavez. The opposition runs ads offering a price of $10 million on his head. The Bolivarian movement’s answer is to organize itself. Chavez himself said that they can spend millions, they might be able to get rid of me, but they cannot get rid of the Venezuelan people and they can’t halt the process. The opposition might be able to slow the reforms and make people suffer– but stopping the revolutionary aspects of the ‘proceso’, the people’s self-organization and empowerment, they will find more difficult.
Diana Valentine is an activist based in San Francisco. Justin Podur is a writer and volunteer for ZNet. To contact the Venezuela Solidarity Group, write to [email protected]