At the invitation of the Jose Marti Valencian Association of Friendship with Cuba (Asociación Valenciana José Martí de Amistad con Cuba) and the Acontracorrent union, Jasmine Acosta and Hector Zabala are social activists from the Caracas neighbourhood of 23 de Enero (January 23), and have lectured at the social sciences faculty in Valencia. They come from a neighbourhood that has historically been very combative, with a strong tradition of community and mutuality. This barrio of about 250,000 inhabitants, situated on a hill west of the city and near the Miraflores Presidential Palace, has been part of all the major revolutionary moments in Venezuelan history. 23 de Enero owes its name to the date on which the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez fled the country (in 1958) after his overthrow by a military-civilian movement.
Yasmin Zabala introduces herself as a social activist from the barrio Observatorio in 23 de Enero. Along with being a militant in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), Zabala works as a sports instructor at Mission Barrio Adentro and belongs to the barrio's communal council. She also assists with the Cuban doctors' medical work. Meanwhile, Hector Acosta also supports the PSUV and combines his studies of political science at the Bolivarian University with fighting in the student movement and social work in the Frente Francisco de Miranda.
What would you highlight about your present work and the organisation of the grassroots movements in 23 de Enero?
Numerous community organisations work in the barrios, carrying out their work through committees. Among other things, they focus their work on health, education, sports, housing, security and political work, according to current needs. There is an underlying idea to all these tasks: community participation in the defence of the revolution. The challenge is to continue the communal councils and the development of projects that meet the basic demands of the population.
Fulfilling the right to health and education in poor barrios has been one of the great challenges. What progress have you experienced?
The first step was to achieve full literacy. Let's remember that UNICEF declared Venezuela a territory free of illiteracy in 2005, with Mission Robinson playing a very significant role. Currently the revolution has gone way beyond that, giving the young people of primary and secondary schools “Canaimitas” (laptops) for their studies. As well as this we must add text books, school supplies and free books.
And what about public health?
Again, the turning point is marked by the arrival of comandante Chavez's presidency in 1998. People in the barrio have free access to healthcare. A doctor 24 hours a day. And the great achievements of Operation Miracle [mission for free eye care]. Before, this reality was unthinkable. But I would highlight the advances in health in general; creating state-of-the-art hospitals, diagnostic centres, and comprehensive rehabilitation, or the most outstanding children's cardiology centres where people come to be operated on from different countries of the continent.
Another issue. The equipment and basic infrastructure in the barrios.
Again, the turning point was 1998. And the decisive difference was that it is the communities- through the communal councils- that are in charge of proposing projects and running them with technical and financial support from the state. Drinking water, recreation areas, soccer fields and baseball in the parks… there are very obvious improvements. We are also working hard with youth. Let's think, for example, of the “Canchas de Paz” (Courts of Peace) or the mission Negra Hipólita [a mission aimed at extreme cases of poverty, including the homeless and sufferers of drug addictions]. On the one hand, youth are more committed, they are part of the PSUV, the youth of Great Patriotic Pole or the Frente Francisco de Miranda, among others. But its also about plans that support leisure and culture for other excluded young people who are dependent on drugs or involved with weapons.
How would you define politically, broadly speaking, the barrio 23 de Enero?
It has always clearly been a revolutionary neighbourhood. First with Hugo Chavez (whose electoral support was above 70%) then Maduro. Precisely [for this reason] Chavez's remains rest in the the Montana Barracks, within the barrio. Here the right have never had political weight.
What is to blame for the problems of overpricing and shortages?
Basically, it's an “economic war” by the bosses and the bourgeoisie, who also practice hoarding. And, it's a “media war”, as the right-wing media talk about shortages for a purely political purpose: to cause panic in the population. In 23 de Enero and other common neighbourhoods, the shortages have been alleviated thanks to the work of the communal councils, and products are available at subsidised prices at the Mercals and the Bicentenarios supermarkets. But we insist, so that it's clear; it's a political strategy of the middle class to sabotage so that supplies do not arrive in the stores. Or, so that employers stop producing some foods, which they prefer to export.
Venezuela has also been considered a great "laboratory" for the "media war" and the emergence of media as a political actor, which in a way, exceeds the traditional right. Including by practising coup based strategies. How do these patterns affect 23 de Enero?
You only have to leaf through El Nacional, El Universal or Ultimas Noticias. Or deal with the programs broadcast by Globovision, Televen and, in a more subtle way, Venevision. 23 de Enero is branded a “red zone”, full of “criminals”, where laziness and delinquency reign. They insist on this slogan, but the reality is the opposite. Also, they magnify every problem that may occur in the barrio. It's a constant campaign. I already mentioned that they also encourage compulsive shopping, to crush the population with shortages and stock-outs. And, they practice “psychological warfare”. For example, there are people who the revolution has granted housing in the city centre (a bourgeois, middle class area) and believe that this is because “they deserve it”. Their living standards improve, they forget their past, and they become petty bourgeois. And also into voters for the right. The media also has an influence on that.
You have highlighted in your lecture the value of the mission “Efficiency or Nothing”. For what reason?
This mission began with Hugo Chavez in October 2012, and President Maduro has continued it. It has achieved something very important: putting people with positions of responsibility and trust who have stolen behind bars. It's this that allows the government to be effective and efficient and, above all, perceived as such on the street. In short, politicians come to the people and no one "infiltrates" in order to act in a corrupt manner.
Finally, how is the relationship of the presidency with the grassroots movement?
We believe that President Maduro is with the people. He runs a government “of the street”. This isn't a person who abandons himself to theory. He visits the public works and projects and also is very responsive to the demands of the people. He governs with the communities. All this is very bad for the right-wing opposition.
Translated by Ryan Mallett-Outtrim and Tamara Pearson for Venezuelanalysis.