Venezuela: “We never imagined we would see so many changes”

I first learned about the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela when I saw a movie in 2003–“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”–at a union function in New York City.

The movie was a mindblower. So many popularly elected socialist, progressive and populist governments have been overthrown in Latin America with CIA backing–notably in Chile (1973) and Guatemala (1954), but also Brazil, Argentina, Honduras, Panama, even tiny Grenada. In 2002 it looked like it was going to happen again in Venezuela. A business-class coup whisked away the elected president, Hugo Chávez, declared he had resigned, and occupied the Miraflores presidential palace, declaring themselves the new government.

The media was full of their plans and self-congratulations. Many longtime activists on the Venezuelan left made preparations to go underground. But then the pattern broke. The majority population, the poor and oppressed, marched on Miraflores and demanded their president back. Through their mobilized outrage, cooperation by loyal portions of the military and a great deal of luck, they won. The presidential pretender, Pedro Carmona, held power fewer than 3 days, during which he showed his ‘democratic’ intentions by dismissing the national legislature and Supreme Court. For his trouble he’s known as “Pedro the Brief.”

Jenny Brown

'When the media tell the truth, the walls will be quiet.' Photos: Jenny Brown

The more tidbits I learned, the more fascinated I became:

  • Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution has a provision that work at home (done mostly by women) has value and should be compensated in social security and in wages.
  • The gas company Citgo, a part of the Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA, started to provide low-cost heating oil to poor communities in the U.S. (The big for-profit oil companies claimed this was “unfair competition” and that Chávez was buying the loyalty of U.S. congresspeople.)
  • In 2004, after government meetings with School of Americas Watch’s Roy Bourgeois, Venezuela pulled its troops out of the infamous institution, dubbed the School of Assassins, in Columbus, Georgia. Venezuela’s lead was followed by Argentina and Uruguay in 2006, Costa Rica in 2007 (Costa Rica has no military but had been sending police), and now Bolivia in 2008.
  • When Chávez addressed the U.N. assembly in 2006, he not only implied that Bush was the devil, he held up Noam Chomsky’s new book “Hegemony or Survival” which immediately shot up in sales to #1 on Amazon.

Obviously something extraordinary was going on in Venezuela. Fellow Iguana editor Joe Courter and I spent 10 days there in late March with a 15-person peace delegation, traveling and interviewing Venezuelans both formally and informally. We spent time in rural and urban areas, in Caracas, Barquisimeto, Sanare, Carora, Choroní, and the tiny fishing village of Chuao.

The new Constitution

When Hugo Chávez was sworn in after winning election in 1998 he pledged allegiance to “this dying constitution,” because the platform on which he was elected promised to start a national process to write a new constitution. This was a national project which involved thousands of meetings. Ordinary people sent in their ideas to a constituent assembly, drafts were circulated and debated, and then it was voted on in December of 1999–71% voted yes. For several years after it was passed, people carried around the new constitution and would read it, quote it, argue about it, analyze it. Now that’s less common, we were told, because people pretty much remember what it says.

Rafael Nieves, an official in Carora, told us, “The process started with Chávez’ call to refound the country with the constitutional process of 1999–to make a new society based on justice. We who have been excluded are now participating–traveling from a representative democracy to protagonistic and participatory democracy.”

The new constitution is one of the most progressive in the world. It includes rights that many of us in the U.S. have been seeking for uncounted years. For example, it includes the absolute right to establish and join a union (article 95). All public and private sector workers have the right to strike (article 97). When there are doubts concerning application or conflicts among rules “that most favorable to the worker shall be applied.”

They have a 44 hour week by law and forced overtime is illegal (Article 90), and the constitution projects that work time should be reduced in the future. The proposed constitutional reforms of December 2007 were to have reduced the workweek to 36 hours, but the reforms were narrowly defeated.

Articles 83-85 say health is a fundamental social right, and in order to guarantee a right to health, the state will finance a public health system “governed by the principles of gratuity, universality, completeness, fairness, social integration and solidarity.” Public health services and buildings can’t be privatized.

While we still struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment here, article 21 says: All persons are equal before the law, and, consequently “No discrimination based on race, sex, creed or social standing shall be permitted.” The 2007 reforms would have added sexual orientation and state of health to the non-discrimination categories.

The Venezuelan constitution is also gender-neutral throughout, which is very intentional in Spanish, “Presidente o Presidenta,” “trabajador o trabajadora.” No ‘all men are created equal’ there.

Just as important, the constitution creates “citizen power” as a force–so there are Legislative, Executive, Judicial, Citizen and Electoral branches–and declares support for collective forms of ownership. These include encouraging cooperatives, making water a public good, and putting the money raised from selling oil into building the country with “humans at the center of the economic and political process” as foreign ministry official Roberto Poveda put it to us.

So that’s the written expression, but what’s the expression in the country? First, there was an explosion of new laws leading from the constitution. Along with the constitution itself, available in several inexpensive pocket editions, you can buy copies of laws from street vendors in Caracas, for example the law of cooperatives or the law of workers rights.

Health care

In each hillside neighborhood there is a Barrio Adentro health clinic, which translates as “inside the neighborhood.” The doctor lives on the top floor and works on the bottom floor.

The care is free, as are medications. They told us they dispense lots of medicines from the clinic, including birth control pills, but if they don’t have it they send you to a pharmacy with your prescription. Special pharmacies set up by the government give you 80% off, which they call solidarity pricing.

We asked if they have shortages of anything, they said no.

The tiny health clinic we visited in Palo Verde had a surprising number of medical staff: Two doctors (one Venezuelan and one Cuban), a nurse, and nine medical students, who go to class each day and also work in the clinic.

We spoke to Dr. Edita Goyo. The Venezuelan doctor is one of the minority of Venezuelan doctors who want to work with the poorest 80%–many refuse, some have emigrated to the U.S. and other countries, in fact, rather than heal the sick in their own country.

Dr. Goyo was already a practicing physician when the mission was implemented, but she went through a 2-year program in ‘integral medicine’ to train her for work in a neighborhood clinic.

Students out of high school who want to become doctors enter 6 months pre-medical training, followed by 6 years in college, and 2 years in integral medicine, for 8 1/2 years total. While nearly all the medical students are Venezuelan, there are also students from other countries studying community medicine. At the clinic we visited, we met a young Brazilian man who was getting his medical degree there.

Women’s rights

In addition to equality between the sexes, the right to contraception and contraceptive information is also guaranteed in the constitution. Abortion continues to be illegal (as it is everywhere in Latin America except Mexico City, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guyana.)

We asked Doctor Goyo whether the clinic received any opposition from the church or anywhere else about birth control and she said no. The doctor said, however, that birth control and information was a lot harder for women to come by before the clinics were set up, that it’s much different now, “a world of difference.”

Gaudy Garcia started a women’s center in Monte Carmelo and a cooperative that does canning and makes preserves. She said: “Women are not only here to produce children, but we have knowledge and wisdom. But Machismo is deep in our culture, I’m guessing not just in Venezuela.”

She said in Venezuela there’s been a decade of ‘liberation feminism.’ “We don’t want to compete with men, we want to be equal with joint work and complementarity. We have shown our capacity is as significant as that of men.”

She has traveled a lot to other countries with her co-workers to represent rural women’s organizing. She said that sometimes of the men in their families don’t want them going out of the country to Mexico, Spain, and other places. They have argued with the men “we have to go, as women we are active people in this society.”

The constitution says that women are entitled to a pension, even if they only worked in the home, because the work of housewives is recognized formally as productive work. The 2007 constitutional reforms would have enacted a stipend for all housewives and informal workers (not necessarily women), close to the minimum wage, but that failed along with the rest of the reform package. The government does, however, distribute a stipend starting with the poorest, women who don’t have paid employment or insecure paid employment–that program is called Mision Madres del Barrio (Mothers of the Neighborhood).

Missions

Venezuelans joke that every time you turn around there’s another mission. The programs were set up as a way to get the public money from oil revenues to the community level. Very little of it used to escape the national oil company and what did ended up frittered away in government bureaucracy and corruption.

They describe the use of oil money for community betterment as “Sowing the oil.” In Caracas we saw an art exhibit of various artists conceptions of what “Sowing the oil” means to Venezuelans, a future of peace, art, prosperity, music, education, health and community.

Jenny Brown

Artist's conception of 'sowing the oil' at exhibit in Caracas.

Community Power

The municipality of Carora is a pioneer in applying the principles of community power, control and accountability. They have 200-some community councils all over their district. We met with people representing an urban community council and a rural one.

Aileen Escobar told us “We are constantly bombarded by the media saying the people aren’t ready to handle their own funds.” But she pointed out that under the previous government, 10% would be skimmed off the top, “so a dollar goes farther in our hands.”

They explained: “Community councils do a diagnosis of what the needs are of the community–health, housing, recreation, communication, transport (like buses). Resources are processed through Community Banks.”

Members of one of the Communal Councis in Carora.

Members of one of the Communal Councis in Carora.

In neighborhoods in Carora, every Thursday there’s a ‘Citizen Assembly’ which is the highest authority in the community council. Anyone can go and suggestions are discussed and considered. An elected executive group carries out the decisions. There’s a comptroller who is “always demanding transparency” and to know how funds are used exactly. (In both the councils we met with, this role was fulfilled by a woman.)

We were told, “When the old guard oligarchs–the ones who used to run the city council–come asking for additional services they’re told to organize their community councils like everyone else.”

We asked about problems. “As in any process, there are ups and downs” Carora official Rafael Nieves told us. “All change produces reactions and contradictions. For example, when we first got started everyone talked at once. So we needed norms of debate, norms of living together (convivencia).” Now they’ve developed those and “it’s been a beautiful experience when the previously powerless are able to bring power to bear” on issues facing them.

Aileen Escobar added, “Before, power was in the hands of an elite group. Now we’ve got it, we’re not letting go.”

We also visited Tintoreo, a rural town of 49 families about 20 minutes from Carora. The main industries in this flat, desert-like region are brick and tile making. With government assistance, the hamlet has recently built 13 new homes and when we visited they were celebrating the completion of two new school buildings.

They told us, “We have lots of things: Brick-making ovens. We raise goats and make roof tiles. Also vineyards. Cattle, Carora cattle is a special breed. Short root vegetables grow well. Not many insects. But we never had a government that cared about our zone before.”

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Adalberto Chirino explained how the community council system works in a rural area: “We have lots of little communities with the same problems–almost all have councils. We meet to talk about themes that affect all of us. The figure/concept of community councils was in the constitutional reform. It didn’t pass but we’re still using the concept.” He noted that the leaders “are selected by the community, not by a party.” He said that “even barefoot” he could have a say. “It’s not like before when the mayor decided where the money would go.”

A retired teacher told us, “We never imagined so many changes in Venezuela.” Echoing a famous quote from Bolívar, he noted that unity was the key. “If you come together you will overcome.”

Students

Higher education has been free but inaccessible to any but the elite because public schools were so miserably bad. One of our guides, Charlie Hardy, told us in his barrio, before the revolution, the public school was simply closed for 2 years.

We spoke with rural and urban students. The urban students were in a poor neighborhood of Barquisimeto and are involved in the Centro Cultural San Juan where they are learning Afro-Venezuelan drumming, music and dance, and volunteering to help younger students with their homework. Many of them are on their way to college (through Mision Sucre) and I asked them if they were the first in their family to go to college (I was thinking of their parents generation). They said “yes, our older siblings are very smart but they didn’t have the opportunities we have.” That’s how fast the changes have taken place.

We also spoke to students in rural Monte Carmelo who are in Mision Ribas, which allows students to go back and complete high school. They all work, so their classes are held in the afternoon and evening. When asked what they want to do after then get their diplomas, many wanted to study medicine or engineering. One student, who looked to be in her 30s, told us she walks several hilly miles to Sanare to work as a street cleaner in the morning, and comes home to Monte Carmelo in the afternoon to study to get her high school degree. She’s also in the national reserves. She said she’s “Studying to be somebody, and to be a model to my children, as well.”

The teachers in Monte Carmelo said they are working for “School reform, aiming for more horizontal relationships between teachers and students.” Nancy Garcia, one of the teachers, said she is sometimes “More a compañera than a teacher–but we have to sometimes be hard on them too, to push them.”

At this point 1/4 of the population has studied in the education missions. The programs use videos and books from Cuba, including a world-renowned literacy teaching program. The U.N. recently designated Venezuela as illiteracy-free.

Cooperatives

We spoke to leaders in an organic farm cooperative and a chocolate growing cooperative. Both co-ops were started before the current revolution, but with government encouragement the number of coops has risen in the last 10 years from 800 to 180,000. At least one of the hotels we stayed in was a co-op, Posada El Cerrito, a former Tourism Ministry hotel in Sanare. The workers do not own the hotel and therefore can’t sell it for personal gain, but they operate it and pay themselves out of the proceeds. They said that it was much better that way because before, a manager would be sent by the Ministry, and he would come up with some bright idea they knew wouldn’t work, but they had to do it anyway because he was the boss. Now, they told us, they are able to make decisions based on their long years of experience as hotel workers.

La Alianza, the organic farming cooperative, is an example to others wanting to start co-ops–they teach about cooperativism and get government funding to do workshops for others wishing to start a co-op.

We asked the co-op president, who is known by his nickname ‘Polillo,’ what had changed since the revolution. He said he could spend all day telling us. But he said that people’s attitudes are slower to change. “Now there’s a lot of promotion of cooperativism, but there’s still a mindset of capitalism. The spirit of cooperatives is that you need less money to live happily (vivir feliz).”

He said that part of what they teach there is “Cooperative spirit–honesty, sharing solidarity, not to live our lives just for money–though we realize we need money–not so much envy of one another. It’s like taking on a lifestyle.”

At another agricultural cooperative–in Chuao, which is reachable only by boat–the chocolate co-op leader was very practical–he had a one-word answer to what had changed with the new government: “credits.” They could finally get loans from a community bank to improve things there. Their cooperative of 127 people rotates all jobs without regard to the sex of the worker, he told us. Complicated decisions, like marketing and pricing, are decided by majority vote, simple decisions such as daily work planning are carried out by an executive council of 6 men and 5 women. They sell dried cocoa beans to an Italian chocolate company for around $10 a kilo.

‘This is unedited’

Several of the people we spoke with emphasized, “This is unedited, this is a rough draft. We are in the process of learning how to do this.” Roberto Poveda, of the foreign ministry, said that they were “inevitable mistakes” but the important thing was to learn from the process, that it is “a process with hope.” He noted that despite some boondoggles, Venezuela is the first country to achieve the UN’s antipoverty “Millennium goals,” although he noted that these goals are not very ambitious.

Luz Marina is a youth leader in Frente Francisco Miranda. This youth organization, among other groups, was responsible for a nationwide replacement of incandescent bulbs with energy-saving compact fluorescents. Every small village and poor urban neighborhood we visited had made the switch. They also deliver food to those without it and spread the word about how people can benefit from the missions.

Luz Marina said, “We are struggling for a just and socialist society, part of being a youth is to have that spirit of struggle. We are100% anti-imperialist and pro-socialist and ready to give our lives for this revolution.”

“We are daily attacked by the media that we’re indoctrinated in Cuba, which they claim gives us guns to massacre the bourgeoisie.”

“Although we learn a lot from Cuba, the way it’s come to be, our revolution, our historical moment is very different, we have a very different culture, so it’s impossible to be dogmatic. This is our revolution.”

Luz Marina added, “We’re worried the same thing will happen to us as is happening to Afghanistan or Iraq.” Given the history of the U.S.’s moves to destabilize the Venezuelan government, this was not an unreasonable concern.

Shortly before we left for Venezuela, Colombia, which shares a long border with Venezuela, bombed inside Ecuador, destroying a rebel camp and killing the chief peace negotiator for the FARC–Colombian guerillas who are engaged in a 50-year long civil war in Colombia. The attack killed many while they slept, including several Mexican students who were there to interview FARC members.

Ecuador and Venezuela came down hard on the action, demanding that Colombia respect their borders. Tensions escalated but then suddenly subsided when the Latin American leaders met, including Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, and agreed to de-escalate. Observers of the meeting said Hugo Chávez led the effort for the accord. There is reason to believe the U.S.’s business as usual may no longer be working so well–creating a space for peace and hope in the hemisphere.

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