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

May 18, 2008

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).


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


New Orleans’ grassroots struggle and rebuild

December 9, 2005

December 2005—There’s a tiny juke joint out behind the house, “Barbara’s Place,” it says, with musical notes painted on the wall. A portable toilet is overturned next to the door, it floated in from somewhere else. The plants in the yard are yellow and drowned. In front of the house, there’s a pile of trash high as your head and covering the space from the sidewalk to the curb. One out of three houses has such a pile containing refrigerators, furniture, clothing, broken up bits of drywall, toys. It’s a pandemic of eviction-by-flooding.

The piles are made by people coming home, on a weekend or a day here and there, and trying to clear the soaked, moldy, destroyed stuff out of their houses. In other cases, a landlord illegally threw the stuff out on the street. And then what? Sell the property to the highest bidder, while whatever of your possessions weren’t ruined before sit in the rain, while you sit in Houston, or one of hundreds of other far away towns. There is a massive land-grab going on in New Orleans, but the people are fighting back.

“This is basically a neighborhood where people were left to die,” explains Lisa Fithian, one of the coordinators of Common Ground Relief, a radical effort to provide “solidarity, not charity” to the survivors of Katrina.

After the storm blew through and the floodwaters flowed in, it took little time to realize that ‘the cavalry’ was not coming to pick people off their roofs or evacuate them from ‘shelters,’ and people were suffering and dying as a result. Indeed, the powerful seemed more concerned that Black people would escape into white neighborhoods than that people might be dying of exposure. Malik Rahim wasted no time denouncing the racism in public and to the press. A Green Party candidate for city council and a former Black Panther, Rahim lives in Algiers, just across the river from the worst, most sustained flooding, the roof-high water in New Orleans’ African-American heart, the Ninth Ward.

Soon after, armed white men started driving through his solidly Black neighborhood. People heard shootings. There were drive-bys and threats at his house. Rahim’s friends gathered there, white and Black, themselves armed, to ward off violence. His house and yard became a collection point for relief supplies and a gathering point for volunteers from near and far wanting to throw their lives into the struggle to rescue and recover. Indeed, residents say, it was neighbors helping neighbors, grassroots rescue efforts led by residents who found themselves thrust into the role of coordinating relief operations, and the compassion and risk of ordinary people that reduced the casualty rates and provided relief and safety to thousands. The Red Cross and FEMA mostly were missing in action, at least until later, although police and military were in evidence from the early stages.

Among those that gathered at Rahim’s house were a gaggle of street medics. These folks are familiar to those of us who go to anti-globalization protests as the angels who appear to carefully swab off the pepper spray or bandage you up or ice down your bruises after the police decide that you’ve had a little too much free speech. With both formal and informal medical training—and more importantly, radical chutzpah—they opened a free medical clinic. As of this writing it is temporarily housed in a mosque in Algiers and provides primary care for people in the neighborhood with an all-volunteer staff of doctors, nurses, and counselors. The Red Cross centers that followed later are inhospitable armed camps in comparison, according to clinic workers. “We were able to easily rise above the rescue and relief efforts of the government and mainstream agencies because they were incapable of providing health care to a community with the compassion and solidarity the people affected deserved” said Scott Weinstein, a volunteer nurse and coordinator of the clinic who used to live in Gainesville.

Common Ground also negotiated with a daycare center to open up an aid distribution center in the Ninth Ward, at North Robertson and Luisa Streets. It is powered by generators, as the area still has seen no electricity. Another preschool allowed them to use a virtually undamaged building for communications and volunteer housing. There they set up a low-power radio station.

A few weeks after the clinic was up and running, Common Ground Relief launched another audacious project, a “Road Trip for Relief” focusing on the Ninth Ward. Residents and organizers drawn by the urgency of the crisis invited activists from around the country to come to New Orleans to work for Thanksgiving week. That’s how I ended up in New Orleans for a week at the end of November, along with hundreds of other volunteers from as far away as California and Maine.

One thing you notice when you drive around the flooded neighborhoods is rings of scum like bathtub rings that denote the water levels. We first thought that meant the water had risen to that point and stopped. “Oh no,” a resident told us, “that’s where it stopped on its way back down.” Initially the water was much higher, for a couple of days, then it sank and settled in to soak everything for around three weeks. It left marks along walls, doors, gates, windows, cars, forming a distressingly accurate gauge of otherwise imperceptible rises and drops in the terrain. The mysterious “TFW” tag spraypainted on most of the houses was eventually translated for us: “Toxic Flood Water.”

When we arrived, 300 evictions were being processed a day in the Orleans Parish courthouse. If you, a New Orleans renter, were in Houston, or Mississippi, or Arkansas, you’d be unlikely to see the sign posted for five days on your door back in New Orleans before the court could order your stuff out on the street. So most of these court proceedings went uncontested.

On November 22 tenants rights lawyers managed to get the Eastern District federal court to order a halt to this unbelievable eviction procedure. Now landlords are required to mail a notice to your last-known post-Katrina address, and then wait for 45 days before an eviction hearing. (FEMA was also ordered to give the court your address.) Lawyers active with Common Ground bitterly predicted that after the ruling we would see a rise in illegal evictions. Watching landlords to see if they made a move on vulnerable housing was one of many tasks assigned to Common Ground volunteers. “A landlord never has a legal right to put a tenant or property out on his own,” fliers distributed to residents noted, only police can do this with a judge’s order. “Greedy landlords beware. We are watching you,” Common Ground Eviction Defense continued. A New Orleans resident who moved to Gainesville briefly after the storm reports being told his rent would triple and therefore he had to get out of his undamaged apartment packed with years of artwork on extremely short notice. Because of the housing shortage, landlords can demand ridiculous prices, if they can just get rid of their current tenants with their pesky leases.

Common Ground Relief is just one of the organizations fighting for residents’ rights in the devastated areas. There is the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund of Community Labor United, the NAACP, as well as ACORN (which has New Orleans as a home base), the anti-racist group People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and various coalitions to prevent evictions and foreclosures, and to fight for Black and working class residents to have a voice in the decisions that are currently being made without them. Asked if the disaster had made her community closer, one Desire Street resident replied, “No, we were already pretty tight-knit before.” But the problem is, everyone’s scattered. We could drive for 10 blocks in tightly-spaced residential areas and not see a single person.

Police and military are much in evidence, especially at night. Police cars drive around running their flashing lights as a matter of course, apparently to let us know they are present on streets with few street lights. Walking with a friend at night in the upper Ninth Ward, one small flashlight between us, a passing cop car turned on his loudspeaker to lob a sarcastic “You’re gonna need a better light than that” and kept going. There is a curfew, but it has been moved back to 11 p.m. It is not unusual to see armored personnel carriers and military humvees, giving the area that Baghdad-on-the-Mississippi atmosphere.

Common Ground volunteer materials cautioned volunteers to be wary of the police. The New Orleans Police Department had a deservedly bad reputation even before the storm, and has taken to picking up and jailing pedestrians on the most piddling of charges. Most victims have been Black. Some have been beaten. Many have been unable to get out of jail because phone communications are spotty, the police have been obstructionist, and the courts that should hear their cases quickly have been inoperable. (Oddly, the eviction courts have managed to do a roaring business.) While I was there, Common Ground’s low-power station, Radio Algiers, was looping interviews with people who had been jailed without any access to legal help or communication with the outside world.

Three months after the storm, Alva Wilson was trying to get something going at her house. After the flood she had waded to the Superdome through neck-deep water, and from there had been shuffled from shelter to shelter. Her granddaughter, with baby twins, is still living in a mass shelter in Houston. Ms. Wilson is living Magnolia, Mississippi, with no car. “Magnolia has no public transportation,” she noted. In New Orleans, she could get a bus at the corner. What did a great-grandmother like her need a car for?

She knows her little house needs gutting, but where to start? They say it will cost $5,000. Sam Jackson, a minister and tenant in the C.B. Cooper housing project said, well, that’s what the $4,700 from FEMA is supposed to be for. What $4,700? She hadn’t seen a cent. They talked at a small rally to save the housing project, which the City has declared fit for bulldozing although the buildings show no sign of damage. The City has been trying for years to remove these solid brick buildings, which housed hundreds of families, and now the perfect opportunity has arisen. The buildings are vacant because the residents were all evacuated and scattered across the country, so they aren’t around to raise a complaint, can’t return because they have no way back, and couldn’t stay if they did get back because there is no electricity. It’s the perfect crime.

One of Mr. Jackson’s neighbors was walking up and down the stairs to her apartment, moving out a few things, a coffeemaker, a toaster, a lamp. She was packing them in her car to take back to temporary housing in Mississippi. She had heard that there was a danger the city would demolish the buildings. In the face of an acute housing crisis, the solution is—demolish perfectly good housing because it occupies valuable real estate. Mr. Jackson showed us his apartment, which was undamaged except looters had broken open a balcony back door. They hadn’t taken anything, though.

A woman who lived on N. Derbigny street walked up while we were talking to neighbors sitting on the stone steps that led to the picturesque second story entrance of her former house. She told us that the main part of her house was above the flood waters (the garage and storage areas, and a car she pointed out to us, had been immersed). She held out during the storm (“not so bad”) and the flood, but had to leave when the water started to wash back out of the city, with its foul odors, carcasses, and toxic fumes. “I couldn’t stand it then, the smell was making it hard to breathe.” A few days after she was evacuated, her neighbor told us, he saw “thick black electrical smoke,” coming from the kitchen area in the back. The upper part of the house was then destroyed by fire.

She had not seen it since she had been helicoptered out and there it was, burned from the inside out, leaving only a bit of facade standing.

FEMA will put a notice on your door saying, sorry, we came by but you weren’t here so call us at your earliest convenience so we can meet you to inspect your home and determine the extent of the damage. This is unhelpful since most people can’t get home and if they could, there is no place to stay waiting for a FEMA inspection. The house is full of mold so you can’t really breathe inside without a respirator. The neighborhoods we were in mostly have no electricity. Some areas have running water, but it’s not clear that it’s safe to drink. Others have breached pipes so if the water is turned on, it runs into the street.

If you had a car, you don’t now, it was immersed in water for three weeks and the engine is destroyed, not to mention that the inside is so full of mold it’s a toxic hazard.

Working with residents who have come back, Common Ground volunteers pulled destroyed furniture and moldy wallboard out of houses, tarped damaged roofs FEMA won’t touch because they fall outside some fairly narrow guidelines, distributed food, water and clothing from distribution centers in Algiers, the Ninth Ward and rural Houma, and cleaned the streets and sidewalks which are still generally strewn with debris. Volunteers cleared out and gutted a community center associated with a local church. In return for rehabilitating the offices and meeting rooms, they’ll be able to use the building as a base for reconstruction efforts for six months, and then continue to have a youth project there as the church moves its operations back in.

Along with the chaos and confusion and desolation and trauma, there is also a sense that anything is possible, of traditional barriers of race and culture breaking down, of new alliances forming now that the agenda of the rich is suddenly, undeniably, laid out for everyone to see.

Organizers from a coalition of groups convened a Survivor’s Assembly in Jackson, Mississippi in December, along with a march that drew 1,500 people in New Orleans to demand fair housing, fair reconstruction and the right to return. When, on January 5, the city sent bulldozers into the lower Ninth Ward, jumping the gun on a court order, alert residents and activists prevented them from leveling anything, and the situation is now back in court. Residents argue that even if some houses are beyond repair, the owners should at least have time to come back and see their property before more destruction is wrought.

I found that I could easily imagine, were a disaster of similar proportions to hit my town, much the same results, because the same race and class power imbalance is there under the surface in every U.S. town. The rich and powerful would be ruthlessly pushing the same agenda they’ve been pushing for years, but now assisted by a disaster. The working class, especially African Americans and those with few resources, would be pushed around just as they are being in New Orleans. I can only hope that we would organize as fast and as well as they have there.

Common Ground is inviting volunteers who want to extend solidarity to New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents to come to New Orleans over spring break to learn about the struggles there and contribute their labor to the grassroots reconstruction of the area. More information can be found at