Australian activist Coral Wynter relates her experience of Venezuelanalysis’ August international solidarity brigade.
Amid crisis, Venezuelans continue to build new society
Flying into Caracas, the plane was full of middle class Venezuelans travelling home from Miami. On board, no one spoke to the passenger next to them for fear of finding out they were on the opposite side of the political divide.
In highly polarised Venezuela, these things are best left unsaid.
It was a strange feeling flying into La Guaira airport; it was almost like coming home after a long journey abroad. To me, Venezuela is my second country, given I have visited it so many times since I first lived here for two years in the 1970s.
On the bus ride into Caracas, I noticed the decrease in traffic jams and a marked increase in beautifully painted murals and billboards of former president Hugo Chavez everywhere. Our driver explained that the government had built a number of additional off ramps along the highway so that it was much less congested.
I had come to Venezuela, in part, to participate in the Venezuela Analysis solidarity delegation.
As part of our visit we went to an inner suburb of Caracas, La Pastora, one of the first places that the Spanish colonisers occupied. Many of the houses here were more than 300 years old and built with mud walls to better resist earthquakes.
We met with members of the Miraflores Commune, which is made of the various local communal councils in the area and is part of the bottom-up participatory democracy system that the Venezuelan government have promoted.
Through the Commune, local residents had organised to have two new roads built in the area, repaired some rundown stairs, installed new water pipes and introduced ramps to enable those in wheelchairs to more easily get around.
During our discussion, residents spoke to us about Robert Serra, who had lived in La Pastora. In 2010, Serra became the youngest ever deputy elected to the National Assembly. A fearless lawyer, Serra did not hesitate to expose the corrupt shenanigans of the elites.
Because of this, and his outspoken support for Venezuela’s pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution, Serra was murdered in his home, along with his assistant, in a vicious and bloody attack that left him with more than 40 stab wounds.
The murderer was subsequently caught and is now in jail, but has never revealed who hired him.
We then travelled to a nearby suburb to meet communal council members from a block of flats named after Puerto Rican independence leader Oscar Lopez Rivera. The block of flats had been built as part of the GranVivienda (Great Housing) social mission.
There were six buildings housing more than 1000 poor families in the complex. Roberto, a local resident, told us “Before I lived in a shack, a ranchito, beside a drain full of sewage, with no possibility of going to university.”
Residents pay a very low rent, and will eventually be given ownership of their apartments.
Different cooperatives had been set up inside the complex to run a bakery (which supplies bread for all the families), a woodwork shop, a laundry and a clothing shop that made recyclable nappies which were not damaging to the environment. They also produced a number of other useful products, such as shopping bags to carry long loaves of bread with the aim of eliminating plastic.
Before returning to our hotel, locals cooked a soup for us made from the large vegetable garden in front of the building.
Venezuela: Chavez’s life commemorated amid new struggles
Travelling past El Calvario Park, just a few blocks from the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, we see a familiar image: an outline of late former president Hugo Chavez’s eyes, painted across several stairs.
This image can be seen all over Caracas. The government of President Nicholas Maduro has converted it into a recognisable trademark, much like the iconic image of Che Guevara that is splashed across T-shirts, flags and walls the world over.
The image can also be seen in homes throughout Caracas’s poorer neighbourhoods, where support for Chavez and the pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution he led was always strongest.
Together with the rest of the Venezuela Analysis solidarity delegation, we arrive at the Cuartel de la Montana (Mountain Barrack), where the remains of Commandante Hugo Chavez Frias are buried.
A colonel who had accompanied Chavez on many overseas visits met us there. We walked down the same path, lined with flags from different countries of the world, that world leaders such as former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, former Uruguayan president Jose “Pepe” Mujica, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, among many others, had walked down.
From here, you have a view of Miraflores and the balcony from which Chavez celebrated many election nights and addressed mass rallies. Maduro decided to never use the balcony, but preserve it as a memorial to Chavez.
The barracks have various rooms where the life of Chavez is on display: from his childhood spent with his grandmother to his days playing baseball; from the unsuccessful military rebellion he led in February 1992 to the more well-known events of his 14 years as president (1999-2013).
Every two hours, there is a changing of the guard around Chavez’s marble cortege. In a moving ceremony, a patriotic song, accompanied with a bugle, is sung with the words, “Come, it’s time to defend the Homeland.”
We filed past the cortege and touched the marble surface in homage to the genius and humanity of Chavez. It was an overwhelming and sad moment for all.
We then visited the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we met Vice-Minister for Africa Reinaldo Bolivar. He explained why Venezuela had recently left the Organisation of American States (OAS) due to the lies of OAS secretary Luis Almagro and his unconstitutional attempts to get the body to condemn Venezuela for supposedly undemocratic practices.
Bolivar emphasised that Venezuela is passing through one of the worst moments in its history, with the US trying to destabilise the country and discredit the Maduro government. It is funding the opposition to bring about regime change and impose a new government servile to US interests.
Bolivar said he does not believe the US will send marines to invade Venezuela, given that international condemnation would be too high. Instead, he said the US hopes that its economic blockade on Venezuela would bring the country to a breaking point. Then, US President Donald Trump could use right-wing governments in Colombia and Brazil to invade Venezuela.
The delegation also visited the Centre of African, Caribbean and American Wisdoms. Chavez created the centre to study the influence of Africa on Venezuelan culture and to understand the history of slavery in the Caribbean.
Educators Oscar Godoy and Carmen Gonzalez told us that 70% of Venezuelans are of African descent. About 3 million slaves had passed through Venezuela’s Margarita Island.
Being Black continues to be a great stigma in Venezuela. During the recent wave of violent right-wing protests, several people were set alight by opposition protests because they were Black.
Both Chavez and Maduro have maintained strong support among Black Venezuelans, who, despite important gains in recent years, tend to make up the poorer sectors of society.
The Centre has an extensive library and photos of inspiring African leaders, many of who were assassinated by imperialist governments.
We also travelled to the offices of the Latin America-wide TV station TeleSUR, located in the east of Caracas.
TeleSUR president Patricia Villegas said the TV station’s 1000-strong staff get little sleep as they seek to provide news 24 hours a day.
TeleSUR looks for different angles to tell the truth. During the World Cup in 2014, TeleSUR broadcast a show hosted by Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, which was a smash hit and had higher ratings than some World Cup matches.
Villegas said TeleSUR is constantly trying to bring “the best stories, the best photos, the best quality television”, which has taken a lot of patience, perseverance and determination from its journalists, but has been a worthwhile effort.
A view of the other Caracas
Using the Metro Cable car system built under former president Hugo Chavez, our solidarity delegation to the South American nation, organised by Venezuelanalysis.com, travelled high up into the mountain to the neighbourhood of San Agustin.
The Metro Cable system, the first of its kind in Venezuela, was inspired by a visit by Chavez to Austria where he saw dozens of chairlifts going up and down the mountains.
Like many of the projects initiated as part of the pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution that Chavez spearheaded, the Metro Cable has changed the lives of the poor who live in barrios such as San Agustin in the hills surrounding Caracas.
Before its inception, it was impossible for the elderly, the sick, disabled and young children to climb up and down the hundreds of steps that connected their homes with downtown Caracas.
At San Agustin, we joined a group of young people painting murals. One mural simply said “Chavez” in huge letters. There are hundreds of beautiful murals all over the city supporting the government, with many references to Chavez.
In the afternoon, we visited the Canaima Industrial Centre, which assembles computers that are given for free to children and students across Venezuela.
The government has given away 6 million laptops to students from the start of primary school level all the way up to university. The children can take their laptops home with them after class so that their grandparents can learn to use them as well.
The laptops do not use any program owned by Microsoft, instead using freely available operating system and programs. This is just one more example of why US capitalism resents the Venezuelan government of President Nicolas Maduro.
The Ministry of Education designed the curriculum and programs for different ages of school children, according to their own culture and needs. There are six different models and more than 800 Infocentres throughout the country, one in every municipality, were students can access free internet.
The children also teach other children to create their own software. The children create their own content and share with others. They are also developing new technologies and software, especially for music.
The government is also considering providing prisoners with a tablet to use for study purposes.
Later that day, we observed a discussion hosted by the Revolutionary Sex and Gender Diversity Alliance (ASGDRe). Set up in 2009, the alliance works on providing cultural-political education as well as campaigning to reform Venezuela’s existing sex and gender laws. They are fighting for visibility and a broader understanding of human sexuality within society.
They prefer not to be called “queer”, which they view as a particularly Western terms, instead choosing to use the term gender diverse.
The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or race, but there is no specific reference to gays or lesbians. This is something ASGDRe hopes to change with the recently-inaugurated National Constituent Assembly, which is empowered to debate constitutional reforms that will then be put to a popular vote.
The gay and lesbian community were not one of the sectors from which candidates to the constituent assembly could be elected from as it was deemed that sectors had to represent at least 600,000 persons. In the latest census, only 6000 individuals identified as gay or lesbian.
The main legal campaign ASGDRe are taking part in is for gay or lesbian couples to be recognised as a “family” unit, with all the benefits this implies in terms of social security, pensions and access to benefits for any children, among others.
Currently, a single lesbian or gay man can adopt children, but not as a couple.
Another issue is that of marriage equality. Polls indicate that a majority of Venezuelans oppose equal marriage. ASGDRe believes that a mass education campaign needs to be started in order to win this fight.
In terms of transgender rights, transgender people do not have the right to change their legal gender under existing law, even though they are able to change their name. This is another change they are pushing for, including through a successful petition by five activists to the Supreme Court to recognize their right to “the identification and expression of self-perceived gender”.