Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Social Programs
Venezuela: 21st Century Technology for 21st Century Socialism
Nestled in the heart of Barrio 23 de Enero, a large impoverished neighborhood in Caracas, among the man-made ranchos with red brick walls and metal roofing, stands the Ramon Ismael Ramos Infocenter.
Filled with over 70 state-of-the-art computers and flat-screen monitors, the space offers a sharp contrast to the surrounding barrio.
One of the cornerstones of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian revolution, as the process led by President Hugo Chavez of changing Venezuela to meet to needs of the poor is known, is the use of technology to improve the lives of the majority of the population that lives near or below the poverty line.
In a country where nearly all major media outlets are controlled by a handful of the country's richest citizens, and are hostile to the process of change, the government sees access to technology as a crucial tool to democratize the media.
The recent launching of Satellite Simon Bolivar is among the government's initiatives to promote technological sovereignty (that is, Venezuelan control over, and promotion of, technology).
The satellite, Venezuela's first, will help bring education, communication and medical services to even the most remote areas of the country.
However, the more popular approach to technological sovereignty among communities can best be seen in the growing number of computer centers opening throughout the country. Called "infocenters", they offer local residents an array of technology-based services, including computer training and access to the internet, plus space for residents to use for community purposes.
These services are offered for free.
In 2000, the government began the initiative with the opening of 220 infocenters in what now has grown to nearly 700 around the country. What is now called the Infocenter Foundation was created in 2007 to oversee the implementation of the infocenters and similar projects.
The foundation is funded by the country's massive oil revenue, with its main headquarters in downtown Caracas. It was constructed as a response to decrees written in 1999 and in 2007 that made access to internet and technological development priorities for the new government.
According to the foundation's website, it aims to "facilitate community building, collective wisdom and knowledge transfer". In this way, it intends to "strengthen the potential development of local and social networks and popular power".
Other programs work to reach out to more remote areas. The "infomobile", a truck filled with the same resources as an infocenter, travels to many rural areas.
A third program places "infopoints" in public areas, such as schools and government office buildings. The infopoints contain computers meant solely for the use of internet. Since its commencement in 2004, 400 infopoints have opened around the country.
Another program is aimed at bringing internet connection to personal computers in houses and community buildings. This aims to help decrease traffic in infocenters while bringing the internet directly to the people.
The Venezuelan government plans to use the centers to close the technology gap between the rich elite and the poor majority, many of whom have never worked with a computer. It offers free classes under its National Plan for Technology Literacy (PNAT).
Article 110 of the constitution, which was adopted by referendum in 1999 and contains many of the pro-poor principles guiding the revolution, describes access to technology as an "essential tool for economic development and social policy."
PNAT was created by the Infocenter Foundation in line with this article, in order to teach community members the basic functions of a computer, including word processing, creating power point presentations, searching for information on the web and using emails.
The courses run for twenty hours and are given in infocenter and infomobile locations. They are taught by community members, including former students of the program.
One of the main focuses of the foundation is in creating networks within communities and opening up spaces for residents to organize.
A number of programs offer spaces and courses for community members to put together a newspaper, radio or TV station. The centers are often kept busy with community members, from youth working on homework assignments to the elderly writing their first email.
A resident taking advantage of the free services in the Ramon Ismael Ramos Infocenter said: "In the past, the poor if anything were offered a minimum supply of food and at times shelter. The computer centers are an important benefit to our community."
Programs like the infocenters also allow for citizens to create their own methods of communication that do not rely on private or government television, radio, or print channels.
In a country that experienced a short lived coup against Chavez in 2002 that was largely organized by the major media outlets, many Venezuelans can see the importance the media, and therefore access to it, plays in politics.
With the Western media demonizing the Chavez government after one major media corporation central to the coup, RCTV, failed to have its public TV license renewed, the media war between the opposition and government has increased. Both sides have been desperate for new strategies.
Initiatives by the government to democratize the media are an important step in winning this media war.
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