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Opinion and Analysis: International | Participation

Student Activists Inspired by Venezuela’s Revolution

Student activists gave their impression of the social transformation under way in Venezuela at a Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (VSC) meeting in July after visiting the country.

Their visit to Venezuela was organised to see the truth about the revolution, especially in the aftermath of the recent presidential elections and ongoing media distortions about the situation in the country under President Maduro. It also sought to strengthen links with grassroots youth and student movements in Venezuela.

The delegation spent 10 days visiting the social programmes delivering free healthcare and education (including at university level), the new social housing schemes, meeting with social movements such as LGBT and Black community groups, discussing with different political parties and with the head of the electoral commission, looking at the media in Venezuela and experiencing first hand the revolution under way in the arts and culture.

At the report back meeting, organised by the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, Aaron Kiley, NUS National Black Students Officer, explained:

Personally, I feel it’s been quite a life-changing experience. To see people who look like me, leading one of the most advanced and important struggles in history is beyond incredible…what I saw on the delegation was so exciting, dynamic, fresh and on such an immense scale. The very things our communities are losing in Britain are being given to the most disenfranchised sections of Venezuela society. And the results are amazing.”

He described visiting a newly built city which was“created to take people out of the barrios (shanty towns) and give them the standard of living that they are entitled to as human beings and citizens. Properly planned, with free pre-school, nurseries, education, health centres, hospitals, access to local food and social spaces – Venezuela is being ambitious.”

He added:

You can’t turn your head in Caracas without seeing a crane that is building housing. And it’s high quality housing, virtually free, with priority for those with large families, disabilities and those affected by landslides that left many homeless a few years ago. Over 400,000 of these homes have been built in less than 2 years with a target of 4 million by 2019 and I think they’re definitely going to reach that. Inside these homes are fully furnished, with fridge freezers, televisions, cookers – all energy efficient, and fully air-conditioned. And when you think about it these are the things that could have been afforded to Venezuela’s population years ago – but instead of Venezuela’s wealth going to the people, it was literally extracted from the ground and given over to the United States. Now families and children have the opportunity to grow up in decent accommodation. I wish our government had the same drive – when I look at the crumbling state of social housing in Britain.”

The elites in Venezuela under the old regime spread the smears and lies that people in the barrios had no culture, and nothing to contribute to society. Now projects are being run by these same people who are producing some of the most exciting things that I have been lucky to have ever seen – both culturally and politically.”

As the representative of over 1m students of African, Asian, Arab and Caribbean heritage Aaron spoke of how Venezuela today celebrates that the majority of its population are of Black and mixed race origins and that this is part of the process of building social inclusion:

We were being guided around by a young guy who as soon as he talked about the impact of the revolution on him, he talked about how he learned about his African and Indigenous heritage and stood taller, prouder and with his chest out. That was very powerful to see. Venezuelans are learning to have pride in themselves and their immense achievements – and they rightly should.”

Aaron also addressed the on-going threat to destabilise the elected government of Nicolas Maduro, as has occurred regularly against the progressive government in Venezuela including during the coup in 2002 when President Hugo Chavez was overthrown for several days. He explained:

One of the most powerful moments was when we took the initial tour of Caracas – and we stopped at the famous bridge Puente Llaguno – which was surrounded by snipers with people killed and maimed during the coup. There is now a monument to those who lost their lives on that bridge – serving as a real reminder of the everyday attempts by the extreme right-wing opposition in Venezuela and the United States to undermine and smash the revolution. “

He ended by using the words that many Venezuelan activists had said to him during the visit and following the death of Hugo Chavez earlier this year: “Chavez vive! La lucha sigue! Chavez lives. The struggle continues.”

Ben Hayes, Chair of Student Friends of Venezuela and a student at Goldsmith’s college explained how access to free education in Venezuela is being dramatically expanded in sharp contrast to Britain.

Ben told the meeting:

“I got active in 2010 protesting against out government’s attacks on education. It is then I learnt about Venezuela after I saw millions of people there marching in support of their government’s policies that have given free education to all.”

Today Venezuela has the fifth highest higher education participation rates in the world, after the government rapidly expanded access by making education free to all and building lots of new universities. Ben explained how this investment in education was being used to improve living standards of the whole of society, saying:

We visited the Salvador Allende School of Medicine where students from Venezuela but also wider Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East are able to study medicine for free as long as they then go and serve their communities later on. This is an example of how education there is seen as a social good.”

Ben also described the “shocked faces of the students when they heard about the costs of education in Britain!” He said that the British student movement could take encouragement from Venezuela as “young people there are incredibly politically aware ... it’s a very refreshing change.”

Dominic Curran, Campaigns Officer of the Warwick University Labour Club described how “we saw the housing missions and we saw how people have free healthcare for the first time – it was Chavez that brought this to people”.

Likewise whilst the delegation was in Venezuela the FAO commended the government on its food policies that are ensuring that nearly everyone now eats three times a day; a huge achievement in a country where until very recently over half the population lived in poverty.

Dominic also described another important social project designed to improve the lives of the long excluded:

We used the cable car that now connects the centre of Caracas to the barrios where the majority of poor people live. This has transformed lives. A journey that could have taken some people up to two hours has been cut to ten minutes. People’s lives are transformed by this – they can now participate in their own city.”

He also talked about the opposition campaign to undermine internationally the legitimacy of the social progress in Venezuela by claiming that the country is not a proper democracy. This is done despite 15 elections since 1998 all declared free and fair including by the renowned Carter Centre. Jimmy Carter has stated Venezuela has the best electoral system in the world.

Dominic explained how:

The opposition was printing t-shirts before the recent election had even happened claiming fraud. Then after the election, Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles told the people to go out and discharge their anger - and following their violence 10 people died.”

Dominic reminded the audience that the opposition’s campaign of violence and its refusal to accept the will of the people fits into previous attempts to destabilise Venezuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves. He explained that “estimates show that the US provides around $20m to the opposition”. He added that therefore “sections of the opposition are effectively mercenaries paid for by the United States”.

However he pointed out that despite these interventions:

People in Venezuela are taking control of their own lives...[t]his was part of a continent downtrodden for 500 years – but which is now standing up and saying that it will be no longer be dominated by US imperialism.”

Shelly Asquith, President of the University of the Arts Students Union described the delegation as “incredibly eye opening” and explained how “art and culture are ingrained in this revolution. Walls are covered in political street art and music discusses political values”.

She gave an example of how culture was being used to teach people about their history saying that “when we visited the socialist city of Ciudad Caribe we were greeted by a performance of young children about the overthrowing of the Spanish colonialism.

Shelly noted how culture was also being used to strengthen social inclusion saying: “whilst urban street art here is criminalised here, it is encouraged in Venezuela by the government as a way of empowering young people”. She also described “visiting a community radio station and an info-centre that provides free internet access to the community” citingthese as other examples of social projects that give a voice to the young.

She also talked about “a disarmament campaign” which has won UN praise and “uses popular culture, rappers, musicians and sports stars, to reduce crime”.

Matt Stanley, from the NUS NEC and NUS LGBT campaign described his meeting with the LGBT movement who told him that “before Hugo Chavez we were invisible, but Chavez gave us a platform, he gave a voice to the voiceless.”

To illustrate how this had transformed people’s lives, he cited the example of Gabrielle whom he had met during the delegation:

I met Gabriella, a trans-woman whose life has been transformed by the policies of the Chavez government. Previously from the age of 14 she was on drugs, selling her body and abandoned until Chavez set up the social missions and promoted access to these services to all sections of society including the LGBT community. Now Gabrielle has been given support and counselling, a home and has just completed high school. She is going to university!”

An active member of the Green Party, Matt also described the environmental revolution under way in Venezuela. Hugo Chavez famously remarked that “if the climate were a bank, it would have already been saved” and Matt said it was clear that Venezuela is living through “an eco-socialist revolution that is putting people needs and the planet first”.

He explained that “over 70% of Venezuela’s electricity comes form renewable and there is huge scale investment in sustainability” and under one government scheme “155m low energy light bulbs had been given out for free”.

He also described how the government was engaging with the community to tackle climate change, giving the example of Mission Arbol which “has invested $60 million and involved over 47,000 people from local communities to plant 43 million trees. This represents a reduction in emissions of 133,333 tons of CO2”.

A film is being made about the trip and members of the delegation are available for report back meetings on your campus. Email the VSC at info@venezuelasolidarity.co.uk.

Edited by Venezuelanalysis.