Vuelvan Caras: Venezuela’s Mission for Building Socialism of the 21st Century

Venezuela is proposing to transform the neoliberal economic model through endogenous development. Mission Vuelvan Caras, which has come to represent a cornerstone in this project, has incorporated over 350,000 lanceros, as the participants are known, in cooperatives that promote national development, protect culture and the environment, and prioritize human beings over profits.

During the war for independence from Spain, Venezuelans called upon their countrymen to vuelvan caras – about face – meaning to turn around and directly face the enemy.  The enemy today in Venezuela is not Spain, but rather unemployment, and with the mission Vuelvan Caras, the Bolivarian government is calling on Venezuelans to turn around and face the enemy.

“To be capable of producing the seeds  that we sow, the food that we eat, the clothes that we wear, the goods and services that we need, breaking the economic, cultural and technological dependence that has halted our development, from within. Vuelvan Caras Official webpage.

With the deregulation of markets, multinational corporations have effectively been handed a free pass to trample on the human rights and cultures of peoples and to decimate the environment.  As cheap labor has been prioritized over trade unions and workers’ rights, and the concentration of technology and capital has marginalized local workers from education, land, and civil society, it has become painfully clear that the benefits of ‘growth’ are not widely shared. Armed with macroeconomic statistics affirming the increases in GDP, exports, and per capita income, elite-controlled governments, more-often-than-not pawns of U.S. corporate interests, persist in espousing the recycled neoliberal rhetoric, sweeping other measures of reality, such as employment, urbanization, illiteracy, and malnutrition rates, under the rug.

If economic growth is conceived purely in terms of the profits of multinational corporations, then indeed, the triumph of neoliberalism stands unchallenged, albeit at a high price.  However, endogenous development challenges the prioritization of profits over people and envisions the transformation of this economic model that perpetuates exclusion, poverty and marginalization. Endogenous development contemplates growth from within, converting a country’s own natural resources into products that it is able to both consume and export.  Through education, horizontal workers’ relations and dignified employment, endogenous development opens a space where social justice and economic growth complement each other instead of sacrificing the former for the latter. “Rather than relying on market forces and globalization,” writes Richard Gott in The Shadow of the Liberator, “the state would actively seek to promote the internal development of the country for the benefit of the great majority of its people, using its own resources and whatever planning mechanisms might be necessary.” 

Venezuela’s Bolivarian government also transforms production relations by placing control of the endogenous development ventures, called cooperatives, in the hands of the new decisive actors—Venezuelans—not an international company unfamiliar and/or unconcerned with their reality.  Whereas the success of neoliberalism is measured only in monetary terms, endogenous development asserts that environmentally-friendly policies, cultural respect and fair wages take precedence over profits.

“I work with the cooperatives to make sure that their work is sustainable, to make sure that over time it bears fruit and to make sure that the market has dignity,” explains Pedro Alexander Gonzalez, a Caracas-based lawyer who specializes in customs laws.  “We must get out of the mentality that says that the market is first and that society is second.  No. It is the other way around.  Society is the most important and then the market. One thing is economic growth—and I have studied this—and the other thing is the quality of life, and they are not always related. And this is what we are working towards:  quality of life…economic growth, digits, numbers, and all of that that is fine, but quality of life is something that the people see and feel and live.  If you go into the hills, into the countryside, alongside the highway the Panamericana, you will see Barrio Adentro. It is something tangible that the people see and that helps them,” he affirms.

Vuelvan Caras – About Face!

By December 27th, 2003, one million Venezuelans had graduated from Mission Robinson I, a two year literacy program designed to teach Venezuelans to read and write at a second grade level. In order to ensure that the one million mark would not just be held up as a trophy achievement but rather would become the base for Venezuelans to further their education, to be able to fully participate in their democracy and to pull themselves out of poverty, the Bolivarian government set the goal of making Venezuela “Illiteracy Free Territory” and forged ahead with Robinson II and created other educational missions such as Ribas and Vuelvan Caras.

Initiated in November, 2003, Mission Ribas is a two-year high school completion program that targets the five million Venezuelans who dropped out of or never had the chance to enroll in high school. In a classes of no more than thirty, the participants study Spanish, math, world geography, Venezuelan economics, world history, Venezuelan history, English, physics, chemistry, biology, and computer science, as well as several electives, with the assistance of audio visual equipment.[1] Over 800,000 participants are studying in classes that are held from 6pm to 9pm Monday through Friday or all day, Saturday and Sunday, and another 900,000 are waiting to enroll.[2] More than tests or quizzes, evaluation is based on class participation, homework, and presentations such as the ‘Community Social-labor Component,’ where in groups of two or three, participants use both personal experience and academics to develop proposals to solve problems in their communities.

“Mission Ribas is where high school students are prepared as professionals,” states Nestor Asdrúbal Enrique Calzadilla, a city councilman of the Caracas district Valle Coche.[3] Calzadilla believes that Mission Ribas is “truly where the revolutionary change comes.”  “This is what this country needs, new blood, new professionals, people who never thought that they could be professional…this is where the revolution and the development of this country begins,” he affirms.  

Mission Ribas closely cooperates with Vuelvan Caras.  Graduates in the former who find themselves under or unemployed are encouraged to enroll in the latter, where they receive training in endogenous development and subsequently are incorporated into the formal economy. “The vast majority of the lanceros (participants in Vuelvan Caras) come from other missions, which shows the progress that they have made, says Yenny Rangel, a coordinator of in the eastern state of Anzoátegui.

“The majority of us were unemployed or were employed part-time before Vuelvan Caras,” says Alexis Laya, the President of the ‘Carpenters in Action’ Cooperative. “I worked as a security guard. But here security guards hardly make any money, let alone social security.  In my case, the job covered the very basic expenses.  I stopped working as a security guard because of the Mission Ribas…I decided well, here is the opportunity, and if not now, then never, because the private schools are too expensive,” he explains.   

According to the Minister of Popular Economy, Elías Jaua, Vuelvan Caras has thus far trained 358,316 lanceros [4]in a twelve month course conducted by the National Institute for Educational Cooperation (INCE), a branch of the Education Ministry designed to provide training courses to the labor force. The INCE courses train lanceros in areas such as electricity, wiring, ironworks, agriculture, fishing, construction, services, tourism, textiles, transportation and arts and crafts.

Wilfredo Moxillo, a member of the Cooperative El Recreo 733, also became involved in Vuelvan Caras via Ribas. “I have over thirty years of experience in construction but I did not have any theory.  I did it without studies.  I did by watching, by learning. [In Vuelvan Caras] the teacher taught us how to make a wall of two meters, how to measure the walls, how to determine how much materials are needed for a project, how much they will cost, how to calculate the dimensions, etc. I have never had an opportunity like this.” 

During the one year course, the government grants monthly scholarships of 186,000 bolívares (approximately $93), as a means to supplement the incomes of the most needy students. Ten percent of the scholarship is deducted and placed in a fund in the National Development Bank in order to grant scholarships to future lanceros as a means to build “solidarity values” in the words of Jaua. As of December, 2004, 228,065 participants have been granted a scholarship. “It was not anything big, but it subsidizes a little for the month,” says Joam José Bracho, President of the Esmapi 454.RL cooperative. Bracho’s Esmapi cooperative restores furniture, colonial houses or historical buildings that require special wood treatment. He adds, “we were there struggling, because, imagine, with a salary like that, it was difficult, but I thought, well ‘we will overcome’ as it is said. And we received the scholarship for a year, we graduated and then we started to receive advances on our salaries because as a block we have a ton of projects and there we go, moving forward.”

In 1999, Bracho, like 52.4% of all employed Venezuelans, worked in the informal sector. Due to initiatives such as Vuelvan Caras, this percentage had decreased by April, 2005 to 47.1 percent[5]. Vuelvan Caras is also helping to chip away at unemployment rate, which decreased between 1998 and 2001 from 16% to 14.2%.  After shooting up due to the short-lived April 2002 coup and the economic sabotage of December 2002-February 2003, unemployment further decreased to 12.6% in June 2005 and is expected to be in single digits by the end of the year.

Yet more than just doing a job, as Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez pointed out during a his 2005 International Workers’ Day speech, the 264,000 people who graduated from Vuelvan Caras on May 3rd, 2005 will use their academic and technical formation in diverse areas of the economy to further the development of the nation.  As Vuelvan Caras has expanded from 10,000 to 33,933 cooperatives, their newest goal is to empower the 1.2 million unemployed Venezuelans to study in the mission, form a cooperative, and incorporate themselves into one of the five endogenous development ‘fronts’: agriculture, industry, infrastructure, tourism, and services. 

Progress has been made in each of the five fronts. For example, in the town of Mortaco-Tupupita, located along the Orinoco River, a cooperative established one-hundred fishing farms, that will increase fish production in the zone to 2,400 tons per year. This project will be extended to the states of Bolívar and Delta Amacuro, creating 900 additional jobs for small fishing communities in areas such as processing, storing and selling the fish. A plastics processing plant in the state of Carabobo and a cacao processing plant in the state of Miranda will generate over 350 jobs. Infrastructure initiatives are optimizing distribution and transportation networks, building hospitals, schools, and water and sanitation systems. In the tourism front, cooperatives are designing educational packages designed to present Venezuela’s natural beauty from an educational vision, teach a bit of the country’s history and explain its culture and values. Entertainment, arts and crafts and restaurant cooperatives are also forming in the tourism front. According to a Coordinator in the tourism front, Amarilda Mergueiro, Vuelvan Caras is now offering a 48-workshop course in tourism.

All five fronts strive to achieve a balance between humans and the environment, between technology and culture. Environmental-friendly policies and respect for culture are two of the key elements in Vuelvan Caras’ vision statement. They are not goals, but rather requirements for any endeavor that a cooperative undertakes.  For example, the Ministry of Agriculture and Land elaborated Special Planting Plans that obligates cooperatives to plant trees in zones that have been slashed and burned and replace soil where their work has caused it to erode.  Also, Vuelvan Caras is closely cooperating with the Production and Commerce Ministry to evaluate the benefits of hydroponics, an environmentally-friendly, high-nutritional alternative fodder for cattle, goals, sheep, horses, pigs, rabbits and birds.

Endogenous development is seen as a creative tool through which culture is honored rather than an instrument of exploitation and oppression.  Venezuelans are encouraged to look to their roots, to their history where they form a cooperative. Often one discerns a cooperative from the mere mention of the region in which it is being carried out, or vice versa.  For example, cacao in Barlovento; fish in Delta Amacuro; strawberries and milk products in Merida; corn in Guárico; plantains in Zulia, and tourism in the state of Bolívar.

Model of Inclusion

“It is understood that together people are powerful.  Alone they are not.  Working as equals, Venezuelans understand that they can fulfill their collective needs. Doing a productive activity, creatively, where technology and popular knowledge unite together with beliefs, customs, and the environment,” El Desarrollo Endógeno y La Misión Vuelvan Caras.  

Linkages between different fronts, notably agriculture, industry, and service sectors, are propelled in order to increase efficiency of the national economy.  Referred to as ‘productive subsystems,’ ‘clusters,’ and ‘blocks,’ the diversification of production entails the creation of a series of forwards and backwards links that ideally unite cooperatives in the following steps: production, processing, transformation, distribution, commercialization, and consumption. A typical example in Venezuela is the process of making chocolate. One cooperative plants and harvests the cacao; another shells and dries it; it is then converted into different products and packaged by another cooperative; other cooperatives distribute it nationally and internationally.  These forward and backward links are created in textiles, agriculture, fishing, livestock raising, construction, and tourism, among other endogenous development projects.

Joam José Bracho’s Esmapi 454.RL cooperative is a member of the Lanceros Infrastructure Block, which unites 147 people in thirteen different cooperatives in the area of construction. “We are people who were trained in different courses, in different areas such as wood working, electricity, wiring, etc – there are several areas,” he explains, adding, “so we decided to made a block and unite ourselves completely in order that we can attack all of the necessary parts of any construction job…And we are going along advancing, growing, more and more and incorporating more associates in the cooperative because we do not follow that model of exclusion but rather of inclusion.” 

Inclusion in Vuelvan Caras is not only about incorporating cooperatives, but also emphasizes, in the words of President Advisor Miguel Angel Nuñez, “a new type of labor relations.”  Endogenous development challenges the neoliberal model in that workers relationships are horizontal, not vertical, and networks are constructed where everyone participates in equal conditions. 

Raul Hurtado, a member of the cooperative Aposento Alto 452 Electricity and a member of the National Reserves, considers Vuelvan Caras to be pivotal in the deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution.  An electrician with twenty-five years of experience, Hurtado’s cooperative is working in the Lanceros Infrastructure Block.  “What is clear is that the cooperative is a model that is developing in Venezuela so that we, the people, are all equal. Here in the cooperatives, there are no bosses…Of course we have our laws and we must follow them. And if there are problems in the cooperatives, then the cooperatives themselves solve the problems.”  Hurtado explained that these internal laws gave each cooperative the freedom to choose their own work schedule – his cooperative works from 8am to 5pm – and allotted the responsibility to each cooperative to hold its members accountable.  For example, in the event that a lancero did not show up to work for a week, the cooperative, as a collective entity, is in charge of deciding whether or not s/he should be expelled.

Without the support of the Bolivarian government, Vuelvan Caras would never have come to be and in the event that Venezuelans united to form a cooperative, it is likely that like so many small businesses in the United States and throughout the world, it would have gone bankrupt. This support is not only expressed through the training courses or the scholarships.  Government offices such as Fundabarrios and Fundapatrimonio are hiring cooperatives to do jobs previously given to large-scale businesses and utilizing them in the construction of far-reaching ventures, such as the housing project. 

‘Ambition’ Becomes a Reality

“In order to be able to construct a viable future, countries must have the internal and inward-looking capacity to produce and administer knowledge and capitalize relevant experiences that permit them to elaborate their own programs.”  Hacia una Cultura Global de Paz, UNESCO Manila, the Philippean Islands, November, 1995.  

Endogenous development is described as “the imaginative ambition of Latin America’s nationalist left for nearly half a century,” in Richard Gott’s The Shadow of the Liberator.  This ‘ambition’ is rapidly solidifying to challenge the neoliberal model and perhaps, offer a bit of direction for the ‘guiding hand’ of the market, that up until now, has served only to widen the income gap between the rich and the poor.

Joam José Bracho believes that the most urgent obstacle endogenous development faces, both nationally and internationally, is that “it clashes with the previous model, or what was old and established.”  Bracho cautions that since a lot of people do not accept cooperatives because “they already have model formed in their heads, the model of the salaried workers and they resist change,” endogenous development may stunted.

But as with all the nascent counter-proposals to neoliberalism, it would be premature to attempt to evaluate whether or not it is feasible, let alone probable, that the endogenous development model changes the complexion of Venezuela’s economy and society. However, Joam José Bracho believes that the changes that have occurred in Venezuela since the fall of the 4th Republic are irreversible, “and more than that, several countries are waiting for the results of this so that they also change this model in their country.”

[1] Ribas is divided into two levels, the first is basically the equivalent of 9th and 10th grade and the second, of 11th and 12th grade.

[2] There are 5,604 study centers and 24,626 facilitators.

[3] Interview with Jonah Gindin.  March 23, 2004.

[4] Lanceros were mestizos who fought in the independence war.

[5] http://www.vuelvancaras.gov.ve/home.php