Bolivarian Circles: A Grassroots Movement

From doing community service and organizing to teaching constitutional rights and responsibilities, this grassroots groups are not what the opposition and their rich pals in Washington want you to think they are.

At times, some Venezuelans, as well as non-Venezuelans, seem to forget the real promises made by current President Hugo Chavez when he was a candidate running for office. Unlike previous presidents, Chavez did not promise to make every citizen rich. On the contrary, Chavez announced time and again that there would be obstacles along the way in order to fully make, implement, and enforce sound policies directed towards the eradication of poverty and the construction of an egalitarian society.

Indeed, Chavez’s political platform included the following points: the restructuring of the Venezuelan political system, participation of the State in state-related matters, fair distribution of income, the fight against corruption, and perhaps the most importantly, accountability of lower levels of government as well as active grassroots political participation for community improvements. Both the Venezuelan and international media did a poor job of presenting the true meaning of these grassroots organizations.

Taking part on this grassroot movement are the groups known as Bolivarian Circles, named after Venezuela’s independent hero: Simon Bolivar. Endorsed by the Venezuelan President and supported by the majority of the population, Bolivarian Circles grouped community leaders and neighbors alike. They worked hand in hand in order to make ends meet at various shantytowns, neighborhoods, and villages across Venezuela.

For instance, instead of waiting for the President, or another high authority or power of the government, to arrive at Barrio La Palomera, near Baruta, Miranda State, neighbors and community leaders, mostly women, went ahead and organized themselves to secure a badly needed medical supply dispensary. In addition, they worked together on the beautification and clean up of La Palomera. By the same token, Bolivarian Circles across Venezuela began an extensive social and political activism intended to aid the usual disenfranchised population of Venezuela. Other Bolivarian Circles, for example, concentrated their work and efforts on feeding the hungry, providing after school care for poor children, securing resources for small businesses, etc.

President Chavez did has done a lot to provide the means and resources necessary for grassroot movements such as the Bolivarian Circles to be able to help themselves. Thus, the Venezuelan National Assembly, with the support of the President, passed legislation and appropriated funds for the creation of a line of credit available for small businesses, particularly those owned by low-income Venezuelans, women, Native Americans (Indigenous), and other minorities.

With the participation of the Bolivarian Circles, President Chavez implemented Plan Bolivar 2000. The plan allowed President Chavez to mobilize the Venezuelan Armed Forces in poor areas of the country with the goal of providing health care, subsidized food, construction equipment, school tutoring, and logistical organization to those who needed it most: the poor in the shantytowns of Caracas and other large cities of Venezuela.

All of this, on its own, represented a major achievement, especially in a country like Venezuela, where unfortunately most of the people were not used to grassroots community organization and development. Moreover, President Chavez also suggested that Bolivarian Circle members had to carry on a civic duty as well. By this, he meant that members were in charge of learning and teaching their constitutional rights and responsibilities. Members of Bolivarian Circles thereby became common defenders of the Venezuelan Constitution. Even though the Venezuelan Constitution was ratified and voted on, and for, by almost 80% of the voting population in the National Referendum of 1999, this Constitution was outlawed by the 48-hour dictatorial government that presided Venezuela after the April 11th military-civilian coup sponsored by the opposition.

After the coup, grassroot organizations and the Bolivarian Circles put into practice all the civic and community training they had obtained in previous years to allow, not only President Chavez to be back in office, but also the Venezuelan Constitution to freely reign in a country meant to be free by its brave people.

The immediate reaction of the Venezuelan opposition was to demonize the Bolivarian Circles. After all, the Bolivarian Circles were the ones that rescued and guaranteed democracy in Venezuela. Opposition leaders and followers accused Bolivarian Circles of being armed and practitioners of terrorism. The Venezuelan and international media, major allies of the Venezuelan opposition, did their job by conveying such false messages through newspapers, radio, and television broadcasts. In the end, these poor grassroots Bolivarian Circles, with their limited resources and inefficient public relations, had to compete for public approval against major media corporations worldwide. This was a remake of David and Goliath, Venezuelan style.

What makes such media reaction even more irrational, if not laughable, is that in neighboring Colombia a somewhat similar program was created, yet television, radio, and newspapers said nothing to criticize it. Indeed, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe also encouraged Colombian citizens to organize themselves at a community level. However, contrary to Chavez’s community improvement and civics-oriented call, Uribe’s own “Red de Informantes” (Informants’ Network) pretended to align, engulf, and engage poor Colombian peasants into a war with no end in sight.

As a matter of fact, while governor of Colombia’s Antioquia State, Uribe developed a similar program, CONVIVIR, and its results were disastrous for poor countryside people. Indeed, Colombian and international human rights activists condemned CONVIVIR as nothing less than an institutionalized program for the “paramilitarization” of civilians. According to these human rights groups, Uribe’s CONVIVIR did absolutely nothing positive for the improvement of the needy.

Where was the international media when it was time to criticize Uribe’s Red de Informantes? Why were the Bolivarian Circles evaluated by different standards than the Red de Informantes? International media needs to answer these questions, for otherwise its credibility will suffer tremendously. Also, Colombian citizens should confront and oppose President Uribe’s aggressive programs, as well as Colombian and international media, for looking the other way, thereby allowing such climate of confrontation to take place in Colombia.

In Venezuela, on the other hand, Bolivarian Circles have not been given the opportunity to show their true meaning. The Venezuelan opposition as well as the Venezuelan and international media have stopped the Bolivarian Circles from presenting their humanitarian character. Nonetheless, with or without Chavez in office, Bolivarian Circles will continue their quest to improve conditions in Venezuela at a community level.

President Chavez did fulfill his campaign promise of providing the tools for self-help and political awareness. President Chavez planted the seeds. And future generations, as well as history, will one day appreciate such generous actions.

Alvaro Sanchez was born in Venezuela and is a middle school teacher in Miami. He is a graduate of the State University of New York, Albany. He is currently working on his Master’s Degree in Latin American history.