Having spent our first few days in Caracas, we travelled to Higurote, the capital of Brion municipality, in Miranda state, which is part of the coastal region known as Barlovento – a centre of African culture in Venezuela.
Surrounded by beautiful beaches and lagoons, Higurote was named after the indigenous leader Igorot.
The early Spanish colonisers established huge estates here and grew cocoa using slaves brought over from Central Africa.
The slaves were mainly from the Bantu, Kingdom of Loango and Yoruba peoples. In Venezuela, their cultures merged to create the famous drumming culture of Barlovento.
We were there for two days as part of the Venezuela Analysis international solidarity delegation visit that took place at the end of August. The aim of the delegation was to get firsthand experience of the gains and challenges facing Venezuela’s pro-poor Bolivarian Revolution.
We were met by a member of a local community council, which are grassroots participatory bodies found across Venezuela, in which neighbours organise to deal with local problems.
He showed us around a museum called “Chavez Walked Here”. The museum consists of a series of murals painted on the wall of a bridge. The late former socialist President Hugo Chavez visited Barlovento 14 times – it was one of his favourite places to visit and talk to the communities.
We also visited the local Sucre Mission, which provides university education in each of Venezuela’s 335 municipalities, and a centre dedicated to Che Guevara.
We then toured the Acevedo gas plant, where they work with the state oil company, PDVSA, to distribute very cheap gas cylinders to communities.
The gas plant has developed a new type of canister that is safer in the salty coastal air and is less likely to rust.
Our next stop was the cocoa factory, Oderi-El Cimarrón. The name El Cimarrón is a reference to the term used to describe black slaves who managed to escape. It was always used as a derogatory term here, but they have proudly reclaimed it.
The production of cocoa was partially nationalised by Chavez. However, there are still many small independent producers that coexist with state factories. We were taken on a tour through the factory and afterwards enjoyed a hot chocolate drink, the best I have ever tasted.
The next factory we visited was Plátano Argelia Laya where they process plantains.
It was named after a black woman, Argelia Laya, who was born in Rio Chico in 1926. She had been a member of the Venezuelan Communist Party, and was the first black woman activist in Venezuela to demand equal rights for women, including the right to have children out of wedlock, abortion, safe pregnancy, maternity leave and child care.
The factory made jam from plantains. The lid for the jars previously had to be imported, so they changed the mold and managed to find a local source. They have also diversified their production and now make a sweet jelly and a chilli sauce, all from plantains.
The liquid expelled from plantains during the process can be used for fertiliser. This has meant that they are able to barter the fertiliser for plantains from local growers.
Workers from the factory explained that it is often difficult to repair equipment or obtain replacement parts. For example, when an electric cord for a piece of machinery went missing, they found it would cost $200,000 to buy a new one from the United States. In the end, they got a computer cable from China for $300 and adapted it.
There are 2500 recipes for plantains, one of which local women use to make pastelon de plátano, a kind of sweet plantain lasagne, to sell in the street.
The plantain processing plant has been so successful that they are now building a new factory next door, three times larger than the original one, to supply the whole of the Caribbean.
Our final visit was to nearby Rio Chico, where we listened to an orchestra of very young children play some classical Venezuelan music. The orchestra is part of the world-famous El Sistema prgram, which supplies expensive musical instruments for free to children all over Venezuela.
We were also treated to some African drumming and singing.
It was a great experience, topped off by an afternoon lying in the warm waters of Buche Beach, off the Caribbean, following a relaxing boat ride through the lakes to the open seas.