Having been picked up from the front of Agua Salud train station, myself and two other members of the first Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Brigade to visit Venezuela were driven to our meeting place where we had arranged to meet Juan Contreras, a well-respected activist in Barrio 23 de Enero and leader of the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar.
Barrio 23 de Enero is a suburb with a population of close to 500,000 and a long history of militant struggle. The CSB acts as a coordinating organisation of the community. The three of us had been to this barrio several weeks earlier with a larger contingent of Australian brigadistas, but we felt we had to come back and talk in more depth with CSB activists about Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution.
We had driven a short distance when we approached a gate with a familiar abbreviation — PM (Metropolitan Police). Since many on the brigade had picked up first-hand experience of the problems with the police, I was a bit apprehensive as we parked next to two police officers on a motorcycle.
We saw Contreras and he immediately explained: “Today [August 22], is a historic day for the community of 23 de Enero, because for 25 years this building that belonged to the metropolitan police — a police force that for 25 years carried out repression against the community of 23 de Enero — is being taken back.
“From here they assassinated many people. They brought young people here, tortured them, hit them. But from today, there is a whole new project being pushed by the community — because from today out of this building will begin to function a community radio for 23 de Enero. This is one of main projects of the CSB.
“In addition, Mission Robinson will operate from these offices, the administrative part. It is the only one of the missions that doesn't have a headquarters in the area.”
Mission Robinson was one of the social missions established by left-wing President Hugo Chavez's government. It is aimed at tackling illiteracy. Across the country, Mission Robinson has already given close to 1.5 million people the ability to read and write.
Contreras explained that this gain was the result of a struggle that began last year to get the local council to hand over the offices. “We applied pressure, we talked with the local council to reach an agreement between the CSB, as an organ that represents the community, and the local council as an institution...
“The people exercised their rights that are established in the constitution, which says that the protagonists of this revolutionary process is the people and participation is important. We are only exercising our right to an opinion and to participate in how we build that future society that we all dream of, that other world that we all say is possible”.
Fed up with the delaying tactics of the police, that morning the community moved into the station and took it over.
Earlier that day, we had met with the Collective Alexis Vive (CAV), which is a young militants who, in homage to their comrade Alexis Gonzalez, assassinated in the very police station that was being taken over, became independent of the CSB and set up the CAV in the central zone of Barrio 23 de Enero.
The oldest member of the CAV is 30. Its members define themselves as Marxists-Leninists, but incorporate Bolivarian ideas into their ideology.
They invited us into a school. Before 2004, the school's director was an anti-Chavista. However, they explained, by strengthening the community through its own organisation and with popular mobilisations, they forced him to resign. Now the school belongs to the community.
The school's auditorium, food hall and toilets were in disrepair, but the CAV and the community “them fixed up”. The school is now used for forums, film nights and classes for Mission Robinson. It will now also be used by Mission Cultura — aimed at rescuing the real culture of the Venezuelan people.
We have found that stories like these are common across Venezuela, as its working people seek to create the “new socialism of the 21st century”.
Many of the schools and other education centres visited by the Australian brigadistas are now are spaces the community fought for, occupying and protesting against oppositionists in positions of authority, in order to reclaim communities' right to participate in the humanist projects of Chavez's Bolivarian government. Such struggles are part of daily life and the process of social transformation that is occurring in Venezuela.
Contreras told us that there are still big challenges ahead. “I believe there are many difficulties, and a barrio like this one — which has existed for 40 years — has many problems with drugs, unemployment. We aren't magicians. We can't solve in a few years all the problems that have accumulated over 40 years. But what is important is that seven years ago we found Hugo Chavez, a person who has a deep love for his people, who understands the problems of his people, who has a high social sensibility and wants to resolve all these problems. For that we are supporting this process.”
Contreras explained that the members of the CSB are also part of Mission Miranda, the national army reserves. “Many people inside and outside Venezuela have criticised this — that Chavez is constructing militias; that Chavez is arming the people... The reserves are no more than all the people passing through military service, to learn the arming and disarming of rifles, to pick up a specialisation within the armed forces, to have experience so that all the people are prepared to defend our nation's sovereignty, independence and to defend our revolution.”
As we left, Contreras provided us with a message to send to Australia. “The people of Australia need to convert themselves into the spokespeople of what this process really is, and against the disinformation campaign, that campaign of lies from the US and the other countries on the side of the US. We can really say that what is being constructed here is a peaceful, democratic process. The people voted for Chavez. The people are happy with Chavez. We are constructing a revolution in peace, a pacific revolution, but the revolution is not unarmed. It has a people that every day is gaining more and more consciousness in the frontline of this battle, whose principal weapon is ideology and consciousness, but for this revolution we are willing to give up our last drop of blood.”
Federico Fuentes is a member of the Australian socialist youth organisation Resistance.
From Green Left Weekly, September 7, 2005.