In Venezuela, A Bid to Empower Poor Barrios

Residents form worker cooperatives and take charge - with government support. "Before, officials did what they wanted," Sojo says. "Now communities are waking up to their role, to their power."

CARACAS, VENEZUELA – For residents of this crowded barrio of crude houses, piled haphazardly in one of the river canyons that cut through Caracas, good jobs are few. Most people work for themselves in Venezuela's huge informal economy, where employment is irregular, ill-paid, and sometimes dangerous.

So, on a recent warm evening, some 20 men and one woman who make their livings roaring around Caracas on motorcycles carrying people and parcels, met in a small church to organize for mutual help and economic leverage. After an hour's enthusiastic discussion, the group founded the third workers' cooperative to be created in the Los Erasos barrio and one of the latest to be formed in Venezuela, where grass-roots organizing has boomed with the encouragement of President Hugo Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution."

Out of their daily incomes of about $12, members of the cooperative will contribute about $2 per week into a repair fund to keep the members rolling. The group hopes to negotiate work and maintenance contracts – and to obtain government benefits.

"For the government, the motorcyclists are a strategic arm," the leader says, pointing out their participation in pro-government marches. "The government, recognizing this, is giving the motorized groups many advantages, and they are going to give them many more."

The other two cooperatives in this barrio now work for the city, sweeping the streets. In addition, Los Erasos has created committees to manage health issues, define land ownership, identify infrastructure problems, and monitor how the government spends money on repairs. Barrio residents now contract with the government to do the construction work.

"The Chávez government has given us more participation," says Anibal Llamozas Lapicero, a jack-of-all-trades who is a member of the governing council.

"Before, [the government] said 'this is what we're going to do,' and you couldn't do anything about it if they used bad cement" in construction work, he says.

Under the new arrangements, the barrio has repaired water pipes and rebuilt concrete stairways. Its health committee manages tasks such as environmental education and rat extermination, and monitors the work of the Cuban doctors here. The lands committee is helping residents obtain titles to the land under their homes.

The government has also created numerous programs, or missions, for poor neighborhoods. Los Erasos has three soup kitchens, which serve two meals a day to about 400 residents, as well as adult- education programs. Pedro Elias Cruz Guevara, who heads the neighborhood council, says that translates into more than 80 percent local support for Chávez. Nationally, polls give Chávez about 70 percent support.

Chávez critics say these programs are inefficient and that their main purpose is to buy support for the government. The largess, say critics, will last only as long as oil prices stay high. The government also subsidizes food, housing, and gasoline.

Despite record petroleum earnings, which provide half the government's income, Venezuela's budget is only breaking even, says Robert Bottome, editor of the business newsletter VenEconomia. "For [the missions] to be sustainable, you have to be able to continue paying for them," he says. "What's going to happen when the price of oil goes down?"

But Mark Weisbrot at the Center for Economic Policy Research in Washington, D.C., says foreign reserves and a huge trade surplus give Venezuela a cushion. "There's nothing the government's been doing that's remotely unsustainable."

The programs for the poor underline the fact that, despite years of high oil prices, many in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter remain poor. More than half the people live in poverty and the official unemployment rate is 11 percent, although Los Erasos residents estimate that only 40 percent of working adults are in the formal economy.

And grass-roots organizations must still battle with corruption, apathy, and inefficiency. In 1999, torrential rains killed thousands of residents of coastal towns and swept away hundreds of houses in the barrios crowding Caracas's ravines. But in the barrio San José, a mile west of Los Erasos, officials have let residents rebuild houses along the edge of the canal, even though the area is designated high risk.

"We don't want to be here, but we have nowhere else to go," says Rosamary Luna.

Community organizer Freddy Sojo blames official apathy and favor- trafficking for failure to enforce the law. Now, he says, the lands committee plans to work with residents to move them onto unused land or into new apartment buildings. Mr. Sojo says the neighborhood is seeking government funds and plans to create a group to oversee local officials.

"Before, officials did what they wanted," Sojo says. "Now communities are waking up to their role, to their power."