Three months after the takeover of the local metropolitan police station by the poor community of 23 Enero, in the west of Caracas, the place is as busy as a beehive. The Coordinadora Simon Bolivar (CSB), a militant grassroots community organisation, has been instrumental in involving members of the barrio (neighbourhood) in transforming the derelict old police station into the pride and joy of the poor suburb.
The community is especially proud of the massive portraits painted by local artists of Latin American revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar crowning the entrance to the centre. Juan Contreras from the CSB explained: “Now our heroes greet us, not the stench of a rotten and violent system represented by the corrupt police force. Instead of having corrupt police guarding the front gate, grandmothers are doing their daily exercises under the supervision of Cuban health professionals. The centre now also provides education, dance lessons for children, and will be launching its very own radio station on November 25.”
23 Enero has hundreds of shanty houses interspersed with massive run-down apartment blocks, broken cars, stray dogs and some stunning political murals. Contreras explained that 23 Enero used to have a lot of green space, however during the 1970s, there was a massive depopulation of the countryside that filled the rolling green hills with hundreds of little shanty houses. “Through the new land laws, people now actually have land titles and own their own houses, however small or run down. The Urban Land Committees [made up of delegates elected by the local community] have become quite key to helping organise the community and educate people on their land rights as enshrined in the constitution.
“We think cultural and artistic expression is very important for our community and it also beautifies our suburb in the most political and natural way.”
This story is being replicated across the city of Caracas and throughout Venezuela. San Augustin, another dirt-poor, sprawling barrio in the centre of Caracas, also has its very own Casa Cultural now. San Agustin is known as a great producer of cultural talent, but the impoverished community had no space or resources for its cultural activities.
In April 2004, the local Citizens Assembly of San Augustin del Sur, in consultation with the local community, decided to take over the old and derelict Teatro Alameda, which had stood empty for over 30 years. Victor Sequera from the Casa Cultural Teatro Alameda told GLW: “The Bolivarian revolution has opened up space for citizens’ participation — in fact it is encouraging it. For us it has always been obvious that culture is the essence of a people. We have to retake, rebuild and reconstruct what had been stolen from us for over 500 years of colonialism and greed from our previous governments. It’s up to us to retake what by rights is ours.”
Apart from its cultural activities, Casa Cultural Teatro Alameda also promotes physical and spiritual wellbeing. Parents are encouraged to bring their kids to music classes while they themselves participate in a range of cultural activities. The Casa Cultural also has a space for eye testing and runs Mission Ribas, one of the many government-sponsored social programs that provides secondary level school education for adults. Across the road is Mission Mercal, another program that gives heavily subsidised food to the community. Once a week, the Casa Cultural also becomes the pick-up point for 200 cooperatives operating in the area to collect their free food parcels, which are then distributed to the specified sectors.
“Our people have suffered a lot, poverty and misery have taken its toll on many and alcoholism is a real problem in our community. However, we have already noticed a drop in delinquency and family violence due to the social action citizens are taking and the cultural activities we are offering. Our revolution is a process and every process needs active participation and a certain level of consciousness”, explained Sequera.
“For so many years, the majority of Venezuelans were marginalised and excluded from any real decision-making process. This is over now; our task is to teach ourselves and our children how to run this country.”
From Green Left Weekly, November 23, 2005.