Ten Days in Venezuela: A Visit to the Land of Hope

Returning to the United States from Venezuela is a strange experience. Spending time with poor people hopeful about their future and the future of their children is a heady experience-and not one I've shared in a long time in the US.

Returning to the United States from Venezuela is a strange experience. Spending time with poor people hopeful about their future and the future of their children is a heady experience-and not one I’ve shared in a long time in the US.

I just spent 10 days in Venezuela, participating in a tour sponsored by the Marin Interfaith Task Force (MITF) of Mill Valley, California. There’s a lot I experienced that I’ll try to share, but ultimately this is an impressionistic account, since I don’t speak Spanish-although I had access to excellent translators; have never been further south previously than Mexican border towns; and have no formal training in Latin American studies, etc. That’s not to say I know nothing about Latin America, as I have learned a lot over the years, but is to let readers know my limitations so they can better judge what I have to say.

Despite these limitations, I have been in a “developing country” before: six times in the Philippines between 1986 and 1994, to be exact. I also have a Masters degree in Development Studies from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, where 90% of the students were out of developing countries. And I currently teach a course on the Sociology of Developing Countries at a regional campus of Purdue University in Indiana. So, I bring some knowledge to the situation, but limited.

With this background, and very cognizant of my own limitations, let me share some of my impressions from this quick trip. I traveled in a group of 16 North Americans-from both northern and southern California, and Washington, DC, as well as with two students from Purdue North Central who had just completed my Developing Countries course this Spring -and we traveled with an excellent guide, Lisa Sullivan. Sullivan is a former Marynoll lay missioner, who has lived over 20 years in Latin America, mostly in Venezuela. We spent a couple of days in Caracas, the capital, and visited the States of Lara and Miranda-and particularly the Barlovento region of the latter, which is the center of much of the Afro-Venezuelan population.

Although the US mainstream media rants on and on ad nauseum, incessantly repeating charges that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a dictator, that is incredibly ludicrous: Venezuela is a democracy-with the government having more democratic legitimacy among its people than the current regime has in the US, I might point out-and the society is open and freewheeling. A few minutes of watching the mainstream media down there, which hates Chavez, will dispell any claims of dictatorship. Even Caracas, the rowdy and unruly capital, did not have any feel of repression: there was very little police presence-there are many more cops on the streets in any single day in my adopted home town of Chicago than I saw in 10 days of traveling in Venezuela-and there seemed to be no tension between the people on the streets and the police who were there. People were relaxed, and quite friendly. Yes, there is crime and one has to be aware of what’s going on, but again, I saw nothing that suggested any more tension than in Chicago. Having been in Manila during Marcos’ rule, the difference was amazing.

Along with that, Chavez’ government has been putting massive resources into education and health care for the poor. Somehow, President Chavez got this insane idea in his head that the ordinary people of an oil-rich country should benefit from the use of their natural resources. What an idea-guess that makes him a “communist.” I know we can’t have any of that stuff in the US.

The question I had foremost on my mind, though, was this: who controls the many social programs that the Chavez government has initiated? Are they controlled by the government, top-down, or by the people, bottom-up? By sharing some of my experiences, I believe the answer will become obvious.

We traveled around Caracas. Caracas is a wide city, not very long, that is located in a “valley” between two sets of mountains on the north and south of it-until I got there, I thought Caracas was on the coast, but it is not.

The poor that have moved to the city have built cement block houses on the sides of steep cliffs from the valley upward-it is amazing how people have built on the sides of these mountains and have generally not been washed away. These “barrios” extend far above the city, stacked house on house on house and jammed together. The mountains are steep, and its difficult to access the area except in a jeep.

We visited Barrio Carapita, where we visited with community members. They told us about their new schools, and shared their excitement about the new resources for their children. The pre-school we visited was organized quite well for the children. The community members told us how they organized to take advantage of the government’s offer to support educational initiatives.

One of the interesting things we discovered was that, overwhelmingly, it was the women who were organizing to make their communities better. Apparently, most of the men travel into Caracas to seek any kind of work they can obtain, and those who remain in the barrio do not get involved with community work. Women leaders told us that the men have given up on keeping them from doing their community work, but that the men don’t want to be bothered. It was recognized that a major task was to get the men involved in the community.

Afterward, one of the community leaders taking us elsewhere decided we had to stop at Project Guire, a grassroots environmental effort to clean up the source of water for the city, Rio Guire. Venezuelans are not real careful with garbage, and it accumulates widely, both contaminating parts of neighborhoods and the waterways that rainwater empties into. We stopped and learned about this important initiative, and we smiled knowingly later on when we saw city busses with the Project Guire map covering them, or the big billboards the government has erected to inform people about the effort. This is an important grassroots effort that the government supports.

After lunch, we traveled to a bridge, Puente Llaguno, near the Presidential palace of Miraflores. During the coup attempt in April 2002, the mainstream media showed Chavez supporters (Chavistas) shooting from the bridge at the opposition rally heading toward Miraflores. However, the film “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” showed what really happened: Chavistas on the bridge had been shot at by snipers-a number of people were hit in the head-and only in efforts to drive off the snipers did people start shooting back. Susana Gonzales, who had been present on the bridge during the shooting, gave us a tour and explained developments -including pointing out that the opposition march that the Chavistas were apparently shooting pistols at unprovoked were, in fact, far beyond the reach of any pistols.

The next morning, the rest of the delegation got an overview of Venezuelan history, and met with the Assistant to the Vice Minister to North America from the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry. Lisa Sullivan had arranged for me to meet with leaders from two of the major labor centers that morning, and so I missed these events.

However, I rejoined the group in time to have lunch with Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American now living in Caracas. Golinger is the author of The Chavez Code, an in-depth expose of the role of the US in subterfuge and efforts to undermine the Chavez government. (Having used documents surfaced by Golinger and her colleague, Jeremy Bigwood, to expose the role of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in laying the groundwork for the coup attempt [please link to www.labornotes.org/archives/2004/04/articles/e.html]-in a pattern eerily reminiscent of labor developments prior to the Chilean coup of 1973-it was nice to be able to personally thank her for her work.) Golinger shared news of increasing paramilitary attacks inside the country-apparently the product of “demobilized” Colombian paramilitaries with no resources or skills beyond the ability to terrorize people, and the willingness to work for hire-and talked about threats being made by the United States. She also announced that a new version of her book had just been published in the US, with more explanation and better translation than the initial version published in Havana, and which I encourage people to read.

This was followed by a visit and tour of Fabricio Ojeda, still in Caracas. This is a co-op, considered one of the model centers for the “endogenous” (“development from within”) model being promoted by the government. As the MITF itinerary explains, the center is run by people who live in nearby barrios, and has a textile and shoe co-op, a health clinic, organic garden, sports training facility and is joined with a co-op for disabled people. We only had time to tour the busy, but well-lit, airy and well-organized textile factory, and then the health clinic.

The health clinic was extremely impressive. It was very recently built, but was very modern and up-to-date. Staff members were friendly, and well-trained. They explained how health care was now free for anyone who came to their clinic, whether they lived in the immediate area or not. They explained that under the new government program, health clinics had been built in all the barrios, with advanced services such as surgery and labor and delivery provided at a number of more advanced centers, and all was backed by local hospitals. I only wish the poor in our country had access to such clinics! Also, importantly, where many of the doctors in these clinics initially were Cubans who had volunteered to come to Venezuela to provide services and to train Venezuelan health providers, the staff members we met were all Venezuelan. While appreciating the efforts of the Cubans, the health care staff members were very proud of their own work.

After two all-too-short days in Caracas, we drove to the mountains in the State of Lara. We went to the town of Sanare, about six hours southeast of Caracas. Along the way, we observed the good roads and were impressed with the number of trucks we saw on the highways-apparently, the economy is doing well.

We traveled to a rural high school in La Pastora, where we got to see the results of the “revolution” first hand. The students performed a beautiful traditional dance for us. We then interacted, with both visitors and students asking each other questions. The students were not very shy, and after one or two spoke, the ice was broken. They shared their enthusiasm for learning with us-where before, rural students could get no more than three years of schooling, today they could go on to the university if they qualified. They were eager to talk with us. They showed us food products they had made, and explained their hopes in establishing an agro-tourism industry to provide jobs so people wouldn’t have to leave their area for the cities. We asked about their courses, and we also were told about their education regarding sexuality-the students felt it important that they were provided the information they needed to make responsible decisions. A teacher had told us about students missing due to pregnancy, as well as the presence of AIDS in the area. Somewhere along the line, music began to be played, and soon these high school students were asking their visitors-some in their 60s, 70s and even in their 80s-to dance!

(Later, I learned from one of the women delegates that she had gotten a chance to talk with one of the teachers privately. The teacher had told her of on-going problems in gender relations in the community, including infidelity, spouse-mainly wife-abuse, unplanned pregnancies, and rape. Change in gender relations was slow. A couple of days later, it was announced that a panel of male judges had overturned some fairly basic laws aimed to help protect women.)

That night, we were treated to a “concert” of Afro-Venezuelan music. This music is based on drumming, and is usually quite fast. The musicians-young people that Lisa Sullivan and friends had long worked with-were incredible!

The next morning was a trip to a rural health clinic. The doctor there was Cuban. She had wanted to come to Venezuela while she was married, she explained, but her husband would not permit it; now that she was divorced, she came. She had been in the barrio Palo Verde health clinic for 18 months, and told us of the health problems she regularly saw: there was a high degree of respiratory illness. (We later learned of the high degree of pesticide use in the area, but don’t know if she knew about that.) Interestingly, while trying to find out about any efforts to insure mental health in the region, one participant asked a question about it. The doctor did not understand, and asked for an example-when one person, trying to be helpful, mentioned “depression,” the doctor told us it did not exist in the region. Seems like the struggle to survive and take care of one’s family left little time for feeling bad.

Afterward, we hiked up a mountain-the scenery breathtaking-to visit the agricultural cooperative, La Alianza in Las Lajitas. According to the MITF, this is a cooperative founded over 20 years ago by the French religious order, Little Brothers of Jesus of Charles de Foucault.

The priests and brothers work in the fields with the other co-op members. Besides raising a number of crops and a few head of cattle, the co-op is experimenting with organic agriculture: while some of their land is completely organic, over 70% of their land does not use any pesticides at all. The members had noticed that many people had suffered respiratory problems, and when they quit using pesticides, these problems went away.

The government sees this co-op as a model for the country, and provided it with funds to expand their activities. However, the members refused to just take the money; they insisted that they pay back any loans they received. Through negotiations with the Agricultural Ministry, it was agreed that they would provide workshops and other training for groups seeking to establish their own co-ops. This seems important-the number of co-ops in the country has jumped from 7,000 about seven years ago to over 108,000 today! As the co-op members told us, even if half fail, that still is a major advance for cooperatives.

Following the co-op, we walked down a very steep road to Barrio Monte Carmelo. We had arranged dinner with a family, but we were early, so we went to the local school. We saw older students-in their 40s, 50s and 60s, I believe-who were there, under the government’s educational project, Mission Robinson, to get the education they had never gotten under previous governments. These students had been studying for almost two years, and they showed us their very neat and precise handwriting, all carefully kept in their notebooks. The pride in their efforts was undeniable.

From there, we went to a meeting of the local Council that was taking place in the local church. This was a group of about 10 people, elected by the community, to gather to coordinate various projects in the barrio. They were meeting to plan that Saturday’s work project of cleaning out their community water aqueduct. They talked about their efforts to improve their community.

Before going to dinner, we stumbled on one of the amazing developments taking place. A 76-year old woman was introduced to us, and she told us she had recently returned from Cuba, where she had just had cataract surgery, provided free by the Venezuelan government and performed by Cuban doctors. She still needed her other eye “done,” but she could see good enough where she could begin school-prior to that, she had dropped out of school early to raise her family, and had never gotten the opportunity to get the education she once craved. She was so happy.

However, there was something we learned even more important than just the good fortune of this elderly woman. Where Venezuelans had been flown to Cuba for the eye surgery, now enough Venezuelan doctors had been trained so as to be able to soon start to do these surgeries in Barquisimeto, the major city in Lara. It was expected that people from around the continent would soon be coming to get the surgery they needed. Additionally, the government had also announced that they would provide free cataract surgeries for 100,000 Americans in Barsimeto!

And then, one of the real highlights of the trip: we met Sandino. Sandino was a young man, 19 years old. When we returned to eat with a local family, Sandino was one of the family members. With great presence and enthusiasm, he told us what the Revolution-in actuality, the democratic but revolutionary process currently taking place in Venezuela-meant to young people: hope. He talked about the necessity of getting involved, and spoke with the passion and commitment of the best days of the Black Power, anti-Viet Nam war, and feminist movements in the States. He told the importance of youth. He told the four young people in our delegation of their importance, of the necessity for youth to get involved, to make the world like they wanted it, not just to sit back and accept whatever was handed to them. He touched the hearts of our young in ways unique on the trip.

Finally, it was time to leave Sanare and the barrios around it. Back into our bus, and a long trip back to Caracas. One of the things we saw along with way was beginning efforts to build a cross-country railroad to move freight more efficiently.

We stopped in Caracas. We had sought a meeting with members of the political opposition (to Chavez), to get their take on things, but they failed to respond to our requests.

We did the next best thing: we went to a very fancy mall on the east side of Caracas to see how “the other side” lives-and, let me tell you, they live quite well. I had been told previously that Chavez had really taken care of the “middle class” and so it appeared-among other things, I saw a store where they were selling what appeared to be limited model rifles and swords, and I quickly computed that one sword I saw was selling for around US $8,000! This mall had everything the most modern mall in the US had-and at about similar prices. And it was jammed with people, all amazingly of very light skin color.

(It was explained to me that the elite was much lighter than the “average” Venezuelan, as was characteristic of much of Latin America. Was this stratification system based on “race” or “class”? Eventually, after noting the huge color variations among the poor-usually shades anywhere from black of the Afro-Venezuelans to almost white-and seeing that they generally did not discriminate against each other on the basis of skin color, I concluded that the differentiation was primarily on the basis of class, of economic well-being, rather than primarily on “race.”)

Our visit to Caracas provided another glimpse of the country-this time through the eyes of Chucho Garcia. Garcia, head of the Afro-Venezuelan network, explained to us that slaves were brought to Venezuela from Angola, Benin and the Congo. Other slaves had escaped from Curacao, and when they reached Venezuela, they were free. The government had offered a considerable amount of land in the 1700s to the free Africans in exchange for 20 years service in the Army, in which apparently many had served. And many had settled in the Barlovento region of Miranda State, to which we were soon off to visit.

We were going to Barlovento to observe the three-day feast of St. John the Baptist, commonly referred to as “San Juan.” This feast is celebrated all along the Caribbean coast of Venezuela, but centers in Curiepe, a town founded by freed slaves. It is timed to celebrate their freedom, a celebration similar to Juneteenth in the States.

Since the feast of San Juan extends for three days, we spent time doing other things the day before the festival “officially” opens with the Saint emerging from the local Church after a mass focused around drumming that is only done of these three days.

We visited Bernardo Sanz, an extraordinary drum maker. Sanz, unofficial leader of the region’s musicians, has been named as part of the “national patrimony” of Venezuela. He invited us into his house, and spoke about drumming and what it means for the feast. He then showed us his drum making area, and told us that he only cut down avocado trees for making the drums during the time when the moon was waning, as to do it when it was waxing would introduce small “holes” in the wood.

From Sanz’ house, we traveled to a cacao cooperative, La Ceiba. We got a tour of the cooperative’s plantation, which has been in one family for many generations. We got to see how the cacao was harvested, and then processed-and some of us helped roast the cacao beans that were later turned into a chocolate so good that it was almost an aphrodisiac!

Late that afternoon, and heading into the evening, we got on motor boats and traveled through the national park of mangroves in Tacarigua. Every evening, hundreds if not thousands of birds fly to a small island to sleep for the night, and we got to see this amazing spectacle of multitudes of birds fly in from the southeast to somehow all land on the island without colliding beforehand.

On June 24th, some of us got up and went to the mass for San Juan. One of the interesting things about this feast is that people of Curiepe honor the baby San Juan, not the adult usually celebrated in the Catholic Church. The figurine of San Juan “lives” in a house with a local family during the year, and the doors are open for people to visit “him” 24 hours a day. But for the feast, “he” is taken to the local church to be honored by a mass, and then “he” is paraded through the streets of Curiepe.

The celebration in the streets is one to behold. Residents say over 20,000 people from all over the country come to Curiepe to celebrate San Juan, which makes the small town of 10,000 jump! There is much drinking and dancing in the streets-sometimes it is all but impossible even to walk around through the crowds.

Throughout the entire feast, fast, vehement drumming is at the center. The drummers are of any age, with competence being the only criteria: Venezuelan drumming is much faster than I’ve seen elsewhere. And it goes on and on-as soon as one group of drummers gets tired, another takes place. The music keeps going. And people dance-right in the middle of the streets.

I unexpectedly entered into the celebration. A couple would start dancing, and others would draw around in a circle. Once that happens, the women would take over. They would let the first woman dance for a couple of minutes, then another woman would come out of the circle, push the instigator out of the center and into the periphery, and then would “take over” dancing with the man in the circle. This would continue as long as people were interested.

The women would dance quite “seductively,” but I don’t think it was about sex-I saw it being about power. They were defining themselves publicly, a continuation of what I’d seen throughout the trip, where women did not defer to men, and where the women felt free to wear as “revealing” clothing as they desired, regardless of body type.

One woman saw me watching the dancing, and she pulled me into the circle. I started dancing, and then another woman would replace her. This went on for a while, with women apparently curious to see how this white, North American male would respond to them. Some of the dancing was not only assertive, but actually aggressive-one woman moved in on me to where she was not only touching my stomach but actually began pushing me around. This went on for a little bit, until I refused to budge further-I certainly didn’t understand a lot of what was going on, but found it fascinating that this happened publicly. So much for the shy Latina!

To recover from the festivities, we spent the next day on the side of a pool in our hotel. It was nice just to relax, after being exposed to so much in a short period of time. Later that day, we moved to another hotel near the Simon Bolivar airport, from which we’d depart the next morning. And then it was back to the United States.

What about overall impressions? What did I get from this trip?

First of all, much of the public discourse in the US about Venezuela-both from the government and most pundits-is absolute garbage. Hugo Chavez, with all his faults, is not a dictator. Period. Venezuela is a free country, and I felt no sense of repression or even tension on the streets, whether in Caracas, in the mountains, or by the sea. I saw fewer cops on the street in Caracas on any day than I see every day in Chicago. The “tension” that is being reported is being manufactured by an independent press that hates Chavez, whose “crimes” include not being white (he has indigenous and, I believe African blood, in his heritage), being proud of his heritage, and prioritizing the improvement of life for the poor, which includes about 80% of the population. The wealthy have demonized Chavez, and our Diplomatic Corps and our “independent” reporters accept their trash uncritically, and pass it on as if it were gospel. That’s not to say that Chavez is perfect or that there are no problems in Venezuela-there definitely are-but to say that if one only recounts the problems and ignores the great progress in the lives of the poor, then one is presenting propaganda as truth.

The gains to the poor are very substantial, and are real. The health care programs are exemplary. To get health care facilities into the barrios is a major success, both in the urban and rural areas-and in addition to being established in these poor areas, they appear to be of very high quality. What this means to a mother who has to take a sick child to a clinic at 3 am, and who gets seen and provided excellent care, is simply indescribable-and when one realizes that she would have had to travel long distances before, during office hours, and then still might not be seen…well, you get the idea.

The educational programs are also exemplary. Chavez’ government is devoting tremendous resources to make education available to everyone, and to make college a possibility for all who qualify. No longer are rural kids unable to go to school after third grade. And many adults are back in school today, getting the education they should have gotten when younger but were never able to. Not relying on the Education Ministry, the government has launched “missions” to deliver the education directly to the people-while increasing resources available for the traditional educational system. The hope in students’ eyes-students of all ages-is heartwarming and inspiring. Venezuela, incidentally, got a United Nations award for eradicating illiteracy in little over a year.

The co-op we visited was exemplary, but unlike the health care and education programs, is an exception. It is being seen as a model project, from which others can learn, and its members have been willing to share and teach. Yet, cooperatives are exploding across the country, and should be a major source for people’s livelihoods as well as reduce Venezuela’s traditional dependence on food imports in the upcoming years.

The hope we saw, more than any programs, was in the people’s eyes, especially the young. They felt, for the first time in Venezuela’s history, that they were part of a country and that they were seen as being valuable. They knew the faith their government had in them-and for the poor, Chavez’ is “their” government-and they were responding.

Yet, hard questions must be asked: is this an unusually rosy picture I have been fed? I don’t think so, and although our time was limited, it was very diverse across many different parts of the country. We heard the same thing consistently from the poor. Our guides, not only Ms. Sullivan but others who assisted, had all lived in Venezuela for over 20 years and/or were Venezuelan: they did seem to be painting an over-optimistic picture, and they forthrightly answered every question we asked that I heard. In fact, I specifically asked if we were getting the “rosy scenario” tour-Sullivan said, unequivocally, that the health care and education programs we had seen were developing across the country, although she did point out that the cooperative was unusual.

At the same time, what we heard again and again, was that people-and especially the women and youth-were organizing themselves, creating cooperatives and other programs, and were then utilizing governmental resources to make them work. This is not a top-down effort, where the government comes in as “know it all” and attempts to solve problems for people: it is the people organizing, developing their own priorities and programs, obtaining resources, and putting in the work to make them succeed for the benefit of all involved. This is development from the bottom up.

Yet there are still problems, and they must be addressed. Relations between genders needs to be better addressed within communities-students in the schools we saw did not seem to have any problems with gender equity-and violence against women, physical and psychological, must be ended.

The dependence on food imports is also a problem. Venezuela’s economy must be reshaped so this food, or at least much of it, can be produced in the fertile soil. The expansion of cooperatives should help in this. It is a problem the government recognizes and is trying to address.

The biggest problem is the economy as a whole. Venezuela is not a devastated country,–it has a modern economy. It is a capitalist economy, a developing one-claims that it is “socialist” or “controlled by the Cubans” are garbage. It is too dependent on oil, and we were told the government is trying to diversify it, but the oil is controlled by the government, instead of going into the pockets of investors and the rich, and Chavez’ has diverted a portion of the profits to enhance the lives of the majority. There are good roads across the country, with fewer potholes, I might add, than in Chicago. The country has been electrified, even in the rural areas. It is a much stronger economy than in the Philippines, for example, so they have a chance to really make some of the changes the poor want.

Yet, I can see no way the economy can develop to the US level, or even the Europeans’: Venezuela hasn’t colonized other countries, killed their peoples and stolen their resources for their own benefit.

That means that they are going to have to find some other alternative, to make real Chavez’ desire for a “socialism of the 21st Century,” to meet the needs of their people. That cannot be a capitalist-based economy-at very least, it must be mixed. With global warming and climatic change taking place throughout the world, this means any solution chosen must seek to be both ecologically and economically sustainable, which means it cannot be capitalist.

Can Venezuelans come up with a solution? By themselves, it is doubtful, especially with the pressure from the United States. Can they devise a regional solution, whereby neighboring countries can work together for the good of all, and despite what the United States says or does? Questionable, but not impossible-and the only option I see that they have.

Whether Venezuelans get the chance to try this, ironically, may depend on what ordinary people do in the United States. If we continue to be willing to back whatever disaster the government suggests-whether by the Republicans or the Democrats-then Venezuelans might have to include a “defeat the United States militarily” to their “things to do list.” However, preposterous that might sound, we might think about Iraq and Viet Nam before dismissing the possibility.

On the other hand, if we in the United States refuse to accept whatever hair-brained scam our “leaders” suggest, and decide to check out what is happening in Venezuela ourselves and work to find ways to support their democratic revolution, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez might be a lot more closer to succeeding than we can imagine.

The choice is our’s. Let’s hope the American people will respond to the hope in poor Venezuelans’ eyes, and not the hatred of US politicians.

Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. He and his family live in Chicago. Scipes, a former Sergeant in the United State Marine Corps, has been working for social and economic justice in the US and around the world for over 30 years. He can be reached at [email protected].