CARACAS, Venezuela – The trip to Venezuela marked the culmination of a college seminar in which I registered along with 16 others here in Connecticut. The course objectives were to comprehend President Hugo Chavez’ “Bolivarian Revolution” and to get a glimpse of the “misiones” that are its backbone. Because mainstream media has nothing but condemnation for Chavez and his projects, we were very interested in finding out what activities the Venezuelan people are engaged in that pose such a huge threat to the West, in particular to the United States.
Landing in Caracas felt much like landing in Manila. The climate is very similar (though perhaps not as humid), as were the buildings and commercial logos. Familiar billboards of Nescafe, Pepsi, etc. were visible from our hotel, serving as landmarks on the occasions that we ventured out on our own. But inhabited by a mere 5 million – Venezuela’s total population is 25 million – Caracas isn’t as crowded as Metro Manila. The affluent in Caracas who comprise a tiny minority are surrounded by the poor who are concentrated in slums along the hillsides. We were taken to one such slum by a former Maryknoll priest from the U.S. who had lived in that neighborhood for many years. That, too, felt like being in Tondo. The priest reminded me of Father Gigi, an Italian priest whom we met in New York not long after he was booted out of Tondo in an army jeep and shoved into a Rome-bound plane by the Marcos dictatorship in the late 1970s.
But what was very different from the Philippines are Venezuela’s remarkable misiones and cooperatives. We visited a cooperative that included a garment factory, a shoe factory, and a medical clinic. The latter, especially, impressed all of us, even those in our group whose only point of comparison was the U.S. Furnished with the latest equipment and staffed with doctors trained by Cubans (up to 20,000 Cuban doctors are in Venezuela for this purpose), the clinic had its waiting room filled with patients of all ages, poor patients who were getting medical care at zero cost. Medicine was also dispensed entirely for free. Although not large, the clinic offered dental, pediatric, obstetrical/gynecological, and other specializations; it had X-ray machines and equipment to conduct simple lab tests, and could handle common ailments. What a contrast to our own situation in the Philippines!
Both the shoe and garment factories were clean, spacious, and airy, quite unlike the factories I’d visited outside Manila. Like most shoe and garment factories, the majority of the workers were women. In the garment factory the conventional gender division of labor prevailed; that is, the cutters were men. What departed from convention was that the cutters were not paid more than the sewers. But the most unusual sight for me was that of women working together on a whole outfit, rather than each sewer being confined to, say, sewing only a sleeve or a collar. One could see how labor here was not alienated, the workers themselves deciding how they would go about the production process. Our guide, a journalist, told us that these women came from neighboring slums who were working for the first time and, under no pressure by a supervisor, tended to work at a leisurely pace.
Nearby was a government-subsidized food cooperative that sold basic foodstuff for half the price. We walked through the aisles poring over the food products and toiletries and making a few purchases. We learned that almost half the population procures food at subsidized prices, and one million get food for free. Add that to the fact that 17 million are for the first time receiving universal health care and free medicine, and it is clear that this was a government determined to meet the needs of the majority, not the privileged few.
We visited the new Bolivarian University that is located in what were formerly the central offices of PdVSA, Venezuela’s oil company. Ironically, these offices constituted the nerve center of planning for the aborted coup in April 2002 (engineered with thinly-veiled U.S. support) and, in December of the same year, a work stoppage intended to cripple the Chavez government. Now they had become the site for the construction of an alternative worldview, a transformation that is necessary if the Bolivarian ideals are to take hold. In line with the goals of the Bolivarian Revolution, the new University has two priority areas of study: medicine and education. According to the young Dean who addressed our group, the goals are well-being and social justice, both of which are possible only in opposition to neoliberalism and empire. In practical terms this means educating doctors to work in poor communities rather than in expensive private hospitals, and shaping people’s thinking to uphold humane values over purely material, acquisitive ones.
It was interesting to learn that as the new Bolivarian University is being developed, the old one is allowed to continue. The propertied send their children to the latter, while the formerly excluded, who now enroll for free, are recruited to the new University. The two institutions that we visited, the medical clinic and the university, represent the manner in which the society is being transformed. Parallel structures are set up alongside the old, rather than the latter being torn down. It is perhaps because of this gradual, peaceful process of change that everyone we met and talked to who openly admitted that they had some criticisms and that they were not “Chavistas” would nonetheless declare their support. “I’m with the process,” is what we resoundingly heard everywhere we went. Along with a few others in our group, I wondered about the absence of a party formation and what its ramifications might be for the endurance of this unprecedented revolutionary movement. There are no easy answers in response to this particular concern, of course. Needless to say, the total freedom with which people we approached spoke up and the absence of a toe-the-line mindset were quite appealing.
Despite persistent negative publicity by the domestic media (80 % of which is privately owned), Hugo Chavez can count on the majority for support because of the tangible results his government delivers. “Government” here also means ordinary people, not an impersonal bureaucratic state, for indeed Chavez has many times called upon the historically-disenfranchised majority to take power into their own hands. It is the misiones that are the embodiment of people’s empowerment, because it is through these “Bolivarian circles” that people are being trained to administer projects on their own behalf. Through the literary program, for example, well over one million people have learned to read and write in just seven years.
These community-administered efforts brought to mind, in stark relief, charitable undertakings such as that of Gawad Kalinga in Payatas where inhabitants have purportedly become middle-class citizens, thanks to the largesse of religious and business enterprises and good-hearted philanthropists. A world of difference separates those who have been turned into objects of charity (bestowed by now cleansed consciences) and those in the communities we observed where individuals appeared to be active participants in the re-making of their immediate environment. Among the latest misiones is that of poor single mothers who have organized to get loans from a special women’s fund and who, under the new constitution, are entitled to financial support as caregivers.
Principal among the constitutional changes were the radical “49 laws” designed to regulate the production and taxation of oil, land tenure, the fishing industry, and to prevent the privatization of social security, to cite a few. Worthy of special mention is a constitutional provision that protects the interests of indigenous peoples, Afro-Venezuelans and those of mixed-race, a first in Venezuelan society. We visited Barlovento, a region founded by freed slaves. There we met poor Afro-Venezuelan students who were receiving free medical training as well as adults enrolled in a literacy program. Our guide was a professor, a specialist in the history of Afro descendants, who delivered a rousing lecture on this history. He described to us how masses of people in Barlovento went to Caracas to rally around Chavez during the attempted coup. They rode buses, cars, whatever vehicle was available. Many walked the 100 miles to Caracas, he told us, remarking that he himself could not help but cry at this completely spontaneous and exceptionally moving outpouring of support.
Oil resource, military
In addition to Hugo Chavez’s own will to form a government for the people, he clearly has advantages that few Third World heads of state possess. Two that immediately stand out are Venezuela’s oil resource and the special character of Venezuela’s military. Although Chavez has not made a move to nationalize privately owned big industry – a hallmark of what we know as “socialism”- he is using oil revenues to finance his various projects. And he can bank on the military’s allegiance because, unlike other Latin American militaries (indeed, unlike the Philippine military), Venezuela’s military remains independent from U.S.’ influence. It has not, for example, sent soldiers for training to the infamous School of the Americas, now renamed, for cosmetic purposes, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security. In their classes, moreover, soldiers learn about their country’s independence struggles. What Chavez has striven to accomplish, then, is a salubrious civilian/military melding in which soldiers work side by side with ordinary folks in their many people’s ventures. Such mutual trust is particularly necessary in light of the very real danger posed by the small elite who, except for U.S. superpower backing, would count for virtually nothing.
It must be remarked that Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution is completely indigenous and follows no existing model. Its heroes are 19th century Venezuelan figures: Simon Bolivar, independence fighter against Spain whose goal was national independence and regional unity; Simon Rodriguez, Bolivar’s mentor whose injunction was for Venezuela to construct for itself an original philosophical foundation for independence; and Ezequiel Zamora, peasant leader who fought against the landed oligarchy. Consequently, when those we talked to in Venezuela expressed their concurrence with “the process,” they could speak with pride about their own history referring, furthermore, to a society in a transformational state whose direction is guided by the democratic participation of the people themselves. No other leader in world history, after all, has Chavez’s record of having won eight elections and referendums in eight years, the number of votes each time exceeding the ones before. Does this not reflect genuine people power?
The contempt with which Chavez is held by western media generally and by the Bush administration specifically is therefore highly suspect and questionable, if the concern were truly for democratic principles. Chavez himself has stated more than once that his assassination would be no surprise. The challenge seen in the Bolivarian Revolution exists, without a doubt, in its innovation of an alternative system that lies outside the purview of neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus. The country’s oil resources allow Chavez this independence. Additionally, like the nineteenth century hero Bolivar, he has taken measures to forge Latin American integration: barter of services with Cuba, payment of Argentina’s debt to international creditors, and endorsement of Bolivia’s Evo Morales, among others. Venezuela has recently formally joined Mercosur, but Chavez has also set up ALBA, an alternative economic alliance envisioned to counter U.S. free- trade policies and to create a new development model. In the cultural realm there is Telesur, a television channel established by Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, and Uruguay that hopes to replace currently U.S.-dominated programming with Latin American production.
In Latin America and elsewhere, progressives are rallying behind Venezuela’s democratic and peaceful social transformation. Social justice-minded Filipinos can do no less. While Venezuela’s revolution furnishes no template for other nations, we have a great deal to share with the Venezuelan people. Our history, like theirs, is replete with proud examples of resistance to colonial and neocolonial subjugation. We need only to be mindful of this history – deliberately revised and obscured as it has been in order to buttress a persistent colonial mentality and preserve our neocolonial status – to understand our present circumstances and to begin to take stock of ourselves as a people with an enormous capacity to change things. As the Venezuelan example instructs us, with an awakened and aroused collective consciousness, the possibilities for systemic change are thrown wide, wide open. Bulatlat