Meet Karolimar. Karolimar is a typical Venezuelan girl from a poor family. She lives in the shanty houses on the side of the hill, as does all of her extended family. Her grandfather was among the first to settle in this community that hangs off the side of the mountain. He came here decades ago from a rural area, as Venezelans in general flocked to the urban centers looking for economic opportunities. Oil has dominated the Venezuelan economy for the last century, and has created a society that lives off imports, paid for by oil revenues. The rest of the economy was virtually abandoned, as were all those people who could not find a place in the oil-based economy.
A girl like Karolimar has very few opportunities in her life. Coming from a barrio, its not likely she will receive a very good education. Most of her family is somewhat illiterate. Her local school could never afford computers, or textbooks. And it would obviously be impossible for her to attend a private school. But Karolimar did manage to finish her high school education, studying in a local Catholic school for poor children located in the barrio. But now what can she do? Venezuela’s major universities only have a very limited capacity, and traditionally the system has functioned for the benefit of those with money. Usually, in order to enter any program, one must pass an entrance exam. The wealthy, of course, have studied in better schools, and have been well prepared for the entrance exams, not to mention favoritism, corruption and the influence of rich families. And, besides, those from poor families cannot usually afford to dedicate their time to studying, and its even less possible for those poor people who live far from a major university.
So what has Karolimar done? Right now she is working down in the street below the shanty town. There she has a small kiosk on the sidewalk where she sells food, mostly breakfast and lunch. She, like the majority of Venezuelans, works in the informal economy. That is, she has no formal job but is making a living on the margins by selling a good or service. She sells her breakfast and lunch food mostly to the people from her same community as they come and go. Most Venezuelans are forced to work in the informal economy, as an industrialized modern economy has never been developed in Venezuela. Without any other economic possibilities, in an economy that excludes a large sector of the population, those in the informal economy are looking for a way, any way, to just get by. Living in a shack on the side of the mountain and working in her kiosk, Karolimar can hopefully sell enough lunches to pay for her groceries, and other expenses.
A few years ago, Karolimar’s story would have ended there. She would have few other options but to continue working in the informal sector. But, fortunately, there are a few more interesting details to her story. Like thousands of Venezuelans, Karolimar is now studying at the university level. She is getting her degree in Education through the Mission Sucre, the university-level education program created by the Chavez government. Although she doesn’t receive a scholarship from the government, those students who are most in need do. Karolimar’s best friend also studies Education and she receives around $50 per month from the government. According to Karolimar, everyone who studies medicine in the Mission Sucre also recieves a scholarship, as they study all day, every day, with Cuban doctors as teachers.
Karolimar should graduate in 2 semesters and is excited to start working in the local school. In the community where she lives the government converted the old primary school into a Bolivarian school. Now the primary school kids get 3 free meals a day, and the school runs all day long, giving the parents the chance to earn income during the day. Bolivarian schools are attractive places to work for a teacher, as the pay is much better than in other schools.
So instead of spending their lives selling goods on the streets, thousands of Venezuelans like Karolimar now have the opportunity to study, from primary school to university level. Thousands now have new job opportunities available to them. Some statistics have shown that more than half of Venezuelans are now studying, and hundreds of thousands have already graduated from the various programs. Now the challenge will be to create enough jobs for all of these educated workers.
Karolimar’s mother has spent much of her life trying to organize the community behind different causes. In the beginning they lived on the mountain without any services. They had no water system, no sewage system, no roads. The occupants collected water from a river at the base of the mountain for drinking and cooking. As the community grew to several thousand occupants by the 1990’s, one of their main demands was for medical care. The public hospital is far away, and is totally inadequate to serve the population of the city. For years they have organized committees in the community to demand health care in their community. But, to no avail; most people in the community simply did without medical attention.
In a couple weeks the community will inaugurate a new Barrio Adentro medical center in the center of the community. As a part of the new public health system, this medical center will be staffed by Cuban doctors, who are known for their high quality health care methods in poor sectors around the world. The health care is totally free, as are a large amount of the drugs. Thousands of these kinds of small medical centers have been constructed in poor communities all over the country. The Barrio Adentro program has been built parallel to the traditional health system in Venezuela, and will now hopefully replace it. The idea is that all those new students studying medicine will soon be able to replace the thousands of Cuban doctors now working in communities throughout the country.
These are some of the improvements that have been made in the lives of the poor in Venezuela in the last few years. The middle class, who does not live in the barrios and finds it hard to see that the president has done anything but talk, but the majority poor of the country have no difficulty in seeing that this president, and his revolution, is something that they don’t want to lose. The improvements in their lives, though modest, are much more than what they have gotten under any other government, and they continue to support Chavez, as they see that he supports their struggle to improve their conditions.
Up the hill from Karolimar’s house is the government-subsidized food market called Mercal. Here they sell all the basic foods that a typical family consumes; rice, beans, cooking oil, margarine, ham, milk, flour, eggs, etc., all at government-subsidized prices. This allows the poor families, or anyone who wishes to shop at the tens of thousands of Mercals opened across the country, to save around 40% on their grocery bills. Also a good percentage of the food is produced in Venezuela, helping support and recuperate the weak food industry in Venezuela. One school kid told me one day, “My dad says that if it weren’t for President Chavez we wouldn’t be able to eat.”
The owner of the Mercal, a merry old man who lives above the store, was sent to Cuba last year to have an operation on his eyes. He, along with Karolimar’s uncle and several other people from the community had serious eye problems, such as cataracts, that had long been neglected proper medical treatment. Many could not see well, and others would soon go blind if untreated. Under the new government program called Mission Milagros (Miracle), hundreds of thousands of people have been sent, free of cost, to Cuba to receive the professional eye treatment they provide there. Those who went from this community came back satisfied. The store-owner tells me about the beautiful beaches he saw during the few days he spent in Cuba a year ago. “And how are the eyes now?” I asked him. “Perfectos,” he replied.
Karolimar’s aunt Rosa is at the head of the local Consejo Comunal. These new forms of community organization are popping up everywhere, and in this community they are already recieving money from the government for their local projects. The idea is a form of direct democracy through community participation. The communities must organize themselves according to the new Law of Consejos Comunales. Then, they put together the community-improvement projects that they decide they need in their community. If approved, the government gives the funding directly to the community, avoiding all middle-men, and the community executes the projects themselves. In Karolimar’s community, the Consejo Comunal is already working on improving the inadequate sewage system, and they are building new bridge to cross the river. With direct participation and involvement of the community, it is much more democratic than top-down decision making, and they limit the possibilities of corruption.
Along with the huge macro-economic changes that hope to achieve economic independence and development, the Chavez government has implemented domestic programs that have had a significant impact on the lives of the majority poor. There are plenty of Venezuelans who oppose the government and the very outspoken president, most of them from the middle and upper classes. The private media campaign of constant attacks has surely had an impact on a large sector of the population. But the majority of Venezuelans see him as a change from the past, and appreciate the changes that he has made. They hope, as we all should, that the revolution can continue successfully, and be free from outside intervention.