Maria raised a gangster. She didn't plan on it, but Venezuela's slums tempted her son Mauricio with the drugs he needed to numb his anger. By age 14, he had fallen into a life of theft and violence, trying to pry himself out of the squalor and hopelessness in which he was trapped.
I've been a high school history and Spanish teacher, a Fulbright scholar, and a Latin American aficionado for 30 years. I've been suspicious of the media's one-sided coverage of Venezuela, so when I had an opportunity earlier this year to attend the World Social Forum in Caracas and meet people like Maria and Mauricio, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see for myself the social, economic and political changes that are bubbling in Venezuela and causing so much controversy.
Maria told me that her priorities have never changed. She has always wanted education, health and dignity for her children. Every day she awoke in her shack, prepared breakfast, ironed laundry, kissed Mauricio and sent him off to school. Then Maria swept the sidewalk and scrubbed the laundry. Unfortunately, at the age of 12, Mauricio began playing hooky and learning lessons in the streets. He learned how to fight and wield a knife. He also learned that money made the world spin. He watched his mother slave away and scrimp on necessities. He vowed that some day he'd free her from poverty. But before that day came, Mauricio got busted for dealing drugs and was hustled off to juvenile jail. Maria cried and cried. How could she have been so blind? Kids in their neighborhood generally grew up – if they lived that long – to be dealers, addicts, pimps, prostitutes or pregnant.
So Rich Yet So Poor
Per capita, Venezuela is one of the richest countries in the world. Twice the size of California with far fewer people, Venezuela floats on a sea of oil and gas. Its mountains drip with a lucrative coffee crop. Grass sprouts faster than cattle can chew it. Exotic fruits bend boughs and litter the ground. Biodiversity explodes under the Amazonian canopy. Caribbean beaches entice tourists. Its hydroelectric potential could illuminate the continent.
With such abundant wealth, why do Venezuelan workers earn only $5 to $10 per day? Why are 80 percent of the people poor? Why are there so many broken-hearted mothers like Maria?
At the 2006 World Social Forum, I heard President Hugo Chávez and his supporters answer that question over and over. To them, Venezuela is poor because US imperialism and repression intimidate and kill union leaders and funnel national profits through an elite class to US corporations. They expand that accusation beyond Venezuela and insist that throughout the third world, rich countries use a privileged class to control the domestic population while national wealth disappears into banks in New York, London and Geneva. Chávez and his followers point to Iraq to prove their point. They insist that the US invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction but rather the installation of a regime that would pass oil profits to US and British oil companies. The populist Chávez is now drawing heat because he is implementing initiatives to keep national wealth at home and using it to mitigate the ubiquitous poverty that Venezuelans have long suffered.
Right-leaning media outlets vilify Chávez and, subsequently, the people's movement that stands behind him. The leftist press lauds him as a Bolivarian messiah. What is the truth, and what is going on in Venezuela?
At the World Social Forum, I saw red... lots of it. Parades and rallies teemed with red-shirted Venezuelans who were as fanatical about Hugo Chávez as they were about baseball. Their fervor and his mystique lured me to his rallies, which gave me a taste of the mass movement that is being embraced as a second Bolivarian revolution. Chávez and His Charisma
Born in 1954 to two school teachers, Chávez graduated from the national military academy, abandoned his baseball aspirations and began jumping out of airplanes (as a paratrooper). He made a career in the military, and in 1992 led a failed coup d'état, which landed him in prison for two years. After the coup attempt, Chávez founded the Movement for a Fifth Republic (MVR), a political party promising social transformation.
Chávez was elected president in 1998 and re-elected in 2000. His flamboyant charisma has captured a majority of Venezuelan hearts; Chavista rallies regularly throb with hundreds of thousands of red-shirted supporters. As a young man, Chávez crooned mariachi ballads, and his compelling voice continues to captivate audiences. At the World Social Forum, Chávez, wearing a blood-red shirt, took the podium and hushed the crowd. Before he took the stage, musicians had primed the audience with songs and riffs on social justice and a salsa number that sent 30,000 hips gyrating. The joint was literally jumping; I had never seen anything close to its intensity. I found myself in the midst of a frenzied group of young Afro-Venezuelan students chanting impassioned MVR slogans. I caught the Chavista fever and began making new friends left and left.
I didn't know how long-winded Chávez could be; he can and does speak for hours. After two hours, I heard him hit his stride. I was never bored. He wove history, geography, philosophy, economics, ecology, music, and humor through an extemporaneous speech that demonstrated his eclectic erudition.
In the midst of his discourse Chávez spun off on a riff vilifying "Mr. Danger," otherwise known as George W. Bush. Chávez punctuated this by quoting the grand liberator himself, Simon Bolivar, who said in 1825 that "the United States of North America is destined by providence to plague the people of the Americas with hunger and misery in the name of freedom." Chávez has elevated Bolivar's prophecy to a national mantra.
At the end of three hours, he pulled the threads taut and his words cohered into a vivid tapestry. As he left the stage, the crowd chanted "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido" (a united people will never be defeated), and I felt 30,000 hearts pulse as one.
Revolution and Its Discontents
When Chávez does something, he does it with bravado. His reforms affect every aspect of the status quo. He promises to provide universal free education and health care and eradicate malnutrition and poverty - but critics ask, "Where will the money come from?"
One of his reforms, an agrarian land-reform program, has antagonized many rich landowners. Chávez's program sets limits on the size of landholdings; taxes unused property to spur agricultural growth; redistributes unused, government-owned land to peasant families and cooperatives; and, lastly, expropriates fallow land from large, private estates for the purpose of redistribution. Landowners would be compensated for their land at market value.
At a panel discussion, I heard Chávez supporters lauding his land-reform proposals, which offer the poor life-sustaining parcels and put to use vacant plots in a nation that imports most of its food. Other reform programs offer the poor subsidized grocery markets at prices far lower than commercial outlets.
But a cabbie who drove us through downtown went ballistic when we started mentioning Chávez. "He's a fool!" he shouted and pushed the accelerator to the floor. "He wants to give away everything! They should have shot him when they had the chance. He's making a mess out of the country."
During a forum event I overheard two young men arguing. One of the men asserted that the Chávez opposition had contaminated birthing rooms so that the infant mortality rate would climb and make the government look inept. This extreme rumor made it patently clear that I was in the third world and that Venezuela was locked in a life-and-death struggle over the future of the country. I squeezed into that conversation and met Mauricio Lugo, Maria's son, a former ne'er-do-well and now a community organizer and fervent supporter of President Chávez and his populist movement.
Chávez is a lightning rod standing at the center of a political storm, both domestically and internationally. He has courted controversy by visiting Iran and inviting it to open factories in Venezuela. He wants to buy military hardware from the Russians, and he speaks openly about a US invasion of Venezuela. He reminds people of Latin American history lest they forget that the US has invaded Latin America dozens of times. And he takes every opportunity to lampoon Bush, going so far as to refer to him at the UN podium as the sulfur-scented Devil.
Even some who are convinced of Chávez's altruism are wary of the hero-worship he has cultivated. A Venezuelan psychiatrist has commented that "the love of the people is a narcotic to him. He needs it the same way he needs his coffee."
Chávez is also accused of concentrating too much power in the presidency. (A criticism levied against Bush as well.) He has packed both the military and the courts with MVR supporters, and has said that he wants to call a referendum in which people can vote to overturn presidential term limitations and retain him in office until 2031.
Opposition leaders fear the authoritarian direction they see the government taking. They allege that government contracts are assigned with favoritism and that media intimidation has decreased criticism of the administration. They also raise the concern that Chávez's policies are insufficiently focused and require constant infusions of oil money.
Yet millions of poor and disenfranchised Venezuelans are now actively participating in the political process. Academicians attentively watch Chávez's progress, hoping that he will continue to deliver on his promises. Much of the middle class is happy to accept the health care benefits and entrepreneurial incentives his administration bestows. But there are a significant number of discontents. Although a minority, these tend to be the economic elite who prefer the status quo and fear the fundamental changes Chávez endorses.
In the Trenches
After the forum ended, I tagged along with Mauricio on a bus filled with MVR activists headed to Mauricio's hometown of Guacara. Unfortunately, Mauricio hadn't cleared me with the higher-ups. On the outskirts of Caracas, when the bus stopped so that everyone on board could shower and eat, the party leaders pointed at the 60-year-old gringo and asked, "Who's he?"
Mauricio turned out to be more trusting than the higher-ranked officials. They looked me up and down and began to whisper. Why would an American want to visit tawdry Guacara? Is he a spy? While they debated, I pulled up a soft concrete bench, opened a book and slid into a siesta. I awoke to a nudge, Mauricio shouting, "Vámonos (Let's go!), to Guacara." I wasn't sure if I was dreaming or if it was really happening, but Mauricio and I wedged our way onto a dilapidated public bus amidst bundle-wielding grandmothers, screaming babies and squawking chickens and rumbled west toward Guacara.
Soon after arriving in Guacara, Mauricio and I sat in his mother's kitchen while she reminisced about the day a woman wearing a red shirt knocked on her door. The woman had said that her name was Rosa and that she was a community organizer. She asked if Maria and her son wished to return to school. Maria stared at the woman as if she were a lunatic. Maria told Rosa that she had dropped out of school in the third grade to work, and that she still has no money and therefore couldn't return to school. Rosa insisted that she'd arrange everything, so Maria accepted. Rosa filled out the forms and enrolled Maria and Mauricio in night school.
On the first night of class, Rosa arrived and whisked Maria and Mauricio off to school. Maria said that she felt like Cinderella. Free history, math, language arts and English books were distributed. Maria told me that she fingered the pages as if they were gold; finally, after 40 years, she was getting the one thing she most desired, an education. Maria and Rosa are good friends now, and Rosa guides her through the maze of federal social programs that have been instituted under Chávez's leadership.
Mauricio sheepishly admitted that he had flunked an early class in community organizing. The final exam consisted of a simulation exercise that addressed the rehabilitation of maras (gang members). He failed the exam because he insisted that all the maras should first be shot – and thereafter the community established. Aghast, his teachers suggested he modify his social strategies. Mauricio followed their advice and now works as a community organizer. His experiences as a drug dealer have enabled him to empathize with and help adolescents who are on the dead-end street of gang life.
A Well Oiled Revolution
Over the next two weeks, Mauricio and Maria took me to visit adult education classes, computer centers, health clinics, senior centers, child care facilities, primary schools, food distribution centers and government-subsidized markets in Guacara, a formerly decaying industrial town now being revitalized by community programs.
I visited several community kitchens in which women open their homes daily to serve hot lunches to up to 150 of their neighbors. When I approached one lunch kitchen, Gloria, the barrio's grandmother, dashed into the blinding sunlight and grabbed my hand. She greeted me as if I were the king of England and dragged me past seniors dining on an aromatic pork stew. In the kitchen, I met four other women who stirred, simmered and smiled over their edible art. Five days a week, Gloria, a lonely widow, opens her home to the community and, with the help of several friends, serves delicious hot lunches. Gloria no longer suffers from loneliness; far from it. She's too busy preparing government-provided food and chatting with hungry neighbors. Mauricio winked at me and whispered, "Nourishment comes in many forms."
Throughout Venezuela, hundreds of kitchens like Gloria's add meaning to life, feed friends and vivify squalid neighborhoods. I've been a teacher for over three decades, and I can't forget the primary school that I visited in Guacara. Above the entrance was emblazoned Jose Marti's dictum: "Only the educated are free." In the school, I felt a communal thread weaving together the teachers, administrators, students, janitors, parents and volunteers. The principal glowed when she spoke of the altruism of her staff. I eavesdropped on classes and was impressed with the quality of instruction and the attentiveness of the students.
The school's bonneted cafeteria cooks personified the contagious positive attitude; the cooks glowed with delight when the second graders marched off with plates full of chicken, rice, beans, cantaloupe, strawberries and juice. No longer do students dizzy and dumb with hunger languish in classrooms. With full bellies and open hearts, they devour the education deprived their parents. The federal government views education as a national priority and backs its rhetoric with cash. I couldn't help but reflect on the impasse in US education, in which public schools have to beg for adequate funding and parry a privatizing lobby.
In night schools, I saw adults who didn't finish grade school savoring the sweet taste of knowledge previously deprived to them. The students were alert and dedicated; like dry sponges, they absorbed every comment the teacher uttered. No one knows better than an uneducated adult how much she missed when circumstances denied her an education. One man close to tears told me that not having an education felt like someone had cut off his arm; he lacked something constant and vital. Now, his smile reveals involvement, purpose and dignity.
Free computer centers encourage young and old, poor or rich, to enter and surf the wonders of the Internet and learn computer technology. In the centers, I saw technology foster literacy and literacy foster technology; the intoxicating spiral glued adults to computers they could never afford to own.
Sitting with Maria in her kitchen one day, I met the nurse who came to check on her arthritis. Prior to 1999 and the Chávez presidency, health care was a luxury only the rich enjoyed; now free health care is universal. Clinics sprout out of refurbished buildings and form natural hubs for community action. Neighborhoods revolve and are organized around medical care. Doctors and nurses respond to house calls 24 hours a day and know their patients personally; in a pedestrian barrio, patients constantly bump into their medical professionals. People, not profits, are the focal point.
The physical rehab center I visited used a gamut of therapies; a spirited and inquisitive doctor proudly showed me ultrasound, electromagnetic, and electric muscle-stimulating machines. The modest but busy clinic buzzed with treadmills and limping ladies pumping iron. The doctor then guided me through rooms that offered alternative therapies such as acupuncture and therapy from the smoke of the artemisia plant.
Geriatric community centers foster mental health by offering activities that pull seniors together. At the senior center I visited, old men slapped down dominos and bantered baseball with traditional Caribbean flair. Everywhere I went community spirit embellished health care procedures.
I learned from Mauricio that Chávez's MVR party revolves around small neighborhood groups called UBE's ("Electoral Battle Units"). The UBE's are the grassroots base of Venezuelan participatory democracy; I attended a couple of meetings and was astonished by the community involvement. More and more of the marginalized, aged, apathetic and angry are joining the progressive parade. Gangs, the most vicious manifestation of alienation, are losing their allure because UBE's provide a channel for participation. Adolescents now feel more connected and empowered and less susceptible to gang violence.
I was stupefied when Mauricio told me that stay-at-home moms receive a monthly stipend of 80 percent of the minimum wage for their service to their families and subsequently to society. During my stay in Guacara, retirement benefits were increased and a boost in the minimum wage was planned. "Amigo," Mauricio said to me as he explained how things work in Venezuela under the Chávez government, "Look at the words: socialism values society, people, and capitalism values money, a thing. Don't you get it? You gringos are getting ripped off by the corporate machine." I stared deep into his eyes; I was amazed at Mauricio's personal evolution from gang member to impassionedcommunity organizer.
A New Day in Latin America?
If Venezuelans are to be successful with their reformation movement, they must overcome a formidable array of obstacles. Systemic inertia, popular apathy, endemic corruption, a consumption-blinded populace, wealthy opposition, coups d'état, assassination and even invasion threaten to derail the changes that are sweeping across the country.
These daunting obstacles challenge the movement to continually reaffirm its commitment to change. Can Chávez or anyone else navigate through the maze of obstacles? Venezuela has aggressively grabbed the role of leadership to spur systemic change in Latin America, which is drifting leftward. Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay have leftist presidents. Resurgent left-leaning popular movements in Mexico, Ecuador and Nicaragua seem poised for power. Venezuela is not an aberration nor is it treading the leftist path alone.
Proposals for transnational oil pipelines, TV stations, banking systems, a single currency, and other unifying projects would make Simon Bolivar dance in his grave. Bolivar recognized that Latin America is united by a common language and religion; Chávez recognizes that if an incredibly diverse Europe can form a union, so too can Latin America. The people know that their land is rich and that they have more than enough resources to fund prosperity for all classes of society. Real hope is emerging that Latin America may soon make great strides in economic, political and social development.
Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" keeps rolling along. Expectations and dignity have been raised, but the specter of foreign intervention casts a huge shadow over the future. Venezuelans expect the US press to begin a campaign to demonize President Chávez, and in fact, the campaign has already begun. Last year Pat Robertson announced that the US should assassinate Chávez, and Donald Rumsfeld has compared Chávez to Hitler. Tensions mount daily.
Opposition forces inside and outside Venezuela try to demonize Chávez and by doing so condemn the entire national movement and the great work being done by millions of Venezuelans. Apathy, the plague of all democracies, has been replaced by hope, dedication and an involved citizenry. All leaders have their personal foibles – and Hugo Chávez is brash enough to wear them on his sleeve. But before demonizing Chávez and subsequently the social movement he has inspired, we should look more closely.
Before I left Venezuela, Mauricio reminded me of his vow to liberate his mother from poverty and to see her living with dignity. He brags that next year she will graduate from high school. He again shows me around the "hood." We walk past the new clinic, computer center, senior center, improved library, and school. In the plaza, voter registration hums daily. Mauricio tells me that six years ago Guacara was totally different – depressed, apathetic, squalid – and that now the people are involved and taking the driver's seat to transform the city.
Then he changes his tone and shifts from political to personal commentary. With a soft voice and a big smile, he admits to me that his anger has been replaced by gratitude to the new Venezuelan government for providing hope and dignity to millions of families like his. With a huge grin, he tells me, "I didn't have to free my mom from poverty; the government did it for me."