Carmen Pulido quietly sits on a crowded public bus in Mérida, Venezuela. The bus overflows with impeccably dressed students who tend to their tightly gelled hair and top-of-the-line clothing as they head to class on University Avenue. The bus driver's favorite Reggaetón songs blast through the breeze on this bright day in the Andes Mountains. Out the tinted window Pulido gazes upon row after row of glossy posters of ultra-skinny, mostly lighter-skinned beauty pageant contestants who are half-wearing lingerie and pointing their limbs in all directions. Alternating with the posters are beer ads portraying excited, ordinary-looking men holding bottles at waist level pointed towards the sky, surrounded by everything except women's heads.
Pulido studies audio-visual media in the prestigious University of the Andes, but her destination this afternoon is not the classroom. Instead, she plants her feet on the six-lane Avenue of the Americas where she and three hundred others, mostly supporters of President Hugo Chávez, block traffic with linked arms and angrily chanting voices. Overhead, a pedestrian overpass is plastered with the "revolutionary" municipal government's message, "Mérida awaits you." Surrounding the words are seductive portraits of the beauty pageant contestants, the logos of giant commercial retail corporations and luxury hotels, and a matador boasting triumphantly over a dying bull.
The annual International Sun Festival has once again swept through Mérida, a city just south of the oil powerhouse Lake Maracaibo where rural agricultural quaintness rubs shoulders with bustling, high tech, petroleum-richness. The festival's controversial "Girlfriend of the Sun" beauty pageant, bullfights, and massive commercial promotion have re-ignited internal dialogues among supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution over the types of cultural and material progress to which Venezuelan socialism should aspire.
Mérida's mayor, Carlos León, compromised with protesters this year by using festival funds to put on three days of flamenco dancing activities and assured that the police kept the protesters safe as they exercised their rights. But he claims the yearly activities must continue because they are part of regional tradition, art, and culture. Meanwhile, León appears on billboards sporting a bright red shirt and raising his left fist in the air along side cut-and-pasted images of President Hugo Chávez.
For Pulido and others, however, the torrent of the Sun Festival remains an assault on their values, sexual identity, and vision of what "Socialism of the 21st Century" should be. Their counterproposal hits the streets this week as they stage defiant tomas culturales, or "cultural takeovers" of institutional and public spaces, filling them with peaceful artistic expressions of what participants assert are truly socialist values.
Demonstrators pass out flyers to receptive pedestrians, denouncing the bullfights as "Not Art nor Culture: TORTURE". However, participants in the protest are adamant that this is about more than animal rights. "The Sun Festival is a huge business deal that diverts public resources toward an imperialist inheritance from Spain, bullfighting, and private companies that contract with the government to promote consumerism and commerce and contaminate the environment," Pulido assails, adding that "women are submitted to total sexual exploitation." She explains her group's view that "art and culture are necessities of the People for re-creating the world they live in," avowing that social movements must fight for "the vindication of women and the vindication men through values that promote respect for life and humanity."
Even though a major target of the demonstrations is the mayor, Pulido thinks this struggle is not really against the government, but instead "it is an internal struggle among the People over our conceptions of the world."
Confrontations of this sort are common amidst el proceso, "the Process," which is how masses of Venezuelans proudly describe their country's current political project. More than just another name for radical Chavista politics, it has a deeper cultural meaning that seems indefinable in normal political and academic language. It legitimizes all the ambiguous changes and hopeful new relationships that go along with deconstructing a historically oppressive social order and emerging from marginality.
El proceso takes shape outside of major centers such as Caracas, through the creative community work of unpretentious organizers who relentlessly tend to society minute-by-minute without needing to pledge allegiance to a vanguard, political parties, or Marxism.
Mérida is a historically agricultural state that was uprooted by Venezuela's hyper-specialization in oil exportation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Dominant cash crops like coffee had already pushed out traditional farming, but even those declined in the face of burgeoning service and tourism economies glossed with oily economic and cultural appeal. Displaced workers all over Venezuela were left to migrate precariously to the fringes of the cities and grapple for leftovers.
Braided into the organizing philosophy of the Chávez administration is a response to this devastating history called municipalización, "municipalization". This principle of development prioritizes local decision-making processes and social change grounded in well-organized neighborhoods. In Mérida, this has spurred a fervor of municipal organizing that is most advanced in the rural countryside where it plays upon concepts of community already embedded in the local culture.
In rural Mucuchíes, an hour and a half and a world away from Mérida's metropolitan area, María Vicenta Dávila's 27 years of community organizing have made municipalization like her blood type. She exalts that since an April 2006 law laid the foundation for consejos comunales ("community councils"), her community has been galvanized. The 92 councils formed in Dávila`s municipality in the past year have given birth to projects that "seemed unimaginable in the past."
In the prolific community council system, the federal government delivers funds directly to neighborhoods which organize into democratic assemblies and petition resources they need to solve the local problems they understand best. The idea is to avoid state and local bureaucracy and dismiss trickle-down myths.
Every council in Mucuchíes has received the full amount promised by the federal government, but collectively deciding how to use the money has not been a smooth journey. When Dávila and a group of women proposed that they launch a worm composting project, they were "demonized," Dávila recalls, "People called me crazy, especially the men, who said it was not women's work."
Persuading the assembly to allocate funds required patient efforts to educate the community about the value of organic trash and the importance of women's economic and social activity. The federal government's Misión Vuelvan Caras pitched in with cooperative business management training. Now, worms are a hub of community interaction. Neighbors deliver organic waste to a team of women (and a few helpful men) who operate the composting assembly, and then regional farmers purchase the rich product as an alternative to contaminative fertilizers. In the process, women have developed deep bonds and a bit of economic freedom beyond their domestic life.
Instead of bragging about her revolutionary eco-feminism, hard-nosed Dávila admits, "we have a long way to go... we are still learning the concept of cooperativism."
Community councils in Mucuchíes also collaborate with the Misión Sustitución Rancho por Vivienda (Substitution of Shack for Home) to organize unemployed construction workers into cooperatives and link them to people in their communities who need more dignified dwellings. This was how Dávila crossed paths with Ingrid Martínez, an architect who passed up a job designing commercial banks to work in the mission.
Martínez draws up plans for the new homes so they fit with the communities' budgets, environment, and skills. She emphasizes informal connections with folks in order to overcome their preconceptions about people in her position who are traditionally patronizing and punitive. She is frustrated by co-workers who will not enter the poorer areas. In her opinion, "it's not about fear; it's that we do not recognize those people as legitimate ‘clients'. We are trained by the system to think of ourselves as educated professionals working under or over others."
Martínez huffs that many of her higher-ups in the mission arrogantly believe that the locals are ignorant and act as though their college degrees make them the guardians of knowledge. She walks me through a community of new adobe homes built with support from the mission. Builders on this hillside are proficient in molding mud bricks from the mountain they live on, a style Martínez was not taught in college. "The people of this neighborhood know things that this institution will never understand if it does not listen," Martínez cries.
Opening spaces for new voices to be heard is something Dávila attributes partly to the Bolivarian Constitution, passed by popular referendum in 1999. She and other Mucuchíes organizers benefitted from a gender-sensitive budgeting workshop meant to fulfill the constitution's principles of gender equality. Dávila optimistically comments, "Despite strong resistance among the men," who traditionally dominate public matters, "women are organizing ourselves to be present at the assembly every Wednesday when decisions are made, to ensure that community council budgets address women's issues". As a result, some community councils have created on-site childcare facilities so parents can attend public meetings calmly.
While Dávila is ecstatic about what she calls the "beautiful revolution" and its abundant improvements to people's quality of life, she puts the president in his historical place: "I was revolutionary long before Chávez."
El proceso seems to transcend the president as critically engaged citizens create new values, traverse cultural boundaries, and humbly facilitate new systems of power. The new constitution and the laws which fortify it open doors, but the communities pick themselves up and walk through.
Gender and Cultural Transformations
Undeniably, the efficiency with which the government has shifted money and prerogative to local communities has outpaced the necessary psychological and cultural conversion. This conversion requires dedicated "work that is not seen," according to Laura Díaz, who helps communities organize local cultural events with government support.
Venezuelan cultural work is amidst a stormy sea of shifting methodological tides. The federal policy of the Misión Cultura, phrased el pueblo es la cultura ("the People are culture,") supports Díaz´s vision that culture is not sequestered in museums, theatres, or imported dance companies, but rather shines from the everyday customs and sounds of local communities. At the same time, Díaz has been pushed around by classist higher-ups who refer to her as chancletuda, a slur that chides her roots in the vast, economically poor, low plains northeast of Mérida where knowledge of bourgeois art is scant.
Díaz needs no university degree to philosophically diagnose her country's politics. "There is an immense concentration of power, not in Chávez but in the mass of once passive historical objects like myself demanding change, and the only manner in which it will disperse is through the creation of new historical subjects." The most challenging aspect is that "change must be internal... we must honestly criticize our own lifestyles." That is why she insists on community council autonomy, assuring that "what they do with their funds is less important than that they be protagonists of those funds."
I ponder the fact that in the middle class neighborhood where I live, 90% of the community council funds were used to build an imposing, remote controlled gate at the front and back of the community, with the remaining 10% going to fund youth theater activities. The image of a pretentious, paranoid middle class neighborhood is penetrated by smiling adolescents in fluorescent costumes waltzing through the gates on stilts.
Díaz's experience tells her that local communities have more potential for deep cultural change than revolutionary activist groups, many of which are male-dominated. Díaz joined the Tupamaros after being radicalized by the April 2002 coup. The Tupamaros is a decades-old organization that has taken the electoral path in recent years but not left behind its guerrilla past. Laura found that when things got intense, she was converted into a servant of food, coffee, and moral support for the "completely machista" Tupamaros.
The Tupamaros' black and white, territorial worldview is the reason Díaz finally left them. She tells me they posit themselves as the "moral reserve of the revolution", as opposed to other Chavistas who are corrupt. With this rationale, they domineeringly confiscate public spaces from potential allies they deem ideologically impure. Díaz thinks things are not so simple; el proceso takes many forms within every group, every person. She imagines that "those public spaces will be revolutionary only when communities peacefully occupy them, and collectively organize them into educational facilities and public cafeterias."
Perhaps the Tupamaros, like the America's Cup, reflect social systems based on domination. Everybody must haughtily compete for higher status in some form, sexual if not economical or political. Díaz poetically describes her role in all of this: "I am pueblo and I am of the institutions, not one or the other. I am both at once." It is like she exists within a melee of social forces and does not identify with any one in particular, but traverses all of them.
It is ironic but also promising that a rather militant Tupamaro man introduced the urbanization called Santa Elena to the Misión Madres del Barrio (Mothers of the Neighborhood Mission). Anyhow, residents Maribel Dávila and her adolescent daughter Elimar have since organized 20 Santa Elena mothers in situations of abuse, extreme poverty, and isolation to receive the benefits of the mission. The first phase will provide 80% of the minimum wage, and the second will go beyond this wages-for-housework concept by funding local micro-enterprises led by the women.
The committee's funds are managed by their community council, which has been stifled by general apathy and power struggles. Thus, women with new hope for economic inclusion have emerged from social isolation, propelled into the grittiness of communal organizing. The mission has encouraged one mother to believe that "we too are capable of growing, producing, and constructing sovereignty".
Dávila expresses confidence that this is all part of a hopeful process. "Beautiful things are happening in Venezuela," she smiles and takes a drag of her cigarette, "little by little".
But it is clear that serious obstacles remain even within these hopeful new paradigms of community work. The experience of Angélica Gómez in the cultural center of rural Tabay is demonstrative.
Gómez and her co-workers had a revolutionary organizing philosophy. Instead of working on museums and beauty pageants, they trudged up and down mountain streets for two months crafting a registry of local theatrical and musical artists. These artists were defined as "common people who practice artistic expression, with or without formal training."
Once the thousands of registrations were collected, locals were hired to give piano lessons to middle-aged mothers, drum lessons to young fusion rock bands, and mount puppet shows in elementary schools about recycling. Gómez even set up an after-school workshop for adolescents to practice writing lyrics to hip-hop and Reggaetón songs, become conscious of the sexism in mainstream hits, and then record themselves in the community radio up the road.
This innovative project was on a roll until Gómez pushed limits by organizing tertulias. These women-only "get-togethers" in quaint, local settings had the intention of creating safe, healing spaces where trustful relationships could be built among neighbors who are victims of domestic violence and domestic isolation.
Putting an end to women's separation was not the ultimate goal of the tertulias, but a temporary tactic. Men were invited by Gómez to lend support by preparing pamphlets and local resources for participants, and assist with logistics. Even so, Municipal Culture Director Hector Arriaga (who had scraped by as a kid-friendly street puppeteer for years before being promoted as a cultural worker by the Bolivarian government) became "visibly uncomfortable and threatened" that women were organizing without men, Gómez recalls.
Advocating that the revolution requires teamwork, Arriaga crashed the tertulias with lengthy, overbearing discourses on what he said was a "balanced" approach to women's rights, threatening to withhold funding if Gómez objected. When Gómez and her co-worker Salomé García refused to stamp "for a culture of community and gender equality" along with Arriaga's official signature on institutional correspondences, they were abruptly informed that their jobs had become part-time, one working mornings and the other afternoons.
Arriaga claimed the local legislative council had reprimanded him and threatened to cut his budget because "a director should not have the privilege of two secretaries," never mind that the women's jobs were not secretarial.
Gómez and García grieved, having been divided and conquered by someone who was simultaneously benefiting from patriarchy and the government`s new empowering philosophy of culture. Like many Venezuelans, they ask, what are the values of "Socialism of the 21st Century"?
Maybe the state coordinator of the Misión Sucre (a free higher education mission) in Mérida, Oscar Araque, knows the answer. "We must un-learn the anti-human values of the past, so we can re-learn... how to co-learn," he quips.
Or maybe not. In my own distasteful experience volunteering for Araque, I have found that his sincere efforts at innovative educational strategies are frequently accompanied by the typical vices of authoritarian male-supremacist bureaucrats.
Perhaps everyone involved in el proceso is inevitably on a journey through old, transforming, and new standards. Everyday people are spliced as they carry out acts of ambiguous cultural renewal. They are led by a Bolivarian compass that is useful but thwarted by a bubble of decrepit past traditions. The Bolivarian Revolution is a boiling pot of newness into which Venezuela is being dipped and will emerge redefined.