Life in La Salina, Venezuela

La Salina is a small rural village of about 2000 people in Vargas State approximately ninety minutes from Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. I had the opportunity to volunteer there for seven weeks working in a communal library teaching English, supporting the facilitators of Mission Ribas, (a high school level free education program for adults) and volunteering in the local school.

My partner also had the opportunity to work with the library making music with local young people. We were invited here by Rafael and Ivonne Delgado, two people whose history precedes them. Rafael and Ivonne have about 30 years of experience of working in the community. Within this time they have been active members and founders of ASOCITE (a community organization which began fighting for housing, education and social rights in the 1970’s and 1980’s) in La Vega, Caracas and also ENFODEP, which trains, forms and qualifies popular educators who work in community development with a strong socialist political analysis . They began work with ENFODEP in 1992. ENFODEP was created through the fusion of the ideas of ASOCITE and CEPAPan organization of the National Experimental University of Simon Rodriguez (UNESR).

Currently ENFODEP in Vargas meets every Saturday when students get together to share their experiences, critically and politically analyse their assignments and receive first class training from Rafael and Yvonne, themselves popular educators with decades of experience. They are part of a network of three ENFODEP centres nationally in Caracas, Vargas and Acarigua.

They are also part of the Paulo Freire cooperative that runs the Salvador Garmendia community library and cinema. The library is open every weekday for students to come and investigate coursework and seek advice with their studies. The cinema functions every Thursday for adults and on Saturdays when young people come to watch free films. For an activist from England, a country where there free youth activities are hard to come by, free children’s films are a refreshing change from the expense of £5-7 for one person in the mega cinema complexes in the UK.

In addition to the library where ENFODEP and the cinema are based, the community has organized a casa communal (communal house), a housing project, a casa de alimentation (local food provision centre where food and meals are distributed freely to the most needy) Mission Ribas and a grandparents club.

The Casa communal is the base of the local consejo communal (community council). Although the community council has had a turbulent history where one council disintegrated and currently another has been formed and is functioning with few of the original members of the old council; the casa communal has many achievements to be proud of; there is a housing office in the casa as part of SUVI, (a project that aims to substitute new housing for Venezuelans who live in precarious shanty towns). Organised with the support of Mary Luz Pestano and Mirtia Yauquez, the housing office covers La Salina and nearby Puerto Carayaca and to date eighty people in the local area have benefited from home transfers, support after house collapse (a common issue in Vargas especially after the mudslide disaster in 1998) maintenance of houses and assignation of new houses. To date they have engaged 105 employees, donated paint and assisted with house decorations for forty families and organized various sports activities for the community.

The Casa Communal has existed for two years and also houses committees of health, services, education, tourism, sport, culture, communication and Mission Negra Hipolita. Negra Hipolita nationally provides free rehabilitation centres and programmes for people on the streets focusing on drug addicts, people with mental health issues or physical problems, alcoholism and other social problems that often keep people on the streets.

The Casa Communal also functions as a community centre, providing karate classes, children’s theatre and, since February 2010, electricity classes have been provided in the casa communal by Eduardo Urbina, a local tutor through the INCES project. INCES (the National Institute of training and Socialist Education) is a state funded project that was taken over from the old INCE organization that solely focused on preparing young people for work. Now with INCES in conjunction with the “Socialist Che Guevara Mission” (La Mission de Che Guevara Socialista), socialist thinking runs through the project, developing Che’s ideas of “The New Man”(and woman) and raising political consciousness among young people.

INCES provides free education in a number of practical subject to students outside of school or work who want to gain qualifications for employment. The INCES project in La Salina is currently training twelve students who after 241 hours of classes will gain a certificate allowing them access to an occupation in electricity sector. This is particularly relevant for the young people of the area as La Salina is next door to a CORPOELEC (the state-owned electricity company) thermoelectric plant.

I also had the opportunity of visiting an INCES centre of formation in La Quizanda, in the state of Valencia. The centre provides training in areas such as topography, electricity, painting and decorating, unit pricing and financial management, carpentry, construction and metal work. We were invited to observe a carpentry class by Angel Cedeño, a local activist. We also had the chance to discuss with the students about their experience and compare education in the UK and in Venezuela. One of the main things that stood out was the privatization of education in the UK in comparison to Venezuela. For example in the UK during 1980’s and 1990’s there were many more technological colleges that trained people in skilled manual labour. Now many colleges have been run down and often young people take on apprenticeships with employers. This might mean working with an employer for up to two years on low or no pay in the hope of securing a job with the employer afterwards. Predictably, many employers use the logic of capitalism to treat the apprenticeships as a source of free and cheap labour. Instead of taking on the student as an employee with a salary and contract rights, they often ditch them and take on another student for two years. The young people of INCES were shocked to hear of the situation in the UK as so often it is painted in the media as a democratic safe haven where all needs are met and we all have tea and biscuits at 3pm every day!

The La Quizanda centre is one of five in Carabobo state; there is usually one main centre of INCES in each state with many local or specialist branches which reach out into local and rural areas like La Salina. It was great to see the national centre of formation serving a range of areas and teaching over eighty students, then to see the INCES in action in a rural area like La Salina, providing education for work in local sources of employment.

The Casa de Alimentation (food house) in La Salina, is fundamental to many of its members in the community. It was opened in 2003 and currently supports 150 people who can visit it for a free hot meal every day. Usually its members are older people, alcoholics, drug users, ill people, single mothers or unemployed. With the support of Mercal (a socialist state subsidized food market) the state pays the workers of the Casa de Alimentation and also for the food, and for special occasions, like Christmas, also provides free bags of food. The members get involved with the cooking, cleaning and general running of the centre which helps to create a sense of communal property and dignity. This project runs alongside the Madres de Barrio (mothers of the neighbourhood) which supports young single mothers with money to buy food, clothes, medicines and other necessities for them and their children. Approximately 100 young women are inscribed in the project, which also supports them in studying and organizes community voluntary work.

A backbone of health services to many rural communities is the Barrio Adentro project. La Salina houses a walk-in clinic which runs Monday to Friday and provides the local population with free healthcare. I had the opportunity to go door to door with Barrio Adentro in order to carryout the local census that is essential for the first phase of a national vaccination plan. On the 12th of March eight female community activists began a voluntary brigade with a doctor and nurses from the clinic. They have now visited every family in the area in order to find out what vaccinations have already been received by each family member and which vaccinations they need as part of the national plan. The national plan is offering ten free vaccinations across various age groups. This has been organized by the Ministry of Popular Power for Health under the banner “vaccination is a right!”, again this is a refreshing change from the health service in the UK, although currently it is a public, thirteen years of Labour Government has seen the selling off essential sections of our health service to private companies whose only interest is making a profit.

I also had the opportunity to get involved with the local Mission Ribas which currently has twenty students enrolled in night school classes at the local school. Mission Ribas was one of the first free education missions to be initiated in Venezuela in 2003, after Mission Robinson, a literacy and numeracy program and Mission Sucre, a university entrance program. Using a system developed in Cuba, the mission teaches English, maths, grammar, science and Venezuelan history amongst other subjects, with the aid of specially formulated DVD’s. After 2-3 years students graduate from the project with a qualification that allows them to study at university. The Mission is mainly focused in supporting people who didn’t finish school with a qualification, thus preventing them from inscribing on a university course. Mission Ribas began in La Salina in 2003 and before this Mission Robinson functioned in La Salina. Currently Mission Robinson does not function as everyone who wanted to participate has passed through the course. The Missions were introduced by Ivonne and Rafael along with other community activists and original students like Alba Taillae have passed and become facilitators of Mission Ribas or become involved in the local section of Mission Cultura in the area.

Although La Salina, and Venezuela in general, primarily has a young population, the grandparents have certainly not been forgotten. I had the privilege of spending a few hours with Haideé de Amato who helps organise the local grandparents club that meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with the support of Barrio Adentro. The club provides free and regular medical checks for the older people and includes 45 minutes of exercise. Thirteen people from La Salina attend each session and a sister session in Vista al Mar higher up the mountain overlooking the community serves another thirty-three people.             

As a local weekend and vacation destination for city dwellers of Caracas and surrounds, La Salina regularly hosts crowds of Venezuelans looking to relax by the beach. Whilst this obviously supports the local economy it also contributes to pollution. As is the case in so many cities and villages in Venezuela, the problem of rubbish is huge. Often after a weekend or national holiday, the beach is littered with plastic, glass bottles and paper, something which is compounded by a lack of bins. However, recently children from the local school have been carrying out questionnaires and surveys with the aim of commencing a project to clean up the beaches and develop better rubbish bin provision. This is also helped by daily rubbish collection from the local state services and a weekly beach litter pick.

The local PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) battalion is located centrally in the village and holds meetings twice monthly. They are now gearing up for the national assembly elections in September and soon will be going house to house to start the campaign. Over 80% of the population of La Salina is inscribed in the PSUV and almost everyone supports the Chavez government and the Bolivarian revolution. As Haideé de Amato from the Grandparents club emotionally told me, “never before has a president done so much to support the poor people of Venezuela, almost everything here in the community of La Salina is new thanks to this government and our revolution, we have Barrio Adentro, a new Bolivarian school, the education Missions, the housing project, the food house. That’s why so many people here support our president; we will fight for our revolution as we can’t afford to loose all the gains we have made”

All in all my experience of living in La Salina has been a revolutionary one. The kind of community provision and process of popular power, while not perfect and with obviously many improvements that can be made, has built a community that has a future worth fighting for, a future in the Bolivarian Revolution.

Sam Mcgill is a member of the Revolutionary Communist Group (www.revolutionarycommunist.org) and writes for Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism. She is also active in the Rock around the Blockade (www.ratb.org.uk ) campaign in solidarity with Cuba.