Travels without a Donkey: Venezuela

I arrived in Venezuela with a fair amount of cynicism but with a desire to hear the other side of the story, that is to say the pro-Chavez, pro-revolution, pro-socialism side. I leave Venezuela unsure if the Bolivarian experiment can work, though impressed by what I have seen of it. Hoping the experiment will be allowed to plot its own course by the US, Europe and large corporate interests in particular, is pointless. Venezuela will not be left alone. The world should watch Venezuela with interest, and in my opinion, with hope.

By James Dryburgh - Tasmanian Times

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Barrio 23 Enero
Graffiti in ‘Barrio Veinte Tres – “The impossible is what we must do, because others will take charge of the possible every day.”

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Barrios climb out of the city centre.
Barrios climb out of the city centre.

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City monument that represents continuous revolution, black and red have always represented the struggle of the poor.
City monument that represents continuous revolution, black and red have always represented the struggle of the poor.

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Graffiti showing how many here feel about the USA
Graffiti showing how many here feel about the USA

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Graffiti - Che and Castro ‘We are winning’
Graffiti - Che and Castro ‘We are winning’

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Night falls on monument to those killed during the 2002 coup
Night falls on monument to those killed during the 2002 coup

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Anna and mannequin (Anna left)
Anna and mannequin (Anna left)

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"Una Chavista" (a supporter of the Chavez government)
"Una Chavista" (a supporter of the Chavez government)

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‘Homemade’ homes under a highway in Caracas
‘Homemade’ homes under a highway in Caracas

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Low density barrios on the outskirts of Caracas
Low density barrios on the outskirts of Caracas

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19th Century painting in a park in Altamira, a wealthy suburb of Caracas
19th Century painting in a park in Altamira, a wealthy suburb of Caracas

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Construction site as a vegetable farm cooperative
Construction site as a vegetable farm cooperative

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Caracas from teleferico ascending Pico El Avila (2105m)
Caracas from teleferico ascending Pico El Avila (2105m)

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El Che in Barrio 23 Enero, Caracas
El Che in Barrio 23 Enero, Caracas

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New settlement in Puerto Ordaz
New settlement in Puerto Ordaz

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Apartment living in Caracas
Apartment living in Caracas

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May Day marchers
May Day marchers

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Waterfall near Puerto Ordaz
Waterfall near Puerto Ordaz
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It is important to begin these impressions of Venezuela by explaining that our time in this country, in which we have been lucky enough to get beneath the surface, has confirmed suspicions that 90 per cent of what we hear about Venezuela in Australia is utter nonsense. It’s not in the paper it is on the wall - the US is at war with Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves and the fourth largest of natural gas. The US has had control of these resources since their discovery over a hundred years ago via hand-picked dictatorships and false democracies. They have lost control of this country, thanks, not to Chavez, but to the poor majority he inspires.

However, US strategy is clear, and thinking back to Australian media and the information we receive about Venezuela, I fear they are winning. It’s a simple yet sophisticated strategy used against many countries to justify interference or attack. Since the failed US-backed coup against the democratically elected President Chavez in April of 2002, the US have switched to Plan B, which is a campaign to swing global public opinion, through its influence over international media, against the Chavez government to justify overthrowing it. It’s working.

Of course this strategy is in combination with funding opposition groups and supporting disruption. Many locals believe there are US-trained Colombian para-militants carrying out random killings in the country to help create a feeling of insecurity under Chavez rule. The media tactics are clever and need no truth. For example, un-named US officials will release a statement that Venezuela is supporting FARC rebels in Colombia, which receives headline treatment on the news. A few days later a quiet press release is issued stating that actually they have no evidence of this, and of course the second release is deemed ‘un-newsworthy’ and the public are none the wiser.

A good example of this slanted international reporting is when Chavez moved to change the constitution to allow presidents to sit more than one term. It was reported as the power hungry dictator not willing to let go of power and was international news. Yet, Colombia tried to do the same and it didn’t make mainstream news. It is also worth noting that most countries, including Australia, have a system where their leader can sit as many term as they like as long as they are democratically elected. It was barely reported at all that the Chavez government actually proposed a more democratic system than we have by including the provision that as soon as a president is half way through their term anyone can call a referendum to expel them if they collect signatures of 20 per cent of the electorate. This provision has already been used unsuccessfully by the opposition.

In the first few weeks of 2005 more than 50 articles were published in major US newspapers and programs shown on TV in the US about Venezuela, more than 85 per cent of the consulted “experts” quoted in these articles were connected to institutions or publications of the opposition. [1]

The USA also sanctioned Venezuela for not sufficiently supporting their war in Iraq in the form that no US companies could sell arms or military technology to Venezuela. As such, Venezuela has been forced to look to other countries for military development, something the US now uses to argue that Venezuela is becoming a rogue state.

The US is also surrounding Venezuela militarily, increasing its presence in Brazil, Peru and the Caribbean, and establishing seven new bases in Colombia. Many fear that Colombia is becoming ‘an Israel of South America,’ a place from which to wage war and control the area. Things have worsened under the Obama presidency, which is not to blame Obama. US international policy is state policy, not party policy, it matters little which party is governing. Strategy may change but policy doesn’t. History shows policy hasn’t changed for a couple centuries, a relative moderate like Kennedy was in office when Cuba was invaded as was Carter when the US waged war on the poor of Central America for a decade.

The only hope is that they have left it too late and the Chavez government is too popular, that enough people around the world realise most US international policy is based on lies and imperialist interests. If global media undergoes a revolution of its own and begins to search for truth before headlines and advertising dollars, then this could offer a lifeline also.

So anyway, I began my time here with a head full of negative impressions and cynicism about the ‘revolution’ led by Chavez. I had also been told that Caracas is “the scariest place on earth” and from another it was “officially the worst city I’ve ever been to.” I was expecting to find Caracas interesting, but not to like it.

The drive from the airport was spectacular, as we left the coast and wound up the steep valleys where the deep green dense jungle meets the multi-coloured barrios (slums) that somehow cling to the slopes like lichen to a cliff. I was reminded of pictures I had seen in magazines. The hillside barrios are so densely built and effectively home-made that they look as though if one dwelling toppled thousands would go with it. In fact, a few years ago a landslide buried 20,000 people in this area and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The barrios grow organically as people find some vacant land and begin to populate it. Often these people are immigrants from countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Colombia seeking a better life. Of Venezuela’s 26 million inhabitants, four million are Colombians.

We had signed up for a ten day study tour organised by the Australia – Venezuela Solidarity Network, not because we are members, but because we saw it as an excellent way to learn as much as possible about the country in a short amount of time.

We met up with the rest of the group; there were about fifteen of us. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the group, which included representatives of various Australian unions including the CFMEU and the MUA, a lawyer from Montreal, an Amnesty International employee, a high school teacher and a student and writer from Texas. On the first night we also met an interesting French couple, the 82 year old Luis and his wife Anne. Luis is a veteran of the French resistance in WWII and led a column of guerrillas under ‘Che’ in the Cuban revolution. They also lived in San Salvador for four years during the Salvadoran civil war, working in the French embassy before it was abolished and sheltering children orphaned by the war.

Day two began with a lecture from Marcelo, a senior academic at the Central University in Caracas, on the history of Venezuela from the first known human inhabitation thousands of years ago, through the Spanish conquest up to the present. The afternoon consisted of a free tour of the centre of Caracas complete with about 20 actors and 10 guides. The free tours are part of Venezuela’s bicentenary celebrations. This year marks 200 years since Simon Bolivar liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule. The tour was brilliant every time we walked 100 yards to another site there were actors waiting to portray the story. The tour ended on the bridge that saw protesters shot during the 2002 coup. Local media edited film of protesters who were shooting at opposition snipers, to make appear as though they were shooting at those who were actually victims of the snipers. Of course these were the images CNN and Fox showed the world. The next ‘Postcard to TT’ will explain more about the 2002 coup, the rise to power of Chavez and what the revolution actually means.

The next day we enjoyed a free classical concert of music from the 19th century related to the country’s independence. We saw Hotel Alba, which was the Hilton but has now been taken over by its workers. There are beautiful murals everywhere in Caracas telling all sorts of stories. In the afternoon we had a talk from an expert on the Venezuelan labour movement, including union movements, co-operatives and the reclamation of factories by workers.

A few things that stand out walking about Caracas are that utilisation of any free space, including under over-passes where I have seen public chess playing areas that have many tables complete with pieces. There are also stalls everywhere selling books. These book stalls often include small publications of individual national laws and the constitution. Clothes shops also appear different as the mannequins are of all shapes and sizes, as opposed to back home in Australia where they tend to all be verging on anorexic.

Three days in and I love Caracas. It has a brilliant buzz, it is different to any other city I have seen, there is colour everywhere and we haven’t had even the slightest negative experience…

Part II

For decades before the failed Chavez-led coup in 1992 Venezuela had a false democracy. The false democracy was a two party system where the two parties were virtually identical and had an agreement to switch power each election (every five years). The agreement was known as the ‘Punto Fijo Pact’. This period followed one of several long dictatorships.

The seed for revolution had been planted long before Chavez. Venezuela is a rich country, yet most of its people are poor. There is a huge gap between rich and poor. This is the strength of Chavez as he appears to represent the poor majority, in action as well as word. It would be rare to find a rich Venezuelan who supports Chavez as those who hold the wealth rarely want it redistributed.

It has been in the interests of many internal power brokers and of the US for Venezuela to be completely oil dependent, which it now is. This dependency ensures a steady flow of oil to the US and a need to import US goods (Venezuela is the most ‘Americanised’ country I have been to, there are US goods everywhere). The riches of the oil boom effectively killed off agriculture and other industries.

Chavez was leading part of a growing group within the army, known as the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR 200) who were disgusted by the corruption and abuse in the army and the government. The 200 part of the name is due to the year the group formed being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Simon Bolivar. In 1989 an IMF neo-liberal privatisation package caused an uprising known as “Caracazo” after the poor suburb it started in. The package resulted in significantly greater costs for the poor, including the doubling of fuel prices overnight. Presidential candidate Perez campaigned on the promise of not agreeing to the package and won. His first action as President was to ratify the package. This caused massive protests and Perez responded by ordering random massacres in the poor barrios. Constitutional rights were suspended on an indefinite basis, human rights abuses became the norm and thousands were killed.

The MBR 200 group within the army refused to participate in the massacres. It is worth noting that the Perez era was described by the US as a “model democracy” even during the violent crack downs and the polls that showed 84 per cent of the population were against the government.

These events increased the urgency for the MBR 200 group within the army, that and the fact that they believed they were close to being found out. Chavez led a coup with MBR 200 against Perez, failed and was imprisoned. Chavez was allowed to speak to the media to call off the coup and he did something almost unheard of in Venezuelan history. Basically he said, “I did it, this is why I did it, I failed and I take full responsibility for my actions.” People liked his honesty. He also told his followers to lay down their weapons and that they would not win this way and then said the two words that became the two words that would be repeated throughout the barrios as a transmission of hope for change, “por ahora” (for now). He said, “We have failed, for now.”

The fuse Chavez lit with the words “por ahora” ignited hope particularly within Venezuela’s poorer communities which continued to burn during his two years in prison. He was eventually released due to public pressure. After his release he quietly spent about four years travelling to basically every village in the country and talking to people in relatively impromptu meetings. Grassroots support for Chavez grew rapidly and much to the surprise of the opposition Chavez won the election in 1998. The elections saw many who had never bothered to vote before turn out to have their say.

A US-backed coup to overthrow Chavez in 2002 succeeded for two days before civilian and army support for Chavez had him back in the presidency. There is constant plotting against Chavez, but his empowerment of the disempowered seems to be keeping him in government. His support for community councils and participatory democracy has involved thousands who were never politically represented before. Voting is up significantly with stalls for electoral enrollment in every metro station and in many other public places, complete with electronic finger-printing.

The Chavez revolution is an experiment that is constantly evolving. It is establishing structures which every year become less top-down. The end goal is a socialist participatory democracy. Who knows if it will work or if internal or external forces will allow us to see if it can, but for now it is undoubtedly improving life for the majority of Venezuelans and its progress should be of interest to people everywhere.

Our fourth day in Caracas was the day we tested the medical system of Venezuela from the inside. Anna awoke with a brutal tooth ache and a molar that had all but turned black. It seemed it may be something serious. We had heard that Chavez had introduced free health care for all, but what would it be like? I have to admit I was thinking “oh fuck, of all the places to have a medical emergency, why did it have to be Caracas?”

We found out where the closest ‘Barrio Adentro’ was and fortunately it was at the university in walking distance. ‘Barrio Adentro’ means something like ‘within the neighbourhood’ and is the system of having free health clinics in every area to ensure everyone has access to medical help. Many of the doctors are Cuban, as Venezuela has a shortage of doctors (well a shortage who are willing to live and work in the poor areas anyway). Cuba and Venezuela have a deal where they swap oil for doctors.

We wandered in and found the dental section where they took our names and told us it would not be a long wait. After about five minutes a dentist came in to the waiting room and gave a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation on dental problems and appropriate care. From the presentation we both thought the problem may be an abscess under the tooth. Five minutes later we were called in and discovered we had diagnosed it correctly. After x-rays, drilling and much analysis the dentist decided it was a very bad abscess that extended below the tooth and we would be best with a specialist. The two hours of help was free and we were referred to a specialist based at the Red Cross building in the city centre.

At the specialists we saw another dentist but unfortunately the specialist himself wasn’t there.  They decided it was too bad and we should return to see the specialist the following day. So Anna spent the night with more hole than tooth and we returned the next day. To our dismay the specialist was seriously ill. We were referred to a private clinic a couple hundred yards away where we were seen instantly by a brilliant dentist called Isabel, and so began six sessions of drilling, cleaning, root-canalling and rebuilding.

I am glad to say it all ended well and we feel very grateful that a couple foreigners should be treated so well and that what could have turned out as a ‘fly home situation’ ended up fine.

We have met a few people now who are anti-Chavez, including the dentist Isabel. She describes him as “crazy man.” However, the only reason we have been given so far as to why he is so bad is that it is very difficult to get hold of US Dollars in Venezuela at the moment making overseas travel very difficult due to the low value of the Bolivar.

The next day on our way to a meeting at BanMujer we passed a large vacant site in the city centre that is to be developed but not for another year or so. As such, the government is paying a small cooperative of unemployed the minimum wage to grow vegetables on the site to be sold cheaply at the edge of the site. It struck me as a great use of a couple hectares of temporarily useless land. It got me thinking about the Myer site in Hobart.

BanMujer is a women’s bank established by the Chavez government. It provides low interest loans (lower than current inflation) to women in extreme poverty. In fact the official interest rate is 19% and the BanMujer rate is 6%. Small groups or families can receive loans of 5,000 bolivars ($1,250) and cooperatives up to 50,000 bolivars ($12,500). Approximately 50 per cent of the loans go to small scale agricultural projects. Recipients have four years to pay off the loan and if they do so they are automatically entitled to another loan 50 per cent larger. Projects and bank staff can involve men, but they must be run by women. For example, a cooperative must have two women for every man and decisions must be taken by women.

Bank staff undertake assessments of the proposals of potential recipients and of reasons why recipients have not made their payments. If they find that payments have not been made due to external factors rather than the negligence of the recipient(s) an assistance plan is provided.

The bank provided other benefits in addition to a financial leg-up. Project candidates have to do their own economic feasibility studies (with guidance) and the bank provides training and education, in areas such as running cooperatives, accounting, women’s health, sexual education and women’s medicine.

Due to another couple hours at the dentist we arrived late for the meeting at the Indigenous Parliament of Latin America with one of Venezuela’s three representatives Yuis Aray. We were there long enough to catch some interesting points. She believes that the Chavez government has greatly improved the recognition of the country’s indigenous peoples, thought to be only a few per cent at most unlike Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia to the south, which have high percentages of indigenous. She explained that in the past few years, history and school book have stopped referring to the indigenous in the past tense and now more appropriately use the present. How strange it must have been reading about your people as if they no longer existed.

Yuis described some of the old beliefs of the Venezuelan indigenous, which set the imagination ablaze. They believed that everything could talk - the plants, animals, rocks and rivers. As such, every word was spiritual as everything else in the world could hear that word. Everything within Pachamama (Mother Earth) is linked and every word has meaning. So every word is a deep commitment as everything within Mother Earth will respond to those words.

Part III

Next we headed on an overnight bus to Puerto Ordaz in the east, which is basically the industrial heart of Venezuela. It is a huge, like Bell Bay multiplied by a hundred. Even though it didn’t drop under 30 degrees during our time in Venezuela the long distance buses keep an internal temperature of around minus 30. We arrived at the station at about 8 am only to find the buses we had booked to drive us around for two days unavailable due to strikes over annual bonuses.  Anna was happy that we had to catch a taxi to our first destination mainly because the taxi driver was playing some prime 80s tunes mixed to a catchy techno beat and thus the car became a party for a short time.

We visited a ceramic brick factory that has been reclaimed by the workers. It is a couple months away from resuming production after sabotage by the owners. The motivation of the workers to make the factory work as a cooperative in partnership with the government was impressive.

On the way back to the hotel we visited an area of vacant land claimed by several hundred landless families. They were having their weekly community meetings when we arrived unannounced and as such we didn’t have very long talking with them. The area of land had been private land. When they moved in the owner appeared and starting trying to charge them rent, which no one paid. The owner then complained to the authorities, who investigated the case and found the owner hadn’t been paying land tax for over a decade and decided the land therefore wasn’t his. The land now belongs to the community.

The living conditions are very basic, some are still living in tents, but the community is new and is organising. As they organise they are able to improve the area and gain governmental assistance. We saw a similar community nearby that was older where the government has now built the residents proper dwellings and installed services. This is the aim for the new community. All the people we spoke to were passionate Chavez supporters who believe for the first time their interests are a concern of their government and their leader.

Just outside Puerto Ordaz is a huge nature reserve, which contains several large waterfalls, beautiful forest and wild monkeys. The water that feeds the waterfalls comes from a huge hydroelectric scheme that supplies a whopping 68 per cent of Venezuela’s electricity. Severe drought over the past year or so is causing electricity shortages throughout the country.

Back in Caracas we wandered about ‘Barrio Veinte Tres de Enero’ (Neighbourhood January 23) with a community leader and spoke to locals about their organisation through community councils and the general progress in the area. This area has been well organised as a community since long before Chavez and was an important area in past uprisings.

The 56 buildings that make up the Barrio were built in the fifties to house the army under the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez. In 1959 there was a general uprising against the Jimenez, partly organised by a naval admiral but also by many left-wing organisations and the Communist party of Venezuela (PCV). Jimenez was overthrown and apparently fled the country in such a hurry he left suitcases full of Treasury money on the runway. He lived out his days in luxury in Spain.

With the overthrow of Jimenez poor people invaded these new buildings as construction had just finished. The locals say that the keys were all hanging on a wall so each family grabbed a key and kept trying doors until the key worked. The name of the barrio was initially ‘12th December,’ marking the date construction of the buildings finished. However, the community renamed it ‘23 January’ to celebrate the date of the overthrow of the dictator, Perez Jimenez.

On May Day we marched and partied with several hundred thousand others for several kilometres through the heart of Caracas. The atmosphere was amazing, as the river of red t-shirts flooded through the city overflowing with song, goodwill and hope. There were rumours that Chavez was coming, but it turned out he was in another country at a conference at the time.

On the last morning of the organised part of the trip we had a talk by, and discussions with, Eva Golinger who has written several books on Venezuela, particularly US interference. Eva is a Venezuelan-American attorney who has spent years obtaining top-secret documents from the CIA, State Department and other departments under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents leave no doubt regarding US support for the 2002 coup against Chavez and their continuing financial and logistical support for various anti-Chavez movements and media outlets. Her books include the The Chavez Code and Bush versus Chavez.

It was fascinating and depressing to hear factual accounts of the depth of US involvement in Venezuela and other countries in the region. I left the discussion almost without hope for Latin America, with the feeling that if any government tries to act for its own people, to improve the life of its poor or to regulate multinationals socially and environmentally, they would likely only last a few years before the US managed to orchestrate their downfall. This is exactly what has happened in almost every Latin American country over the last century, for example in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil and the list goes on. Yet, this is why Venezuela is so interesting. It has survived the interference longer than is historically normal.

Needless to say Eva receives regular death threats, for the crime of revealing truth.

In the afternoon we took a detoxification from depressing information and caught the cable car up Pico el Avila. Caracas flows along a deep valley with mountains of approximately 2000m in height. This is one of those mountains, covered in dense dark green forest, which must afford the city some oxygen amongst the carbon monoxide. Seeing over the other side was a pleasant surprise, it slopes steeply downward past small indigenous agricultural plots to the turquoise ocean, which I hadn’t realised we were so close to.

With a few days left we bussed up and down tiny winding roads to Colonia Tovar, which is, of all things, a German village in the middle of Venezuela. It was founded in the early 19th century and it was only in the 1940’s that Spanish became the official language and marriage outside the community was permitted. It was a surreal place and it did feel a bit wrong being in such a place when in Venezuela, but we climbed a nearby mountain and the forest was stunning, like rainforest but with tall palms interspersed through it.

Our time in Venezuela finished with a taxi ride of death. The trip was an hour and a half and was almost entirely on tiny roads with no barriers and ravines hundreds of metres deep off the edge. Our driver seemed to be trying for a record time and we were getting thrown around so much that our seatbelts were locked almost the entire journey. In addition, my bladder was close to bursting point and I couldn’t remember how to say piss in Spanish and for some reason was embarrassed to use the word urinate. I guess I just imagined someone in Australia saying, “Excuse me, I need to urinate.” After several painful minutes I solved the internal crisis, managing to find the words for “I need a tree to go behind.”

I arrived in Venezuela with a fair amount of cynicism but with a desire to hear the other side of the story, that is to say the pro-Chavez, pro-revolution, pro-socialism side. I leave Venezuela unsure if the Bolivarian experiment can work, though impressed by what I have seen of it. Hoping the experiment will be allowed to plot its own course by the US, Europe and large corporate interests in particular, is pointless. Venezuela will not be left alone. I only hope they fail in their interference and in the process awaken more citizens of the world to the true motivations behind trying to stop a democratic nation’s shift to a more socialist society.

The world should watch Venezuela with interest, and in my opinion, with hope. Simply because the capitalist liberal-democracy that dominates our world promotes inequality and is unsustainable. If another way is or isn’t possible it may become a life-line or a lesson to all of us.

Notes

Eva Golinger, 2005. The Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. intervention in Venezuela, Instituto Cubano del Libro.