Yesterday there were hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Caracas in support of President Hugo Chavez. People clad in red t-shirts filled the Francisco Fajardo four lane freeway, marching from eastern Caracas to the city centre. And this was only one of three marches that conglomerated downtown to listen to President Chavez’ speech and to show support for the president before the presidential referendum next weekend.
|Anti-Bush sentiments dominated the rally, as Chavez loyalists see the recall as a battle against U.S. government interference in Venezuela’s affairs|
Credit: Martin Sanchez, Venezuelanalysis.com
It took four hours to reach the city center, all the while more and more people joined the relentless march that looked like a red ocean of people, as folks wore red, the color that symbolizes the Chavez government, many with the single word NO printed on them, meaning NO to recall Chavez as president. Others wore red t-shirts with the names of government social programs printed on them, like “Barrio Adentro,” (healthcare) “Misión Robinson,” (literacy), “Misión Florentino,” (political brigades for the referendum), etc.
Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution is based on social programs like the Barrio Adentro healthcare program and is enthusiastically supported by people who readily call themselves “revolutionaries.” Yet Venezuelans did not show the social sophistication of North American social activists. For example, some folks wore Coca-Cola t-shirts since the label didn’t mean as much as the red color of the t-shirt. Marchers dumped their garbage as they pleased and streets were littered with used plastic bottles, wrappers, etc. Cars with giant NO posters on their hoods that joined marchers, spewed out exhaust of black smoke sometimes nearly running us over and choking us with the unchecked emissions. And getting closer to the city centre, the warm air was heavy with the stench of the Guaira river, the main river which has long since become little more than an open sewage line passing through Caracas.
However, despite this apparent lack of social sophistication, the people of Venezuela voted in a social reformer that social activists in North America can only dream of. During his last 5 years in office, Chavez has built the pillars of a social infrastructure enjoyed by countries like Canada. This includes health care, a water infrastructure program, housing, food security, loans to spur industries and cooperative businesses, and a host of education programs with everything from basic literacy to university education. And how does Chavez afford all of this? He makes no bones about it. Oil. He is using oil income that once used to circulate among a tiny oil oligarchy in Venezuela and is investing heavily into social programs. The opposition and some U.S. newspaper editorials claim Chavez is doing this to buy the vote of the poor. Be that as it may, Venezuelans are responding to Chavez’ reforms in record numbers.
An adult vendor rides a small ice-cream bike with a large plastic penguin stuck to the front. He is selling freezies, frozen sticks of sweetened water. This worker, at the lower end of the employment spectrum, is one of many hundreds of thousands of underemployed workers in Caracas, many of whom pack the streets of the city selling dollar-type goods as well as bargain clothes and other inexpensive goods.
I ask him how he will vote during the referendum. His answer is common among street vendors who see Chavez as hope for a better future. “For the No,” he said, “100 percent NO.” I ask him why. “Because Chavez has done a lot for the Venezuelan people,” he says. “He is doing what other governments haven’t done. He brought in Cuban doctors who come to the door of our houses. He brought in neighborhood supermarkets. No other president has done this. Long live Chavez!” he shouts raising his fist.
Two women in red T-shirts take a break from marching under the shade of a tree along the highway. They say the government under Chavez has provided direct benefits for them and their community. “He has brought in the Comedores (prepared food program), the Mercal program (neighborhood supermarkets) and the food provided for children means they will grow up healthy,” one woman says.
The other woman says there is prophecy that says a commander is to come to Venezuela to bring justice and to give to the people of this country. According to the woman, that commander is Chavez. “Chavez has been in charge of liberating Venezuela for the past 5 years he’s been with us,” the woman says, “Chavez will not go,” she shouts.
|Mr. Bush, respect our sovereignty, says the sign.|
Credit: Martin Sanchez, Venezuelanalysis.com
A group of youths wearing red t-shirts with the words “Misión Florentino,” printed on them, surround a man dressed in a devil’s mask made of paper maché, carrying a cardboard forked spear who feigns a fight with a youth in plain clothes, “Florentino!” cry out the youths, as the two dramatize a struggle. Finally the youth, Florentino, wins. Misión Florentino, a program based on political brigades meant to support Chavez during the referendum, is based on a story of a protagonist who struggles with the devil and wins. The devil can refer as much to the opposition as to U.S. president George W. Bush, who Chavez supporters see as the opposition’s main backer. A rap group sang about Florentino and his struggle with the devil which they referred to as Bush, “…he thinks he has the power and he thinks he can mess with anyone in the world…Latin America will unite and here we will await him…this is Venezuela and you have to respect Venezuela…” the rap group sang with hundreds dancing and cheering.
Opposition to Bush was slow in coming to Venezuela where after decades of U.S. cultural influence through mainstream media and cinema, most folks here, like elsewhere in Latin America, liked to think of North America as representing hope for a better life. However, given U.S. intervention in Iraq and continuous disparaging statements against the government of Venezuela and Chavez coming from U.S. officials and U.S. mainstream media, Chavez has stepped up his own opposition to Bush calling him in one of his televised “Alo Presidente” program, “El devil.”
A young woman with several NO buttons pinned on her black tank top says she is marching to support Chavez against U.S. imperialism. “We are against Bush so that he leaves our country and our president in peace. We support our president 100 per cent and we will always support him,” adding that she is a participant in the Sucre mission, a program to prepare students for university.
Among Chavez supporters, the U.S. is widely considered a destabilizing force against the current government as people are convinced the U.S. supported the short lived coup against Chavez in February 2002. They also remember constant interventions in Venezuelan affairs by U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro.
Chavez opposes free trade with the U.S. and is actively seeking economic alternatives to the FTAA, such as the Bolivarian alternative, called the ALBA, and has taken steps towards economic and social integration with other South American countries through Mercosur and agreements with the Community of Andean Nations (CAN).
However, despite Chavez’ statements against Bush, the U.S. Empire, and the forces of globalization, Venezuela is the fifth largest supplier of oil to the U.S., has most of its refineries in the U.S. and through the state oil company CITGO employs thousands in that country. Venezuela also pays it external debt on time through the IMF.
In a march of millions, there have to be a variety of people, and this march was no exception. Members of Venezuela´s middle class were also present to support Chavez. A woman sits in her shiny blue van at the side of the highway wearing a red cap with the single word ´´No´´ printed on it. Few poor people in Venezuela can afford the price of these U.S. family vans which are commonly sold here at up to twice North American prices.
I ask her why she will be voting No in the upcoming referendum. “I will be voting No because I want a just and free country, a country where we can minimize social differences as much as possible, a country of opportunity for all of us, a country where the president is concerned for those most in need, a country with education, with health, and a country where those who want to study can study,” she said, adding that she is a dentist and makes a good living for herself and wants others to have the same opportunities she had. She said that Chavez’ opposition comes from those who are more interested in their own personal wealth than helping the country. “The reason why people don’t like him [Chavez] is because they are excessively selfish, that’s all, they want everything for themselves and no one else,” she said.
As we march on, hundreds swarm to the side of the highway to call out to a small contingent of anti-Chavez demonstrators across the river. They held up signs with a large “SI” painted on them. That is yes to recalling Chavez. Pro-Chavez supporters called out “Viva Chavez!,” and laughed. Others sighed and dismissed the group, almost disappointed to see such a small group of opposition compared to their own number.
Opposition demonstrations to Chavez were centered in the upscale Caracas area of Chacao, where a few thousand gathered for a concert throughout the day. While the opposition crowd of thousands would be considered a success by any North American standard, the opposition concert was dwarfed here compared to the overwhelming support of hundreds of thousands showed for President Chavez this Sunday.