The Role of the Infocenter in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution

In the remote neighborhood of Nuevo Amanecer, there is no wireline phone service or cable TV. One thing the residents of Nuevo Amanecer can count on, however, is access to internet connected personal computers, thanks to their local infocenter.

Just south of Maracaibo, the capital of Venezuela’s oil-rich state of Zulia, lies the municipality of San Francisco. It is a sprawling labyrinth of suburban neighborhoods, some respectably middle class, most quite humble, many abjectly impoverished. Among the latter is the barrio of Nuevo Amanecer, which has grown up, of its own accord, on the city’s outermost edge. The streets are unplanned and unpaved. The houses are generally in an unfinished state of construction, with concrete block walls and corrugated tin roofs. Kites and shoes dangle from the low strung web of improvised electric wiring. There are cows wandering here and there, but no wireline phone service or cable TV. One thing the residents of Nuevo Amanecer can count on, however, is access to internet connected personal computers, thanks to their local infocenter.

An infocenter is a public site that makes information and communication technologies (ICTs), primarily internet-connected computer terminals, available to the general population at no cost. Infocenters also provide instruction in how to utilize such technologies, and they provide space for the community to meet and participate in a range of other activites. They have been around since 2000, when the first infocenter was established in the Parque del Este neighborhood of Caracas. Over the course of the following year 239 infocenters were created, and today more than 700 are spread across each of Venezuela’s 24 states. Communities without an infocenter, including the most inaccessible corners of the country, are served by a fleet of 27 mobile units, called infomóviles.

In some ways, Venezuela’s infocenter initiative is representative of the Bolivarian Revolution as a whole. It is the product of an audacious and idealistic vision that has impelled precipitous development, the social benefits of which cannot be doubted, even if at times growth seems to outpace administrative capacity.  The infocenters  themselves make up just one of an increasingly integrated set of tools that the Chávez administration has offered to the Venezuelan people. After more than a decade of evolution, the project is solidifying and refining it’s role as a community-based ICT provider supporting the development of participatory self-governance.

In 2007 administrative control over the infocenter network was transferred to the newly created Infocenter Foundation (Fundación Infocentro), housed in the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Intermediate Industries. Funding for the infocenter infrastructure, however, continues to be provided by Venezuela’s Universal Service Fund, established in 2000 and controlled by the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL).  The fund’s primary revenue source is a tax on commercial telecommunications  companies. Since 2009, Universal Service funding directed to the infocenters has been managed by the Venezuelan National Telephone Corporation (CANTV), which was re-nationalized in 2007.

Each infocenter is staffed by a team of facilitators, whose role is to create the conditions for the community to best take advantage of the technologies provided. As the infocentro’s official literature puts it, the facilitator “is not a clerk or a simple computer adviser” but “a community servant, committed to the revolutionary process and their community” whose “fundamental role is to guarantee that the commune can make effective use of the socio-technological space”. At the Nuevo Amanecer infocenter, the facilitators are Omer Moran, who has the morning shift, and Juan Martinez, who covers the afternoons. They work each day from Monday to Saturday and receive  Venezuela’s minimum salary, which is set to rise this September to 1,584 BsF ($368) per month, plus a package of food, health, and retirement benefits. In the interview below, Omer and Juan introduce us to their infocenter, which was established about two years ago:

As Juan makes clear, the infocentros make use of open software in order to save on licensing costs and avoid the viruses which plague Venezuela’s commercial internet cafés. Beyond those concrete motives, however, the Venezuelan government has implemented a plan for migrating to open software as one tactic to ensure the country’s sovereign development. Back in December 2004, presidential decree 3390 declared that the “National Public Administration will prioritize the use of Open Software developed with Open Standards”. Earlier this year Venezuela held itsSeventh National Congress of Open Software and, according to one recent report, over 60 percent of online state services are currently offered by institutions that have migrated to open software.

Inside the infocenter, Omer and Juan go into a bit more detail about the open software programs available to the residents of Nuevo Amanecer, and they also touch on some other very important features of the infocentro initiative:

As Omer points out, since the Nuevo Amanecer barrio lacks wire line internet capabilities, the infocenter – along with almost 500 others across the country – accesses the internet vía Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar satellite (aka VENESAT-1), which was launched on October 29, 2008 from China’s Xichang Space Center. Venezuela had initially discussed its satellite ambitions with Russia, but withdrew from those negotiations when Russia refused to transfer the related technology and technical expertise. Venezuela then partnered with China, which provided technical training to approximately 30 Venezuelan engineers and helped construct two terrestrial control stations (one primary and one backup) on Venezuelan soil.

Today, the Simón Bolívar satellite is operated by the Venezuelan state and provides secure telecommunications services, including telephone, internet, and television, to even the most remote of Venezuela’s communities. The geostationary satellite’s footprint covers Latin America from southern Mexico to Patagonia, making service available to countries throughout the region. Uruguay controls a full 10 percent of the satellite’s capacity, having ceded to Venezuela its rights to orbital space since international agreements had left Venezuela without rights to space of its own.

As Juan acknowledges, satellite-based internet service is relatively slow (if he is indeed referring to average speeds of 256 kbps), but Nuevo Amanecer’s residents are nonetheless able to send emails, read the news, and conduct online research free of charge, without having to leave their community. Since CANTV has not yet installed wireline service, the only other option for those living in Nuevo Almanecer is to purchase a mobile device. Whether via a smart phone or USB modem (both operating on 3G networks), mobile service implies a monthly charge that generally doesn’t fit their budgets (not to mention, in the case of a USB modem, the need for a personal computer in the home).

No-cost internet access, however, is just one element of the multi-faceted Infocenter Foundation, whose flagship program is the National Technological Literacy Plan. In essence, the campaign provides one-week long workshops to community members interested in learning how to make use of the technology available in their infocenter. At the Nuevo Amanecer infocenter, Omer and Juan begin a new course as soon as 10 people have registered their interest. As they explained in the video above, the courses are free, open “to everyone, regardless of age, sex, political belief of any type”, and – so far – most popular among children.

Across the country, however, the Infocenter Foundation has had great success training adults. So much so, in fact, that in 2010 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded a Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize to the Infocenter Foundation for its project “Technological Literacy for Older Adults.” Since 2005, the prize has been awarded annually to two “individuals, institutions, other entities or non-governmental organizations for excellent models, best practice, and creative use of information and communication technologies to enhance learning, teaching and overall educational performance.” The winners of the 2010 prize, whose theme was “Digital Literacy: Preparing Adult Learners for Lifelong Learning and Flexible Employment”, were selected from among 49 candidates, nominated by 34 countries and one inter-governmental organization. In remarks acknowledging the award earlier this year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías announced that the Technological Literacy Plan had trained over one million people in its first year.

Among those who participated was Grace María Ortíz, a community leader from the La Polarbarrio, not too far from Nuevo Amanecer:

When Grace talks about “phases” during the interview, she is referring to the “modules” that make up the curriculum of the technological literacy campaign. Each module is accompanied by a manual that contains the core information, practical exercises, a glossary, and a list of references where more information can be found. The manuals are also available for download in PDF format. There are at least 9 modules, beginning with Module I: An Introduction to Using Computers and also covering the Open Office suite of programs (word processing, presentations, spreadsheets), the internet (navigation, search, and social networks), image editing and advanced presentation techniques, and building a web site.

Significantly, the Infocenter Foundation has attempted to integrate the Technological Literacy modules with Venezuela’s burgeoning system of community councils. Enacted by a 2006 law, the community council system is designed to increase local level control over state resources. Community members form assemblies made up of a minimum of 200 households in urban areas, 20 in rural areas, and 10 in indigenous zones. All community residents 15 years of age or older can participate in the assemblies, which elect representatives to form a community council. (These councils are then grouped into higher level units, called communes.) The councils include executive, financial, and oversight committees, as well as leaders (voceros) who are assigned to specific areas of concern, such as food, health, land, or communications. Members of the community can then submit project proposals to the council for grant or loan funding. The infocenter modules are designed to empower community members to participate in this process.

The opening section of the second Technological Literacy module, which covers the word processing application Writer, begins as follows:

Before beginning the course… We invite you to imagine the following situation:

The Communal Council of your area is currently soliciting resources for various projects that will improve the quality of life of the community, for which it is inviting all of its inhabitants to present their ideas in project form as a digital document, to solve local situations and problems.

You are continually concerned for your community and have innovative ideas, you want to participate, but you don’t know how to create a project, how to create a document, nor what tools to use.

The infocenter, of course, is suggested as the necessary resource, and the module includes four exercises, interspersed throughout, that invite readers to apply what they’ve learned about word processing to the creation of a project proposal directed to their communal council. The same structure is used in subsequent modules. This effort to integrate the infocenters into a broader national project of community-level self-governance is what sets the Infocenter Foundation apart from most (if not all) other ICT access projects.

In fact, the Infocenter Foundation committed itself, in February of 2010, to a “reboot” (reimpulso) of the initiative with the explicit goal of “transferring the management of the infocenters themselves to the organized communities”. At this point, however, there is no clearly articulated strategy for handing off control. A preparatory document for the First National Meeting of Coordinators of the Infocentro Network, held in February and dedicated to envisioning the “route of transference”, states that “[t]he transfer of the infocentros is a policy in construction” and that “we are not talking of an absolute transfer but of co-management, practicing in the infocenter a relationship between government and community”.

What is clear, however, is that the Foundation envisions infocenters as playing a crucial role in not only the administrative activities of communal councils, but the daily social and economic activity of the entire community:

Social appropriation of ICT by popular sectors means […] going beyond the knowledge of digital tools, to organize themselves in networks, resolve concrete problems and transform reality, empowering organization, mobilization, coordination, and socio-productive capacity.

If the Foundation is indeed going to achieve this vision, however, it must work through a complicated set of concrete problems of its own.

As with many of the Bolivarian Revolution’s projects, the infocenter initiative is the product of rapid growth achieved through (and stunted by) a series of trials and errors. Publicly accessible internal documents suggest that the massive apparatus remains unwieldy and prone to inefficiency.  Central administrators do not appear to have thorough and current information regarding the status of the infocenters, which hinders preventative and necessary maintenance as well as human resources management. One progress report for the first trimester of 2011 shows a concerted but incomplete effort to remedy these problems. For example, the internally developed, networked software called SiRFa (Sistema de Registración de Facilitadores / Facilitator Registration System), whose objective is to “automate the registration of facilitators working in infocenters across the nation”, is only 80 percent developed and entering testing. Adaptations to another program, Sigefirrhh (Sistema de Gestión de Recursos Humanos / Human Resources Management System), which would allow for the management of pension funds, vacation and sick days, and social security payments, are listed as “in production”.

The effect of these administrative shortcomings – no matter how valiantly the Foundation may be attempting to overcome them – seems to be taking its toll. In October 2010, the Foundation’s administration felt compelled to send a general bulletin to the facilitators in response to rumors suggesting that the facilitators’ contracts would be terminated at the end of the year and complaints that some facilitators had not been justly paid for their work. At the very least, this episode seems to indicate the need for better communication across the network.

Probably more significant, however, is another preparatory document for the National Meeting of Coordinators, entitled “Open, Active, and Community Integrated Infocenters”. This document was designed to address a series of shortcomings that the administration feels will reflect poorly on the infocenter initiative, and the government generally, in the crucial run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. (The Infocenter Foundation makes quite clear that it sees its work as part and parcel of the larger goals of the Bolivarian Revolution, led by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.)  The list of 10 “Detected Problems and Proposed Solutions” includes the absence of facilitators (due to their failure to appear when scheduled, attendance at meetings or workshops, and sickness), a lack of internet service in some infocenters, technical problems (temporarily out-of-service equipment, air conditioners, and internet connections), closures due to routine maintenance, and legal problems related to unfulfilled construction and installation contracts. That the cumulative effect of these problems appears to have diminished the overall capacity of the network sufficiently enough to require national level attention suggests that the root causes lie as much or more in the administrative capacity of the Foundation as they do with the everyday realities of operating a large, technologically-based enterprise in a country with significant infrastructural and educational deficiencies.

Even where the local infocenter is up and running, with dedicated facilitators, as in Nuevo Amanecer, it has not always been easy to generate community participation. As Juan points out in the first part of the interview, the majority of users at the Nuevo Amanecer infocenter have been children. Off camera, the facilitators explained that they had personally invited the teachers of the local elementary school to integrate the infocenter technology into their classwork but, even though the elementary school is located right next door to the infocenter, only three of twelve teachers had done so, and those to only a limited degree.

Meanwhile, those adults that do make use of the Nuevo Amanecer infocenter have so far tended to use it for simple internet access. Some, like Grace and her classmates (who study special education), use the infocenter to complete assignments within state sponsored, no-cost secondary and post-secondary education programs, like the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. This must surely be celebrated as a concrete success and is one example of the way that Venezuela’s multiple and extensive social programs work together to increase opportunities for citizens. It is hardly an isolated case – the Foundation has recently published a collection(click here for part 2) of 100 different examples of communities making use of infocenters, including self-governance, education, community health, prisoner outreach, small enterprise creation, community media, local history, and environmental activism. These examples form part of the Foundation´s ongoing effort to register and deseminate success stories that can be emulated by other infocenters. Nonetheless, the goal of fully integrating the infocenters into a dynamic and thriving system of coordinated and participatory self-governance remains distant.

As witnessed by the intertwined development of the Infocenter Foundation, the Universal Service Fund, CANTV, the Simón Bolívar satellite, the open software initiative, the Bolivarian University (and other educational programs), and the communal council system, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is constructing an increasingly impressive array of infrastructure and institutions for social improvement and citizen empowerment. The government and, especially, the people must continue to refine and integrate those tools as they are placed in the service of a sustainable, dynamic, and widespread practice of radically democratic political and economic action. Regardless of the ultimate role that the infocenter initiative will play in this matrix, it is an experiment that should inspire and inform participatory technology initiatives around the world.