By the time we had got onto the Metro on Saturday morning, reading a copy of the Ciudad Caracas morning paper, I realised that I had mis-calculated by an hour. Here, the demonstration, billed as the Misiones con Chavez march, was advertised to begin at 9am. Nevertheless, a few thousand people had already crowded near the Plaza de Venezuela at 8. It could only be a good sign.
With just over two weeks to go until the elections on October 7th, and with a mass mobilisation (and the president in attendance) taking place in the city of Merida the day before, people had travelled into Caracas from across the country.
I had read about the Misiones before, schemes promoted by the government, and often organised and implemented by grassroots initiatives on the ground, to boost health care, education and anything else seen as beneficial to the public. However, as we made our way around the Plaza, it was a chance to see the participants of these programmes in the flesh. There were delegations from the Mision Madres del Barrio, which seemed the largest in number; Misiones Milagro, a programme for people with eye problems which famously cured the cataracts of Mario Teran, the Bolivian who fired the fatal bullet into Che Guevara many years ago; Barrio Adentro, the free health care program for people living in poorer areas, originally staffed by thousands of Cuban doctors but gradually being replaced by young Venezuelans; Sucre, the free education program for Venezuelan adults; Robinson, which catered to 1.5 million illiterate Venezuelans; Alimentacion, with similar objectives to the ‘MERCAL’ government-subsidised supermarkets, Negra Hipolita as well as the Gran Misiones Saber y Trabajo, and Vivienda.
As the hour passed, the numbers swelled. I had heard of the phrase ‘sea of red’, but this, too, was quickly becoming a reality. I was impressed by the level of motivation. I have read about the organisation behind the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, but it is different from seeing it in practise.
A Saturday morning, before 9am, and you can count on many people in London to be lazing in bed. Not the pueblo of Venezuela, it seems. The women clearly outnumbered the men, and in terms of age, the diversity could not have been greater. The Madres del Barrios block, for example, counted very young mothers with babies in their arms, standing beside grandmothers with years of experience that only their eyes betrayed.
Three young brothers, none of them older than six years old, struggled through the now densely packed crowd, arm in arm. They hurried after their mum, not wanting to get lost on the way. The events of the next few weeks could have a strong bearing on the kind of society they grow into. They are too young to understand what politics is… or are they? Either way, they are also playing a part in building their future.
At the far end of Sabana Grande, a large platform staged artists who performed popular political songs, as well as chants including “Uh, Ah, Chavez no se va!" (uh ah, Chavez isn't going anywhere"). By 9.30am, and despite the increasing heat, you would struggle to see a person not dancing to the tunes. The reason for being here was serious, but there is no reason not to enjoy a movement that is on the ascendance.
In Venezuela, unlike many parts of the world, people’s participation in politics is not merely restricted to resisting the effects of cynical political actions. Rather, you get the feeling that the Venezuelan people are participating in a process that is striving to put more power into their hands. However, as the people attending the march pointed out, unashamedly professing their support for the current government throughout the day, from the slogans on their t-shirts to the sonngs they danced to, this did not happen through luck. Without the government they have voted in time and time again, the Misiones may never have existed in the first place. Chavez corazon de mi patria (Chavez, heart of my homeland), read the signs held aloft. The heart of my fatherland. In Hugo Chavez, the people have a unifying force. Chavez wasn’t there on Saturday in Caracas, but never had I seen people from so many different walks of life turning out in a unified force. Brown and black people of every shade. The people are leading their own revolution, and they are more than willing to defend it.
By 11am, the march still hadn’t left Plaza de Venezuela. Hundreds of bottles of water were handed out to give people respite from the sun. Half an hour later, we were taking in the shade of some trees, surrounded by red t-shirts enjoying picnics to pass the time, when we finally saw movement on the main street ahead. The march had begun.
As we turned left onto the main carriageway, the march split into two as half of the crowd travelled up over a raised by-pass. Only from this vantage point, with the disparate groups now consolidated into one mass, was I able to appreciate the true scale of how many people were there. Looking forwards and looking back, the crowd stretched as far as I could see. People waved banners of support from apartment buildings above us, and people were joining the march from side streets on the left and right. A truck in the middle of one part of the crowd played music, and Chavez-supporting youth kept joining on motorbikes. The police presence was surprisingly low for an event of such a size. Perhaps it just goes to show what I have become accustomed to.
By the time we had passed Colegio de Ingenerios, and walked on until the Bellas Artes Metro stop, the heat was becoming exhausting. Taking the Metro a couple of stops, however, showed that the crowd of red had, in fact, descended over much of central Caracas. Later estimates were in the hundreds of thousands, and people were still out in force late into the afternoon.
A rather puzzling strategy of Chavez’ main electoral opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, has been to claim that he will keep many of the Misiones in place, as part of an overall attempt to present himself as a competent, left-of-centre candidate. Even if we were to ignore recently leaked documents, showing the strong neo-liberal slant of the opposition’s economic agenda, and plans to immediately slash government subsidies, the tactic appears to be doomed to failure. If we take Saturday’s events as a measuring stick, it seems that for many in Venezuela, and particularly those that keep the Misiones alive, they simply do not believe him.