Free food and real community control

University dinning areas

I went with M to the university dining area for dinner, where he used his student card and his mum's student card to get us both the free meal. Dinner that night was two bread rolls, a kind of porridge type soup (atol its called), an apple, jelly, cooked sweet plantain, cheese, and lettuce type salad. All uni students can eat lunch and dinner for free during week days at these dinning rooms.

Suddenly everyone was banging their forks on the metal trays and yelling out. Apparently it's some uni tradition- when someone drops a fork everyone else (well not everyone) yells out ‘Nuevo!' (newbie!) and makes a massive racket.

After this M asked me what dinning areas are like in Australian universities.

"There aren't any."

"Are all the universities private?" he asked, surprised.

Ha, well the ULA in Merida is an autonomous university- its funded by the government but makes decisions about how to use that funding independently (and in this case the opposition rectors of the university buy cars and things). So you can't really say the dinning areas are a result of the socialist government, since I think they even date back before Chavez. You also can't use the excluse- well Venezuela has oil. Australia is hardly poor! Dinning areas are fairly common and expected here- and the government here has set up a lot of Bolivarian schools where the kids get breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack for free. That, though, is a result of the Chavez government.

After dinner M went around to all the tables collecting the breadrolls left by other students. He would use them for him and his mum for breakfast over the weekend. He called it ‘bread recycling' which I thought so adorable : ).

Communal councils

My communal council meets in one of these Bolivarian primary schools, two blocks down from where I live (and everyone in the council just 2-3 blocks away). These schools are so cute, always covered in murals with various values painted on them- this one had various drawings and inside them ‘life is like music- its listened to better without drugs' and a food pyramid, and then a chess board with various values like solidarity, respect etc. The school was either built or renovated by the government in 2005. A friend of mine- an ex student who studied to be a teacher through the mission sucre (free government university level education with an emphasis on community) is now teaching there.

I introduced myself to the other council members (actually all of them were spokespeople for various committees, who had been elected in a community assembly not long ago) and we all chatted as we waited for people to turn up. The topic was the law against violence on women, and I was really impressed with how much everyone new about the law and how the men talked in admiration that the law considered insults a form of violence. It was clear within minutes that this was a non opposition run communal council- I don't say chavista because that's a limiting word. A friend of mine in this council is a revolutionary who's extremely critical of Chavez, to the point of not joining the PSUV, for example. Also, this council is quite new. The one just to the left of it is two years old now (and its come out that the opposition is trying to take that one over, as elections are run every two years, the opposition is trying to stack the assembly meetings to get control). But ours has just been formed, and is now legal, and all the spokespeople for the various committees are also considered legal representatives in the various fields (culture, food, housing, education, sport, auditing etc). However, we don't have a communal bank yet.

The first item was a complaint by one of the community members. A mother and her around 30 year old son came to the council to talk about a dispute they have with a neighbour, whose house is joined to theirs (as most houses here are- all joined together) and whose water from the bathroom is causing their wall to rot. Now, the communal councils are the first step to dealing with any situations like this. Ideally, simply discussing it out will resolve the problem, sometimes the community can decide (once it has a bank) to contribute money to the repairs. But the spokespeople at this meeting were clear- they aren't authorities who can go about forcing people to do things, they are simply community reps. If things aren't resolved in the council, a representative will help the neighbour take the problem to the next level- usually the mayor.

In the community assemblies which set up this council, they had approved a list of norms of co-living. All communities create their own such norms, as it helps create a sense of community and it also means they can tailor the norms to their own different needs. As everyone lives so nearby to each other, most people know eachother- either by name or by appearance ‘the man in the shop', ‘the house with the black car out the front' etc. Also before the assembly was held, the council promoters had done a census of the community, so they know who lives where, what their main needs are etc- and this information proved to be useful in this case, as the neighbour with the leaking bathroom refused to talk to the other neighbour- we were able to send a rep from the housing committee down to have a look at the place.

After this item, I introduced myself and said that I thought the communal councils are an important way for communities to resolve their own problems and to take active control over their collective lives and that I'd like to help out anyway I can. The fact that I was a foreigner was nothing more than a curious fact- they were all extremely welcoming and said I could join the culture committee. I suggested the idea of setting up a women's committee, which they loved- but I said perhaps it was something more for the future, once a few other things like the bank have been sorted out.

We are looking at calling another community assembly- to inform and discuss with the community various issues like the food house, a sport/cultural area and so on, and that will be an opportunity to elect a women's committee (as these things can't just be set up, they must be elected).

A range of other issues were discussed- some public work that has been stopped and we don't know why, getting a bank account, another meeting one of the reps went to about water etc, and I was just so impressed with how much everyone know about the laws and which organisation to go to about what (for the number of organisations, funds, levels of administration, ministries etc in Venezuela is quite a minefield).

The last item saw a few people getting a bit emotional, one of the reps had been physically assaulted by someone outside the food house (a house which provides free food to homeless people, drug addicts, orphans, single mothers, ex prisoners etc) and she also claimed that the place was selling food on the side to non-needy people to get some extra pocket money. It was agreed to convoke the head guy of the place to the next meeting to talk about the issue.

I came out of the meeting utterly inspired. There were 12 people at the meeting, representing a community of about 1000 people or less, and they were extremely able, active and intelligent people. If you can generalise that across Venezuela, that's 260,000 hard core quality community leaders. I also loved how serious they were about what they were doing, and how real it all was- community control- and how real they were seen by the woman who came in with the complaint. I also learnt a tonne about the few blocks I'm surrounded by that I hadn't known.

We all walked out together, said goodbye as we passed each person's house, and one woman invited me to pop into her shop- just a few houses down from where I live, to get a drink some time.

The meeting the next week started off with the food house issue. The woman re-told her version of what had happened, then the director of the food house told his side, and also described how the whole place works.

This particular food house is linked to a lot of organisations. It gets some support from a church, whilst the government mercal provides food and pays the bills, but not the rent. There's no rehabilitation centre in Merida so the house also sometimes pays for transports, and accompanies people to centres nearby.

The place makes 155 meals, and has 7 workers who receive the benefit of the food and a small scholarship from the government of 350BsF/month (about $160US).

In the discussion after the guy had gone, we decided it was important that there be some kind of security and vigilance of the place, ensuring that only needy people eat there, not paying workers, that the council monitoring committee and the food committee should monitor the place, that people who ‘disturb the peace'- in violent ways that is, should be sanctioned from eating there, but we also need to be conscious that the work done in the food house is hard work, important work, and we should get involved and help, and before any accusations or anything are made, we should work on facts, not rumours and so a monitoring plan is necessary.

Later there was also discussion of a range of other issues, such as the creation of a culture and sport space jointly with architecture students, and a few other things I've mentioned above already.

*more at*