Otro Beta is a self-organized project aimed at youth from Venezuela’s barrios. Its initial focus was on culture and sports, and even today basketball and breakdance tournaments continue to be important for Otro Beta. However, the project’s new emphases are technical education and counseling for victims of machista violence. Through a variety of approaches, Otro Beta has always sought to bring the barrio youth away from the dead-ends that capitalism imposes on them. It aims to incorporate them into the new horizons of personal and collective development that the Bolivarian Revolution has opened up. Today Otra Beta has almost three hundred cells or “confluence points” and eight Socialist Endogenous Development Nuclei spread throughout the country. For this interview, we met with three key Otro Beta organizers at their “Cacica Urimare” headquarters in the populous Petare barrio in eastern Caracas.
We are here at the Cacica Urimare nucleus. Before addressing the origins of Otro Beta, tell us a bit about Urimare, the woman warrior that inspires the work here.
Jorge “Toti” Vilalta: Urimare was the daughter of one of the great warriors that resisted the Spanish during the long and bloody war to colonize the Caracas valley. After being defeated, she led her people to the East, and they settled in the Monagas mountains, where they carried out an important resistance. She was a warrior and a rebel, and her example is an inspiration to us.
How did Otro Beta come to exist?
Vilalta: The movement emerged at the end of 2011 when several youth organizations started to meet, talking about common interests and planning future projects. Otro Beta is a broad movement. It does not have a single point of origin, but rather is an organization that is nourished by many organizations.
We work with the barrio youth, with those who are often invisible and even criminalized by society. At first, we thought that we would focus exclusively on culture and sports, but early on some organizations that focused on production and education joined the project.
This gave rise to the hybrid methodology that we still apply today. We have seven lines of work that include culture, sports, organizational politics, education, research, and production. Each line has its own program.
For example, in the area of sports, we promote “Entre Barrios” [Among Barrios], which are inter-barrio sports championships. The competitions break down the barriers between barrios and help overcome disputes among them. Meanwhile, we work to generate a dynamic in which drug consumption is not central to the event.
Another example would be education, with our National Education Program. Here we teach youth about everything from electricity and cooking to English and urban dance. In this center alone, 3200 people have graduated since the program began about four years ago. Although the processes stopped during the hard months of the pandemic, we are now resuming classes.
The education program has become the most important Otro Beta initiative in recent years. In the context of the socio-economic crisis, this is really the only opportunity that many people from around here have to enter the job market as skilled workers.
Before we go into your educational initiatives further, let’s go back a little bit. What does the phrase “Otro Beta” mean?
Willie Ereipa: In the barrio there are many different linguistic codes, and even more so among young people. “Beta” is a word that in barrio slang has negative connotations. If something bad happens, one young kid will say to his pana [friend]: Did you see that beta?
So, we took the word and turned it around. We put the “other” in front of it to change the meaning. That is, if a “beta” is a bad thing, “otro beta” [another beta] refers to a good thing. In that way, we resignified the term. We did this because we understood that one can do politics with language. Moreover, to engage in political and social work with barrio youth we have to break with the formalities of standardized language.
The truth is that in the barrios there are kids who are involved in petty crime; one may sell drugs, another steals, but they don’t do that because that’s their vocation. They do it because it’s the only option they have. If you approach them with the language of politicians or moralists, you won’t be able to make any headway. You have to approach them on their own terms and using their own codes.
That’s interesting. Can you tell us something about the other tactics you employ? For example, as I understand it, Otro Beta did not emerge as a project openly identified with Chavismo, even though the people who founded the movement were Chavistas.
Vilalta: Yes, that’s right. In 2011 many young people felt close to the Bolivarian Process, but an important part of the youth did not identify as Chavistas. The revolution hadn’t touched them. We wanted to work both with young people who identified with Chavismo and those who didn’t. In other words, we had an inclusive approach to movement-building. In fact, we still have that inclusive perspective.
“Otro Beta” was initially formulated as a promise, not only in political terms but also in communicational and cultural terms. It points to an alternative. The movement began to make itself heard with a campaign based on slogans such as: “Petare will be Otro Beta,” “Los Teques will be Otro Beta” [both working-class areas in Miranda state], etc. The barrio language in those slogans captured the interest of the youth, who began to ask: What is all this about?
Around that time we also organized a lot of cultural events, and more and more people began to join the movement. From then on, our practice has been that whenever we have a group of kids who identified with the movement in one particular zone, a “confluence point” of Otro Beta would be formed.
Interestingly, it was only in 2012 that most of Chavismo became aware of Otro Beta. What happened then?
Vilalta: At Chavez’s last campaign rally, on July 28, the Comandante publicly recognized the organization, which, as you can imagine, was really electrifying. That is effectively how the project became known around the country… and, of course, it created an immediate identification in people’s heads: Otro Beta was branded as Chavista.
This gesture of Chávez propelled us and made our work much easier in many ways: he opened our field of action and helped us to weave a large movement. However, from that point forward, the option of doing organizational work without being identified as Chavista was closed.
My first encounter with Otro Beta was precisely in the 2012 campaign, when it came out with the legendary slogan “Chávez es Otro Beta.” For a while, I thought that “Otro Beta” was simply a cool campaign propaganda geared at getting the attention of the Venezuelan youth.
Vilalta: Yeah, we produced that campaign material, and we did so outside Miranda state. Today, outside Miranda state, which is our home base, there are still people who identify Otro Beta with that Chávez campaign. In fact, we are proud of that because the campaign was very successful. It was a collaborative effort: we conceptualized the campaign and the Communication Liberation Army [Ejército de Liberación Comunicacional] designed it.
How did Chávez transform Otro Beta and how has it changed over time?
Vilalta: Being recognized by Chávez helped us delve deeper into the territory. Many young people, including barrio leaders, approached the movement and wanted to join it. At that time and until about 2015, we were able to travel throughout the country to learn and locate spaces where we might work. This allowed us to grow very quickly.
In that process, we met with many organizations, and we built a network that way, but we continued to work with youngsters one-on-one. In fact, the original idea of Otro Beta was to work directly with young people, without mediation. Chávez’s recognition changed things a bit, although most of our work is still directly with the kids.
Working with young people linked to gangs is one of our objectives. Many of the gangs have a very minimal structure: they organize for a specific action and that is it. This makes recruiting these youth [into Otro Beta] possible, and it also makes it possible to talk to the pranes [gang bosses] and reach agreements.
We understand that the pran has control of the territory, but he has to respect our movement as well. At the end of the day, the pran will come to terms with us because he wants good things to happen in his community, and that is how we reach an agreement.
We have relationships with youth organizations of all sorts, from organizations involved in sports and culture to those that are political. However, we also have ties with young people whose way of life is linked to gangs and with youth in the prisons. In fact, we worked in prisons together with Andrés Antillano because the people in the prisons are the same poor and disenfranchised youth that we work with every day.
Briefly, what are the main objectives of Otro Beta?
Vilalta: We want equal opportunities for all. We think that more than a million young people find themselves in a very vulnerable situation now. The movement aims to break with societal prejudices and moralistic approaches to youth, while generating alternatives for kids from the barrios.
The researcher you just mentioned, Andrés Antillano, pointed out that the Bolivarian Revolution, even in its best moment, failed to capture the imagination of many young people in the barrios. He believes this is because the government’s social inclusion programs and political discourse were not directed at them. It is precisely this niche Otra Beta aims to fill.
Vilalta: That’s right: young people in the barrios, particularly those that grew up in the cerros [literally “hills,” a term used to refer to the poorest sectors in a barrio], did not participate in the government’s social programs. One of the problems was that the party cadres had (and still have) a completely different culture. Barrio youth speak with their own codes, and to get their attention you have to recognize their culture. You have to understand their practices and cannot be judgemental.
Otro Beta does not discriminate, we don’t judge. The project doesn’t exclude people because of how they speak or how they present themselves. This is key to reaching out to youth anywhere.
Our objective is that all youth will truly have the same rights and opportunities. When we talk about rights, this has implications: we believe that young people from the barrios should have the same conditions as those enjoyed by middle-class kids.
In light of that, we are concerned about how security forces are repressing people in the barrios. A new police force and new practices emerged with President Chávez. However, over the years we have seen it change, and now the old police models are returning. When it comes to the barrio, their approach is “shoot first and ask questions later.” We are diehard Chavistas, so we think that these practices are unacceptable and discriminatory.
We have another model for overcoming violence in the barrios. We talk to the kid who is selling drugs on the corner and, without judging him, we tell him that he can study electronics, so that he can have another way of making a living.
Otro Beta focuses on social inclusion, but, in political terms, what does it strive for?
Gabriela Henríquez: Firstly, we are an anti-capitalist movement. What does this mean for us? We are committed to involving kids that the system “expelled.” We want them to enjoy what the Bolivarian Revolution has to offer. That is our political objective. In other words, we are talking about the involvement of young people in a project that goes beyond each one of us.
When I went to school, we learned that [Simón] Bolívar was “El Libertador” [the one who liberated the nation] and little else. We did not learn about our roots nor study our history. Chávez taught us about our historical roots and helped us become part of a long-term project. But participating in the project is not achieved if young people don’t have viable life options. That is why vocational training has become so important for us.
In a practical sense, how do you bring together vocational training with awareness of history and the Bolivarian political project?
Henríquez: We do this without imposing a discourse from above. While the kids study how to repair a motorbike, we might initiate a conversation about the current situation or about history. That helps them become identified with the political project.
We try to mobilize (or remobilize) the youth. Imperialism mostly works to demobilize people here. However, in some cases, for example in 2017, it attempted to generate a civil war. One of the effects of the guarimbas was to deny us our right to the city, which was an important achievement of the Bolivarian Process. Fortunately, the community around here – including the youth – was able to contain the spread of the violence in the barrio.
Finally, although elections are not our main line of work, our various nuclei are linked to electoral centers. This allows us to measure the levels of participation of young people in elections.
Basically, we try to organize the popular forces and the youth sector by offering a better alternative, and that happens in diverse spheres.
What is the organizational structure of Otro Beta? I ask because today it is a “movement of movements,” and that is very complex.
Vilalta: Otro Beta has had several national congresses, which allowed us to form a movement as such. The congresses also allowed us to consolidate a platform of unity.
In the beginning, we formed a single social movement with branches for different areas [culture, education, etc.]. Then other movements and organizations came into Otro Beta. Since then there has been a political coordination group involving leaders from various states. There is a group for coordinating the cultural network, one for sports, etc.
This minimal and very horizontal structure allows us to organize in a fluid and efficient manner. From there, links are generated not only with youth, sports, and cultural organizations, but also with territorial organizations, specifically communal councils and communes.