Barrio Culture & Social Prejudices: A Conversation with Otro Beta (Part II)

A barrio-based cultural project looks for creative ways to overcome inequalities in Venezuela.

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Gabriela Henríquez (Venezuelanalysis)
Gabriela Henríquez (Venezuelanalysis)
By Cira Pascual Marquina – Venezuelanalysis.com
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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 include technical education and counseling for victims of machista violence. Through a variety of approaches, Otro Beta has always sought to bring the barrio youth out of the dead-ends that capitalism imposes on them. It aims to incorporate youth into the new horizons of personal and collective development that the Bolivarian Revolution has opened up. Today Otro Beta has almost three hundred cells or “confluence points” and eight Socialist Endogenous Development Nuclei spread throughout the country.

We met with three key Otro Beta organizers at their “Cacica Urimare” headquarters in the populous Petare barrio in eastern Caracas. In part I of this interview we talked about the origins of Otro Beta. Here we focus on education and the concept of “territorialization.”

The term territorialization is used in Venezuela for the practice of bringing politics to the places where people live. It has become an especially important concept in the Bolivarian Process. Can you talk to us about how Otro Beta promotes territorialization processes?

Gabriela Henríquez: We think about the barrio from the inside. We are not promoting clientelism, and people are not mere numbers for us. Otro Beta is a social alternative grounded in the territory. That is why, in addition to our cultural and educational initiatives, political and organizational work are very important to us. That is particularly true now that the Bolivarian Process is going through some rough patches.

We are in a constant process of weaving alliances with local organizations. For example, here at the Cacique Urimare nucleus, we work closely with the area’s communal councils and communes. In fact, they actually meet here, in our headquarters. This all makes sense: we are all committed to the communalization of society.

I think that young people are rebellious by nature. And while we believe that discipline is important, our processes are not directed from above but from below. Here young people question, define, and build. Otro Beta does not impose on people – instead, we call ours a “practice of listening.”

All this has an impact on the communal councils around us: many young people are now working in self-managed spaces and doing so with a more horizontal spirit.

Otro Beta does not enter political spaces just for the sake of doing so, and our objectives are not partisan. Instead, we hope to weave community into political spaces and ensure that young people bring their rebelliousness to the process.

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Left to right: Jorge “Toti” Vilalta, Willie Ereipa, Gabriela Henríquez. (Archives)
Left to right: Jorge “Toti” Vilalta, Willie Ereipa, Gabriela Henríquez. (Archives)

Otro Beta was influential in making the Movement for Peace and Life [an initiative aimed at addressing social problems in the barrio]. Tell us about that project.

Henríquez: In 2013 we had a meeting with President Maduro. Members of the marginalized youth participated, and they had a chance to talk about their situation, about the problems of violence in the barrio, and about the world they imagined. This is how the Movement for Peace and Life first got going.

One of the lines of work in the program was building recreational spaces for the youth in the barrios. The Movement for Peace and Life helped us repair 24 sports courts and helped with the construction of dance halls. Additionally, it promoted productive projects to give living alternatives to young people. Thus we were able to facilitate 500 productive initiatives between 2013 and 2014. For example, the government delivered hot dog carts, helped set up hairdressing salons, mechanical workshops, and so on. This had a tangible impact on the lives of the youth, and it is still visible today.

In its early years, the Movement for Peace and Life was successful in reaching young people, helping make them aware of life alternatives. Unfortunately, their initial policies were eventually distorted due to management changes and people who did not understand the project’s objectives.

We are proud to have been a driving force for the Movement for Peace and Life, all the while maintaining our independence from the state.

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Left: Otro Beta concert. Right: Otro Beta classrooms at the Lara nucleus. (Otro Beta)
Left: Otro Beta concert. Right: Otro Beta classrooms at the Lara nucleus. (Otro Beta)

Today, the central focus for Otro Beta is educational processes. When did this commitment to education begin?

Henríquez: Around 2015, we realized that we had a weak flank: education. With that in mind, we made an alliance with INCES [Venezuela’s technical education institute] to promote technical training.

In the current crisis, barrio kids need to acquire useful skills. They don’t have the time that middle-class kids may have. Those who study with us graduate with a degree that allows them to work in 60 countries around the world.

This is important because it is not only a degree and a trade they have: it’s a sort of passport that allows them to move in the world more easily. That’s important because it offers viable alternatives for youth. Also, we should acknowledge that the crisis and the blockade have forced many young people to migrate.

What kind of education options do you offer here at Otro Beta?

Henríquez: Otro Beta is an anti-capitalist movement. That's why what we offer is “anti-maquila” education. The kids graduate with the capacity to pursue an economic alternative outside capitalist circuits of violence and poverty.

Also, our National Education Program is guided by the principles of emancipatory education. For instance, the manicure or mechanics teacher might initiate a conversation about politics, history, communes, or what have you, but in a horizontal way. We don’t impose visions on people, we just work to trigger collective reflection. We use the theory of the onion: getting to the bottom of the issue little by little, peeling layers away.

Thus, political education is a constant here: we offer courses in electricity, cooking, manicure, urban dance, urban agriculture, etc. However, all our courses are plural and rich in focus.

In the last two years, you began to offer counseling and accompaniment for victims of gender violence. Tell us more about that initiative.

Henríquez: One of our strategic principles is feminism, and we are now developing a robust line of anti-patriarchal work.

The mother figure occupies a central role in the barrio. Still, this is a patriarchal society, and rates of machista violence are high. Early on, we learned that many women experience machista violence, but have nowhere to turn for help. In the face of that situation, we set up a program that offers psychological counseling and legal aid to victims of machista violence.

Barrio culture is matricentral but machista. This means that victims of machista violence keep quiet to not be judged. We keep this in mind when we organize educational processes. We know that we have to break with societal taboos so that women can receive support.

At the moment, we are attending 120 women per month in Miranda state. In addition to this work, Otro Beta joined the Green Route, an initiative bringing many organizations together for the decriminalization of abortion, making three demands. First, women should not be forced to have a rapist’s child. Second, when the life of a woman is at risk, she should be able to decide. Third, when the life of the fetus is at risk, the woman should be able to choose as well. That should be a decision exclusively taken by the gestant person.

The case of Vannesa Rosales has made all this very visible. Vannesa was imprisoned for nine months for helping a 12-year-old girl abort who was a rape victim. Meanwhile, the rapist is still free! We must not allow that to happen! That is why Otro Beta is committed to the Green Route.

There are legal ambiguities and cultural baggage that undermine the rights of women in Venezuela. We may celebrate women's participation in the Bolivarian Process, but we are still struggling to have the right to decide about our bodies.

The traditional left and communist parties tend to assume that a large sector of the urban population is lumpen and with little revolutionary potential. Additionally, there is a generalized tendency to say that the culture of the barrio reproduces poverty, as in that very Venezuelan saying "You carry the shanty around with you in your head." What do you say to that?

Henríquez: There are many prejudices against barrio kids, and Otro Beta works to combat them. People who have these ideas fail to understand that poverty is a material fact. It’s not based on culture.

Obviously, the people of the barrios did not choose to live here. We were born here. In fact, the bad Adeco and Copeyano governments [in the second half of the 20th century] displaced people to the hillsides in the outskirts of the cities while those same people were building the cities that the rich would enjoy.

Otro Beta struggles against those retrograde ideas, which hide the fact that poverty is a consequence of the system.

You work to dismantle prejudices, but you also work to visibilize the culture of the barrio.

Henríquez: Yes, the barrio generates its own identities, social codes, musical forms, and even sports. We work to remove the social stigma attached to the barrio’s cultural practices, which are very fluid and rich.

To give you an example, motopiruetas – or motorbike acrobatics – are an authentic barrio sport that’s not recognized by society as a whole. Our society recognizes motocross as a sport, but motopiruetas are seen as just the crazy stuff that barrio thugs do! That is what people think, but we want to change their perspective.

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Left: Chávez doing motopiruetas mural. Right: “Entre Barrios” motopirueta championship. (Otro Beta)
Left: Chávez doing motopiruetas mural. Right: “Entre Barrios” motopirueta championship. (Otro Beta)

Tell us about the motopiruetas championship that you are organizing right now?

Willie Ereipa: The exclusion logic imposed by Adecos and Copeyanos is still with us. Chávez made a great deal of progress in overcoming it, but the prejudices continue and the city’s geography is inscribed with class differences.

Chávez wanted to generate conditions for the inclusion of people. He took the university and the orchestra to the barrios. That is good. However, we also want to decriminalize the culture of the barrios itself, and that is why we are organizing "Entre barrios" motopirueta championships.

We want motopiruetas to be considered a sport. After all, what is the difference between motopiruetas and motocross? That our motorcycles are not modified? No, the truth is that society does not consider motopirueta a sport because it is part of barrio culture, and those who practice it are considered delinquents.

Tell us a bit more about "Entre barrios."

Ereipa: "Entre barrios" is our sports-and-culture strategy, which emerged around 2014 or 2015. Basically, they are competitions or performances that bring people from different barrios together. The idea was to reduce crime and ease tensions between gangs.

Since those early days, we have organized many championships, from basketball to kickball and popular games like chapitas [stickball played with bottle caps] and dominoes, breakdance and urban dance.

In his book Building the Commune, George Ciccariello-Maher suggested that there might be two kinds of communal production: rural communes produce food and basic goods, while urban spaces might produce culture. What do you think about his hypothesis?

Henríquez: In the city, we do not have large tracts of land to produce food, but urban agriculture gardens have emerged during the crisis, even if they are usually small-scale initiatives.

Nonetheless, we do foster the production of tangible goods and services, especially in recent years. In the barrio, there is manufacturing, bakeries, sewing workshops, and so on. So, in fact, here we produce culture, but we also produce other goods.

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Mural at the Otro Beta’s Cacica Urimare Nucleus in Petare. (Otro Beta)
Mural at the Otro Beta’s Cacica Urimare Nucleus in Petare. (Otro Beta)

In some ways, Otro Beta’s spaces remind me of youth centers I have seen in the Bronx or the Basque Country. However, one difference is the role of Chávez and Chavismo in shaping the project here

Jorge “Toti” Vilalta: Chávez spoke directly to the barrio people, and we understood that twenty-first-century socialism was the way to go. That project was based on social inclusion and building a society of equals, which was what first caught our attention.

I believe that our connection with the Bolivarian Process is incarnated in the following Chávez quote: "I speak to the youth movements, gang groups, and thugs: Come with me kids, so that you may have a homeland!"

Chávez sent out a call to the whole country to join in the project!

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