|About Ron Ridenour|
© 2006-2009 www.ronridenour.com
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Preface by Dr. Abhay Shukla
1. Hunger Street
2. The Rose Lioness
3. Friendly Internal Critique
4. This is the Revolution of Women
5. The Green Revolution – I
6. The Green Revolution – II
7. Climbing Mountains
8. Grass Roots Democracy
9. FARC, Bush-Uribe, Correa, Chávez
10. The Red Letter
11. Ocumare de la Costa
Afterword by Ptrayush Chandra
ALBA Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America
CANF Cuban American National Foundation
CC Community Council
DISIP National Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services
FARC Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation
FNAI National Anti-imperialist Front
INTI National Land Institute
OAS Organization of American States
PCV Communist Party of Venezuela
PFLP Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
PSUV United Socialist Party of Venezuela
Grassroots activists in India today have relatively few easily accessible sources of information about recent developments in Latin America, including Venezuela. Publication of such information in major regional languages such as Tamil would be rare indeed. In this context, it is a very welcome development that NCBH publications have decided to publish Ron Ridenour’s ‘Sounds of Venezuela’ for an Indian audience in both English and Tamil.
Although the two countries are located on opposite sides of the globe, there are good reasons why all progressive minded people and social activists in India should know about developments in Venezuela today. Like India, Venezuela is a developing country with some form of electoral democracy since the middle of the 20th century. Like India, Venezuela has been under the shadow of Western imperialism, particularly US imperialism since the last several decades. Like India, Venezuela has traditionally had a massive divide between the small class of rich and the large majority of poor working people. But somewhat unlike India, people in Venezuela are today engaged in a massive struggle to overcome this exploitative divide and to transform their country, by trying to move towards what is being termed ‘21st century socialism’. This is a complex struggle, still in progress and with numerous contradictions, but it has many lessons and inspiring examples of change relevant to India. Ron’s book gives us a glimpse into this unfolding struggle, with all its excitement and also its stumbling blocks and weaknesses.
It is reflective of Ron’s style of writing that ‘Sounds of Venezuela’ is not a dry theoretical work, but is rather written as a day-by-day travelogue by a foreigner visiting Venezuela. The experiences of ordinary working class Venezuelans and grassroots activists engaged in an extremely difficult struggle come to life through Ron’s words, and we can see this unique socio-political experiment at close quarters through his eyes. Ron’s recounting of his discussions with various people – from ordinary farmers and workers to political leaders – alternate with his analysis of local, national and even international processes, giving the readers an absorbing and informative account of Venezuela today. Ron’s own convictions and interests – such as his resolute support to the struggles of working people, his staunch opposition to US imperialism, his solidarity with women’s struggles for gender equity, his deep interest and practical engagement with farming, his commitment to genuine democracy – all find reflection in his descriptions.
In this context Ron comments on the development of participatory democracy, which is one of the most striking features of the revolutionary processes currently underway in Venezuela. Like India, Venezuela has ‘enjoyed’ decades of capitalist democracy – limited, electoral democracy which was distorted and manipulated by the ruling classes to serve their interests, until the Bolivarian revolution began to take shape. Carrying out revolutionary change in such a context presents a completely different kind of challenge compared to the 20th century revolutions in Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cuba etc., since these earlier revolutions had emerged in societies that did not have even basic electoral democracy, and were effectively ruled by autocratic regimes. Coming up in a society which has traditions of certain kind of functioning electoral democracy, the revolutionary process in Venezuela has to build upon and use the available democratic spaces, while massively expanding democracy centred on working people in all spheres – political, economic and social, and from local to national levels. Ranging from the communal councils in each locality, to worker’s co-management of factories, to tens of thousands of producers cooperatives, various experiments of participatory democracy are underway in Venezuela. These diverse initiatives are also termed ‘protagonistic democracy’ since ordinary people move beyond experiencing democracy just ‘once in five years’ and are taking charge of various aspects of their lives, collectively exercising decision making instead of passively accepting verdicts by the bosses. We have much to learn from these experiments in India, as we conceive and try to struggle for a new, much more democratic form of socialism in the early 21st century.
While Ron comes across as an admirer of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’, he is not an uncritical or unthinking admirer. Through small incidents and experiences he brings across the contradictions in the process, the gaps between rhetoric and reality, and the fact that many changes are aspired for but are not yet achieved. Venezuela today is still a capitalist society, with all the legacies of such a divided and distorted society. Ron notes that crime, corruption and consumerism remain widespread, and the pervasive bureaucracy is proving to be a major deterrent to revolutionary change. Given these contradictions in the revolutionary process in Venezuela, it is not surprising that within the progressive camp, various radical currents and trends have emerged which challenge the bureaucracy outside and within the ruling socialist party, critique the new privileged classes (termed ‘Bolibourgeoisie’) which have consolidated over the last decade, and demand further ‘radicalisation’ of the revolution. Venezuela is today in the throes of a massive class struggle, with millions of working people striving for transformation into a different kind of society which would be much more just and equitable. What the final results of this struggle will be, remains an open question – but Ron invites us to understand and develop solidarity with the countless ordinary Venezuelans who are giving their best in the ongoing struggle for a new Venezuela and a new world.
Having been a recent visitor to Venezuela myself, I can empathise with some of Ron’s travails in that country where many well-meaning plans are made but not all are carried out. His experience of the proposed session with voceros (spokespersons of communal councils) which was planned with much enthusiasm but never materialised, is typical. On the first day of my own visit, after hearing of my ambitious plans, my host had told me – ‘do not plan your visit too much – in Venezuela, nothing goes according to plan’!
The frequent question raised by all progressive activists about Venezuela – ‘Is the revolutionary process too centred on Chavez as a person?’ – is not directly addressed by Ron, but he does allude to the role of Chavez in the entire episode with Colombia, Ecuador and FARC, and points out some of his inconsistencies and fluctuations. Here one of the concerns that is frequently expressed about Chavez in progressive circles – his government’s foreign policy – comes up in form of this example, though it is not dealt with in detail. This is one area where readers might have benefited from some more critical discussion by Ron.
The strength of Ron’s travelogue is its deeply human approach – he tries to understand ordinary people and their motivations, conflicts and daily struggles, and through them tries to understand the emerging revolution in Venezuela. While reading his narrative, and comparing this with some of the abstract “Left” critiques of the Venezuelan revolutionary process, one is reminded of Goethe’s statement that “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.” Yet what we perhaps might miss is in the book is some discussion by Ron about where the revolutionary process stands today, what are its main challenges and what remains to be done, what is the broad configuration of class forces, and what attempts are being made to overcome the massive challenges. Hopefully, after reading Ron’s informative account, readers would be inspired and informed to seek their own answers to such questions from various other sources. This small book would hopefully whet the appetite of readers about the Venezuelan revolution, and after going through this ‘appetiser’, many readers would hopefully be motivated to explore more material to satisfy their ‘intellectual hunger’.
As a health activist and public health physician, I personally find it significant that Ron’s book concludes in the final chapter with his positive and fulfilling encounter with the Venezuelan health care system. The provision of good quality, free basic health care to every Venezuelan, especially the poorest, by the ‘Barrio adentro’ health programme is undoubtedly one of the foremost achievements of the Bolivarian revolutionary process. In my own visit, which was focused on understanding the radical changes in the Venezuelan health system, I witnessed many positive people-oriented health initiatives, even though much more still needs to be done. The pride that is experienced by working class Venezuelans about their Barrio Adentro clinics – there is one for each locality across the country, run mostly by Cuban doctors - is quite evident to any visitor, and is one of the most concrete gains from the revolutionary process experienced by working people so far. Although transformation of any society in the direction of socialism is inevitably a long drawn, complex process, the socialisation of basic services like health care and education and their universal, free provision may definitely be counted among the first steps in that long journey.
I hope that these few stray thoughts about Ron’s book might have
helped to arouse the reader’s interest a bit, and now I would
not stand anymore between the hopefully stimulated reader and this undoubtedly
interesting book. I sincerely thank NCBH publishers for giving me the
opportunity to share some of these ideas, and I once again congratulate
them for bringing out this absorbing ‘political travelogue’
concerning a part of the world about which most people in India do not
know enough. I hope that this book may be followed by further publications
on the exciting developments unfolding in Latin America today, from
which we in India have such a lot to learn, and can draw so much inspiration.
Todo el poder al pueblo! All power to the people!
Dr. Abhay Shukla, Pune
I chose this title to alert the potential reader to a style of writing, a ‘live’ reportage, hoping that one will hear and feel the revolutionary process, perhaps even ‘see’ some of it.
I have not lived or worked in Venezuela long enough to be able to analyze the peaceful Bolivarian revolution. I was there the first three months of 2008 and could only sense some of its dimensions. So, I do not pretend to be an expert; rather an observer, who, hopefully, delivers “honesty without the hype”, as reader Hue Longer wrote in a commentary, October 19, 2008, on www.dissidentvoice.org.
The depth of political participation of so many Venezuelans impressed me. Grass roots democracy is real here. And there can be no doubt that the Hugo Chávez-led, unique socialist movement of workers and poor has unleashed a liberated woman among most of that gender.
“This is the revolution of women”, pronounced María León, Minister of Women’s Affairs. Involvement of women in organizing and holding leadership positions of all kinds is phenomenal. Their leadership role has quadrupled or even more in this decade.
Indigenous peoples have a firm voice in their affairs for the first time since the colonial conquest.
The rural proletariat has its own land now, or works on an equalitarian basis in state-supported cooperatives.
Industrial workers are gradually taking over many plants and industries. They are learning that they do not need ‘employers’ or ‘owners,’ in order to produce goods and run economic affairs.
I was heartened to hear politicians and civil servants speak openly of errors being made by the Chávez government and its local supporters during my search to discover how well local government functioned and how infrastructure and social projects were advancing. This shows a healthy attitude towards leadership and building a better democracy. I heard many supporters of Chávez and La Victoria’s city mayor, Rosa León, voice critiques of their leaders on all government levels. Chávez was surrounded by too many people removed from the base and pressured to moderate his drive toward socialism. The most common criticism of Rosa’s management centered on her naiveté, too much confidence in the good will of her people, failure to conduct management with a hard hand, too many advisors too removed from the grass roots, and employees more interested in acquiring expensive cars than in struggling for equality and progress for all.
In regional elections, held in November 2008, La Victoria’s electorate
voted for a different candidate, Juan Carlos Sánchez, of the
Chávez-led political party, the PSUV (United Socialist Party
USA claims there is a lack of democracy in Venezuela, as though the US is a paradigm of backing only democracies throughout the world. Yet in this town alone there were 22 opposition parties in two different blocks against the PSUV coalition of six parties, which achieved 48.5% of the votes with the PSUV obtaining 47.3%. Nationally, the PSUV won 17 of the 22 State governorships.
Since my time in Venezuela new presidents have been elected in both the US and Colombia: Barack Obama, who continues the wars of Bush and adds one of his own against Libya; and Juan Manuel Santos, who started the Social Party of National Unity, whose first president was the acrimonious Alvaro Uribe. Santos was Uribe’s defense minister, but he has reconciled with Chávez following his rupture of diplomatic relations with Uribe. Diplomatic and trade relations between the two nations are currently much smoother, as of this writing.
Workers and unemployed, ethnic minorities in Asia, Africa and throughout Latin America, indeed wherever people do not rule their lives and control production, have much to learn from the Venezuelan Bolivarian revolution. Hopefully, disenfranchised yet beguiled workers in the ‘first world’ will also take notice and begin to shape their own destinies alongside their class brothers and sisters in the ‘third world.’ We must take the visions of Simón Bolivar, Jesus Christ, Gandhi and Che Guevara to the fields and factories and shape our common humanity into one harmonious, equalitarian whole.
In Venezuela, there is still much to be done, much to concretize. Socialism with efficiency has not yet won over the avaricious capitalist structure. But I am more certain than not that what Venezuelan revolutionaries shout with clenched fists is true: No volverán: the Empire and the Oligarchy will not return!
May 3, 2011
I lived at the end of Hunger Street.
My ubiquitous nose quivered with smells of grilled meats smothered in spicy sauces. The warm humid air urged enticing odors inward as I passed the row of food stands on the short street, La Calle de Hambre, walking with bags in hands towards the wooden house behind the mango tree budding green.
My mission: absorb the new Venezuela vibrating with change, advancing essential life conditions for the multitudes of poor, regenerating the vast fallowed lands, creating pride throughout this magnificent undulating land; producing strife as well from the national rich and powerful, and spewing sulfur from Bushland.
A wonderful revolutionary guide was provided. Diego found me a humble room in the family house and there I lived for two months amongst a lively variety of insects, reptiles and rodents; ducking under falling plaster, falling asleep between hair-raising car alarms ticked off by black cats.
Diego warned me right off: Don’t go out alone after dark; always keep your gate and door locked; beware of speaking as a revolutionary; use deodorant on your smelly armpits.
This former soldier side-kick of rebellious commandant Hugo Chávez—a
man of the people—took me into people’s real lives. Diego,
his suave, tight-lipped smile hovering above a bushy black mustache,
showed the way into their homes, their offices, work places, land cooperatives,
into their schools, even into the mayor’s office.
Rosa León, The Rose Lioness, won La Victoria’s 2004 mayor election with 56% of the votes in which 54 political parties participated as well as three independent candidates. (Only 40% of the voting population, however, went to the polls.) Her party, the Venezuela Revolutionary Movement (MVR), led with 39% in the nine-party leftist coalition. Her rival, Mayor Luis Blanco and his nine-party coalition, lost with 27% of the vote.
I cite these uncontested figures as an example of how democratic and fair the many elections have been since Hugo Chávez first won the presidency. There have been a dozen elections since 1998 for presidency and/or the legislature, state and local posts, and national referendums. The only one Chávez lost was the referendum in December 2007—by one percent of the vote—which would have deepened the transfer of power to and benefited the working class; and it would have allowed any president to run for that office continuously. (1)
León won a legislative seat in this State of Aragua, in 2000, upon graduating with a law degree at the age of 23. She had gained the respect of the dashing uproar President Hugo Chávez while campaigning for his presidency and then defending it when he was forcibly removed in a coup d´état, in April 2002, backed by most mass media and the US.
Once elected mayor of the Municipality of Ribas, Rose embarked on her mission of “turning power over to the people,” “...creating equity, cooperation, liberty and social justice.” She sought to benefit the vast numbers of poor and disadvantaged in this municipality of 140,000. Some projects began to take seed within the budding grass roots democracy. Others floundered. Some never began. Many grew disillusioned. The Lioness was in trouble.
And in comes old revolutionary gringo Ron!
A community worker introduced me to Rosa at the 23rd of January celebration in the barrio (2) by the same name. That day, half a century ago, tens of thousands of the poor in Caracas had stormed the streets to oust one of the Pentagon’s favorite dictators, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Leftist political parties had protested too; unionists had struck work. The mass forced Jiménez’ to flee; the bourgeoisie consolidated to maintain power. The left remained ineffective. Some took the decisive step to engage in guerrilla warfare, including the Communist party (PCV), but that failed. Soldier Chávez tried a military rebellion in 1994. That failed. In 1996, upon his early release from prison, Chávez forged a broad coalition of the poor and progressives to engage in the parliamentary process, which succeeded in 1999.
The streets of this poor barrio, like hundreds more throughout the nation bearing the honorable name, were filled with people chatting, some held forth hands and good advice to the young mayor. There were police too. Many were unarmed women with fair public rapport.
Rosa gave me a warm handshake. We agreed to an interview in a few days.
In the intervening time, I visited a Mission Ribas (3) in which hundreds
of thousands throughout the nation, who had not been able to go to school,
learn basic reading, writing, arithmetic skills. I spoke with social
workers, voceros (elected spokespersons of the new community councils),
and people on the streets. I heard praise and complaints of the revolutionary
process. Most were still quite enthused by President Chávez,
but most were also so critical of Rosa León that many asserted
they would not vote for her again in the next elections (November 23,
2008) for 23 state governors and 335 municipal mayors. The majority
of elected leaders are supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution. The
right-wing feels hopeful in scaling down Chávez backed elected
The Bolivarian Revolution’s mainstay is its 20 missions, which President Chávez launched beginning in July 2003. Mission Robinson eradicated illiteracy with the use of Cuban techniques and personnel. In two years 99% of the 1.5 million illiterates had learned to read and write and Venezuela declared itself as “Territory Free of Illiteracy.” The other missions seek to end poverty, implement social welfare programs, reduce environmental degradation, provide comprehensive and community health care, construct new housing for the poor, restore communal land titles and human rights to Venezuela’s numerous indigenous communities, expropriate and redistribute lands to the poor, and foster an economy that brings “equality and a dignified life for all.”
Some 70,000 Cuban experts assist these missions, as well as in other areas.
Life for most Venezuelans has clearly improved during the Chávez years. According to governmental statistics, 2007, indications include: social consumption per person has increased by 300%; GNP has sky-rocketed by 100% with about 10% annual growth; poverty has fallen from 51% to 25%.
But people complain and, perhaps, even more so when their living conditions are improving but are yet insufficient. In La Victoria rumors have it that Rosa has a helicopter and is afraid to be in some areas. The rich and right-wing, even some workers and poor people, blame Rosa for everything: for not ending the corruption chronic among local politicians and civil servants, for the high murder and theft rates, and for the omnipresent potholes.
1. Chávez had proposed limitless presidential terms, as is the case in many countries including several European democracies such as France, Denmark and Great Britain; as well as increased presidential powers in times of emergency; government control over foreign currency reserves; limiting the work day to six hours and the work week to 36 hours; and providing full social security benefits for all workers including those in the informal sector. The referendum failed by one percent of the vote, the only loss at the ballot box in Chávez’ now 12 years in power. But he won the next referendum, February 19, 2009, on the sole issue of limitless presidential terms by 54.8% to 45.1%. Only 30% of potential voters failed to vote as compared to 44% in December 2007.
2. Some barrios are informal and precarious settlements built by the inhabitants themselves outside the framework of urban regulation. They are socially and spatially segregated from the formal city and its inhabitants suffer traditionally from lack of basic property rights, citizenship rights, unemployment, high crime rates, and powerlessness in the urban decision-making process. Currently there are many initiatives to integrate the barrios into the formal city infrastructure.
3. Missions are national governmental programs that seek to speed up change in the social and economic conditions of the population, circumventing the bureaucratic and administrative obstacles of the traditional state apparatus.
The Rose Lioness
On the day of our interview, Rosa (1) drove alone to the main police station where we were to meet. She was only 90 minutes late. Here are highlights of the interview I taped.
Rosa León’s hope is to utilize more and more of the municipal budget for funding the needs of the people as they see fit. She launched the community councils and there are now 110 of them, although many do not function in reality. While the national government is responsible for building and maintaining the nation’s roadways each municipality has, or can have, some of its funds to repair city streets. Rosa said her administration had repaired three streets, a total of seven kilometers. She’d started construction of potable water wells and repairs of others. Progress had been made in the sewage system albeit my ubiquitous, sensitive nose could not confirm that. There were housing projects underway, albeit she could not count more than four houses completed. She was still trying to get weapons for the majority of the municipal police; her plan for integrating the three separate policing entities in the municipal area was nearing accomplishment. She believed that 32% of the 63 million bolívar budget (2.15 bolívars is equivalent to $1 at the official rate (2) is dispersed to decentralized entities for social projects, plus one million BF to supplement the national government funds for educational and health missions, operating apart from government entities.
"I don’t have all the figures and projects with me. But you can get the budget from our office,” Rosa told me. “You have to realize that there is a great deal of opposition pressure and even sabotage against our efforts. This State government does not help the Chávez national government or my municipality. Part of our budget, at least four million bolívars designated for local needs such as potholes, is controlled by the State government, and it has not released these funds to us. Furthermore, some of our budget must go to pay off the large debt (12 million BF) acquired by the previous corrupt mayor, Luis Blanco. He is a friend of Aragua’s governor Didalco Bolivar.
"My first year in government was spent evaluating the structures and learning the people’s needs. Then we began to allocate funds to barrio organizations. For example, we made paths in the hills where people live so that the old, pregnant, and handicapped could walk out to nearby markets and bus stops. We provided some paint for houses and walls. In 2006, social control of some projects began as the community councils took root.
"Garbage collection is a major problem not only here but across
the nation. The private companies weren’t doing a good job and
were extremely costly, so I didn’t renew the contracts and let
the workers take over the recollection. The problem is they lack the
trucks and other necessary equipment. The private companies took everything.
We invested 4.5 million BF (7% of the budget) in recollection, in 2007.
Almost no one pays tax for garbage collection. Our workers strive to
do better but they need more equipment.”
Rosa explained that she had taken a two-month leave of office at the end of 2007. She was under attack for fiscal inefficiency. She declared a financial emergency and went off to the State capital, Maracay, to fortify the community council network. Her lawyer cousin took over her mayoral tasks during that time.
"One of our greatest problems is internal,” Rosa confessed during our interview. “We have a tendency to be too casual in our statements and commitments. There is much fugaz (capriciousness). We start things and don’t finish them; too much Corre Corre (haste and lack of follow through). I had to go into debt and we’ve been paying it back since January 2008 when I returned to office.”
I mentioned that it would have been a good idea to plan replacement of equipment before ending the private garbage collection company contract. And what about an educational campaign to raise citizens’ consciousness about waste and trash? I recounted how I watch garbage workers come to pick up trash with bare hands—they don’t have gloves or masks—and right before their eyes people drop on the ground everything from cigarette butts and empty packets to food wrappings and empty bottles.
Rosa León in local church with writer during February 12 celebrations of La Victoria’s liberation from Spain
Most people wrap their household trash in plastic bags and place them outside, seemingly oblivious to the fact that dogs running rampant rip them up for whatever goodies there are inside. There are almost no trash cans. The streets and parks are constantly flooded with wastes. I also noted that the commercial media is 100% anti-Rosa and anti-Chávez, and while they all find fault with garbage recollection among everything else real and unreal, they do nothing to educate people to do their part. Why doesn’t the municipal government, and the political parties backing it, have any media?
"It is an error on my part, to some degree, not to have any media backing,” Rosa affirmed. “We do have some indirect access to two local alternative radio stations, but some of the opposition has partial control too. All three local dailies are owned by capitalists and oppositionists. We have allocated a bit of money to create a local radio station, but its start has been delayed. The voceros should soon have a newsletter. And we have just hired a public relations man,” Rosa concluded.
In fact, it is about the same for commercial media on the national level. Of all the newspapers, radio and television stations the pro-Chávez parties and the government itself only control 20%. Practically all newspapers are capitalist owned and are nearly all pro-imperialist. The government only has one national radio station and four television stations. The greatest media asset is Tele SUR (New Television Station of the South), a regional network begun by the Chávez government. I watch it regularly (also in Denmark) and find it to be professional and credible while delivering pro-socialist, pro-Chávez government plans. Programming is varied, with probing interviews and documentaries, serious entertainment and films. Moreover, the national government has launched 500 audiovisual, press and radio community media initiatives.
The national opposition and the international mass media spread the false propaganda that Chávez is thwarting media democracy. They most often cite the fact that the government refused to renew RCTV’s public license to broadcast, but they do not report the government’s documented reasons: RCTV regularly refused to devote the legally designated time for public service news; it had openly applauded the illegal, armed coup and did not even broadcast the national massive protests which brought Chávez back to power. In fact, RCTV, which is the only medium to be denied public service broadcasting, still broadcasts over cable, and anyone can link up to it. I often watched it. One of its series concentrated on the poor quality of hospital care. A camera crew filmed inside some of the hospitals, showing real defects and deficiencies, such as: open sewage, dysfunctional medical equipment, broken beds, decaying walls, lack of medicines and low salaries for workers. One program showed sanitary workers complaining to the RCTV crew about these conditions, and when hospital security personnel attempted to oust the crew, the medical personnel prevented them from doing so.
From what I have seen, heard and read about the media in the two dozen countries where I have lived and worked as a journalist over the last four decades, Venezuelans experience the most comprehensive freedom of press extant in the world today.
Shortly after our interview Rosa, who is studying Social Communication in her spare time, discussed with me the possibility of assisting her administration and community councils with my journalistic skills. I might conduct radio interviews and lectures, help with the upcoming newsletter and the like. In fact, I did begin a bit before Rosa cut ties with me. I gave a journalistic lecture to the Mission Sucre (3) Social Communication classes conducted at the local university. The 40 students ranged from teenagers to grandparents. They were attentive and inquisitive. They not only asked pertinent questions they also engaged me in debate and challenged some of my views.
Soon thereafter, I went to Caracas hoping to interest the pro-Chávez media in the Danish court case concerning seven Danish activists who support FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) in their liberation efforts.
In November 2007, a three-judge Copenhagen court had found the activists, “Fighters and Lovers,” innocent of the Justice Ministry’s charge that they had materially supported ‘terror groups’ FARC and PFLP.
The seven solidarity activists belonging to this group had produced and sold t-shirts with FARC and PFLP emblems in an effort to raise a debate about Denmark’s terror law, which was shaped after USA’s PATRIOT Act and EU’s terror list where FARC and PFLP appear. The lists are drawn behind closed doors by anonymous politicians whose criteria for selection are secret and the accused are denied rebuttal. Being on the list is, therefore, not juridical.
Among defense witnesses were the Venezuelan historian Amilcar Figueroa, alternative president of the Latin American Parliament, and Niels Lindvig, a Danish radio reporter with 25 years experience in covering Colombia and Latin America. They presented facts about Alvaro Uribe’s—the president—ties to drug cartels and mercenaries. The defense referred to a 1991 US Defense Intelligence Agency report, which stated that Uribe had collaborated with narcotic cartels (Pablo Escobar), when he was Antioquia’s governor.
The court concluded that FARC and PFLP were not engaged in “terrorizing
the population,” as is required in Danish law, paragraph 114,
in order to be classified as terrorist. But the Danish government, which
openly embraces Uribe and Bush, would not accept this decision and appealed
the matter. On September 18, 2008, the High Court of Eastern Denmark
voted 5 to 1 to overturn the lower decision that FARC and PFLP are not
terrorist groups. Thus, it concluded that six of the seven activists
were guilty of supporting terror, and they were handed a sentence of
from 60 days – suspended – to six months in prison for two
of them. The defense is appealing to the Supreme Court. (4)
Chávez had gained wide acclaim for his humanitarian efforts to negotiate the release of civilian prisoners held by FARC in Colombia. He also maintained the same position as “Fighters and Lovers”: that FARC is a legitimate liberation movement representing a majority of Colombia’s peasants in armed uproar for decades against a brutal oligarchy whose governments oppress millions of people. I hoped that if he knew of the Danish court decision Chávez could use that to help sway some who oppose FARC. I was interviewed by the national daily VEA, a couple of local radio and TV stations and the national VIVE TV station, which reflects grass roots organizations. The interview most viewed was VTV’s “contra golpe” (counterpunch) program with Vanessa Davis. She was later elected on the 15-person leadership council of the new political party PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), which Chávez had recently initiated. From a population of 27 million 5.7 million had registered as members-to-be.
Vanessa Davis went straight to the theme of FARC—was it terrorist or not—and then to EXXON, which was trying to strangle Venezuela’s nationalization of its oil and gas. She gave no time to why I was here or where I lived, which would have allowed me to put in a plug for the La Victoria government of Rosa León. It would have been natural to do so, but it was not priority. When I got back to La Victoria I was to meet with Rosa to solidify my role with her administration, but she gave me the cold shoulder for having failed to mention her on TV.
(September 17, 2008)
1. Rosa León was La Victoria’s city mayor from 2004-2008.
2. The current fixed exchange rate is 4.30 bolívars for 1.00 USD.
3. Mission Sucre (launched in late 2003) is one of the Bolivarian Missions (a series of anti-poverty and social welfare programs). The program provides free and ongoing higher (college and graduate level) education to the two million adult Venezuelans.
4. In March 2009, the Danish Supreme Court upheld convictions against six members of the group, but handed down suspended sentences and fines. Even while accepting the political determination of the state against FARC and PFLP, it indicated that the laws on terror were not clear.
Friendly Internal Critique
At the beginning of Hunger Street is a cachapa stand where I often
breakfasted on corn pancakes. Margarita, the pancake maker, dresses
her diminutive body in colorful clothing. She paints eyelashes and her
high cheek-bones in the same color as her garb. Her smooth olive-skin
face glistens. Her man and another de-husk the corn and scrape off the
kernels. She grinds them in a small electric machine and then scoops
up the grainy mass in her delicate, strong hands. Unlike tortilla makers,
she pats the mass into a thick cake before frying on hot butter.
Palate and stomach satisfied with just one cachapa, I walked two blocks to the Cilento buildings where the Office of the Budget is located. I informed a secretary that the mayor had suggested I could come by to acquire a copy of the public document. Despite its public nature, she had to ask her boss, who was not in. He told her over the phone that I had to go to the Office of the Municipality Council. On the bus, I listened to sing-song pleas for alms until stepped off in front of the government offices, an old colonial Spanish yellow building. Scores of people, many youths, walked about the spacious indoors or sat at desks wearing red or blue t-shirts with slogans for the Bolivarian Revolution. In one such office is one of the three existing copies of the budget, but before I could see it the municipal president had to approve and he was not in. I went to the public library.
“The mayor has not sent us one. We have never had a copy of the budget,” the head librarian told me. I looked up on the Internet but the municipality had no homepage. It took three days to catch up with the municipal secretary. He said my request was unusual and not easy to comply with given there were so few copies. They couldn’t let theirs out of the office and it was not physically possible to copy several hundred pages. But I did glance through the tome. A secretary would copy the 20-page “general considerations” when she could buy ink for the printing machine. It took a week to get this summary. I have to conclude that, in fact, the public had no real access to their budget.
I could make out from the summary that the amount of funds transferred to ‘decentralized entities’—grass roots decision-making processes—was in principal 17.6 million BF or 26.2%. Although not the 32% Rosa had told me, it was still impressive that ordinary people could decide the fate of over a quarter of the budget. Most of the budget not related to staff salaries was allocated in three areas: social development—where most funding had been decentralized—infrastructure and human resources. I needed to see the Municipal Controller for a more thorough understanding.
The controller is Argentina-born Guillermo Forti. In the mid-1970s, the four young Forti brothers were on the way to the airport with their radical activist mother, hoping to fly to Venezuela, where they would reunite with their father in exile, when forces of the military dictatorship arrested them. After some harrowing days, they let the brothers leave prison and Argentina, but they kept their mother whom they ‘disappeared.’
Guillermo graduated from law school in Venezuela and was elected to this important oversight position in the Ribas municipality. His brother, Mario, a studious Marxist-Christian astrologer was Rosa’s political advisor. Guillermo seemed to be an authentic overseer of funds, who had had run-ins with the mayor’s office for insisting that funds misallocated by some greedy members of a few community councils be returned. On the three occasions we met, he presented an overall view of the budget, which he concluded was generally well proportioned and utilized.
“These community councils are better than many in the country. A good example is that in some communities they used fewer funds than allocated to build water pumps, and the extra money went to other projects,” he told me.
“One of the chronic problems all Chávez municipal and State office backers have to contend with is the entrenched bureaucracies and officials and civil servants who skim what they can. Too many directors come from technical university backgrounds and there are too few with roots in the communities.”
Top police officials wish Rosa were a tougher manager. Terry Rojas, chief of crime detective investigators (CICPC) for a five-municipality area including Ribas, told me frankly that Rosa was too kind toward those in her employ. “She needs an effective team, one that completes steps initiated.”
Chief Rojas produced figures indicating how common murder and vehicle robbery are. But he was optimistic that better coordination between the Ribas municipal police and the investigative detective branch—something Rosa had worked for—was improving recuperation of vehicles and detention of thieves. Eighty percent of stolen vehicles were recovered in 2007 compared with 60% in 2006. That year there were 94 homicides in Ribas; 79 accused murderers were arrested. In 2007, homicides were slightly down to 87. If these figures represent reality, they defy what everyone told me: most criminals do not get caught or do not get imprisoned.
Crime and traffic accidents are major issues locally and nationally; people feel insecure. “There are far too many accidents and deaths due to poorly maintained roads, reckless driving, and insufficient traffic police,” Rojas said. He also confirmed what I heard on the streets: many cops take bribes instead of issuing tickets, and many also participate in robberies or take payoffs from criminals. “There is only one prosecutor for this five-municipal area so our investigation and judicial process is all too slow,” he lamented.
The new Chávez government liberalized the legal code (COOP) in 1999, granting greater juridical rights to arrestees. Detainees must appear before a judge within 48 hours of arrest. Those not apprehended at the scene of the crime are to be released—there is no bail system—during the criminal investigation, unless the judge can determine that there is a great risk of flight. Their cases can take years to adjudicate and they are free to commit more crimes, say police.
The radical mayor of Caracas, Freddy Bernal, told the media, “In each important crime committed there is a metropolitan policeman involved.” “There are officers who rent their arms to criminals”. (Quinto Día, 1/25/8). Because of the difficulty in convicting criminals some police also commit extrajudicial killings, reported at from 100 to 300 annually in this decade. Few cases get prosecuted as there is no system of independent investigation of police abuse.
In March, Chávez announced a “National Police System Plan”. For the first time in history police were to be unified. There was top-level resistance to this since most police units adhere directly under governors, who have traditionally appointed police chiefs. Political considerations often take precedence over combating crime and rooting out corruption. The hope was that police unity would increase arrests and criminal prosecution, and improve vigilance over police behavior. Murder is the key issue for most.
On the national level, Interpol shows 10,000 annual murders (2006), which equates to 33 per 100,000 population—one of the world’s top ten homicide rates. Colombia’s 32,000 non-war related murders is a rate of 70 per 100,000. Right-wing mercenaries commit several thousands of murders against prostitutes and homosexuals, part of their ideological ‘social cleansing’ politics. Para-militarists also cross the border into Venezuela to sell drugs and guns at low prices to youth gangs, part of their ideological battle to destabilize the progressive government. They also serve rich landowners and cattlemen by murdering poor peasants and unionists in the border area. National figures show 200 such murders in recent times.
Ribas municipal police chief, Alberto Navas, told me, “This is a very violent area, mainly so because it is close to the capital and a transitional stop for people from the most backward areas of the country. With the new prosperity for many, those with nothing flee these areas in search of jobs and better living conditions in the cities. If they don’t find this, many live from crime. Some parts of Caracas are the poorest areas and have the greatest amount of crime. Most murders are of young gang members. Our hands are often tied because witnesses fear coming forth, and modern laws and judges render too lenient sentences.”
Another reason for high crime rates among youths is the lack of recreation facilities and entertainment. There are not even movie houses in the whole of Ribas. Before Rosa’s time as mayor there were three but they closed down for lack of profits. Many say Rosa should allocate funds to rectify this problem. Rosa has increased police pay, but it is still not a well paid job and one with risks of physical violence.
As a parting note on this grim theme, I cite a June 23, 2008, Reuters story: “Venezuela’s youth orchestras and choirs have helped (300,000) children resist thug life…and now wealthy countries are lining up to emulate the system.”
Part of the government’s efforts to combat barrio gangs from trafficking in drugs, from committing thievery and murders is to get them interested in classical music. There are now 200 such orchestras. As part of the $35 million project, each player gets a free instrument. Governments in Scotland, Britain, and Los Angeles are copying the idea. Venezuela is using the program in its crowded and violent prisons as well. Trombones confront pistols in this peaceful revolution, peaceful, at least, from the government’s side.
(September 18, 2008)
“This is the Revolution of Women”
CHU CHU CHU
CHUG CHUG CHUG
CHE CHE CHE
What! Is that right? Did I hear Che?
Coming out of a liturgical dream or awakened by revolutionary chanting, I throw off my sheet, pull on my kimono and rush downstairs and out the door into pitch black darkness. A booming united chant pulls me around the corner. The people are struggling in ardent enthusiasm for the cause. My legs move quickly now, taking me toward the ever-moving revolution. The chant surges and wanes in the wind.
Ron! Stop! Now! You are running in the streets in a kimono. People will not understand this. The chanting is far away now and if you did catch up with the cantors what would you do and what would be their reaction to you? Can you be one with them, a gray-haired man in a blue kimono and sandals? They would be bewildered or insulted. No one will understand that you are driven with emotion hearing revolutionary chants.
I rush back as darkness begins to lighten. I pull on trousers and t-shirt and rush out again still in semi-darkness. The united voice fluctuates in volume. I’m reminded that these people are Catholic and some may be partaking in a sacred canticle. I see a man standing before a closed work center and ask him about the chanting. Does it have to do with evangelical spirits or the upcoming commemoration of the liberty of La Victoria, in 1814, by university and seminary students led by General José Félix Ribas?
“No,” he chuckles, “that’s just soldiers running their early morning exercises…”
Diego had earlier introduced me to a master sergeant at the military training base on the edge of town. The base was preparing a pageant of teenage girl beauties for ‘youth day,’ part of the military-community solidarity policy. Diego’s friend’s daughter was a contender for ‘Queen of La Victoria,’ and he invited me to attend. The evening following my crazy escapade, I entered the base plaza to see the show, feeling uneasy. Pretty girls sauntered about in high heels and white gowns, round buttocks vibrating, breasts pushed forward from low-cut necklines, they nervously caressed their long black hair. The audience milled about or sat on folding chairs, many drank Colombia’s Death Squads’ drink, Coca-Cola.(1) Teenage boys and fathers watched the girls with pleasure and mothers smiled proudly.
Humans are filled with contradictions. Male-chauvinist inspired beauty contests continue to be popular. On the other hand, María León, president of the National Institute of Women, asserted, in an interview on Women’s Day: “This is the revolution of Women.” That same day, President Chávez announced a new Ministry of Women’s Affairs and named Ms. León its minister. She is unrelated to Rosa León, who was not even born when María took up arms alongside fellow members of the Communist Party against the oppressive regime of Rómulo Betancourt, in the 1960s.
President Chávez naming María León Minister of Woman Affairs
By the summer of 2008, the new ministry had representation in most
communities, helping the recently and newly created programs designed
for women, including Banmujer—the world’s only government
bank for women. It was established on Women’s Day in 2001 and
has since granted small loans to two million women, mainly to help them
in business ventures aimed at bringing them out of poverty and encouraging
participation in society. The ministry also has Meeting Points and Madres
del Barrio. The “Mothers of the Barrio” Mission, started
in March 2006, provides a monthly stipend (80% of the minimum wage)
to poor women with children and who do not have full-time employment.
Women’s suffrage arrived late in Venezuela, in 1946. Not until constitutional changes in 1960 were women formally granted equality under the law. It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that women were allowed to manage their own affairs, including signing official documents without the approval of a spouse or common law lover. Women began organizing for equal rights in the 1970s, but most efforts were based on signal issues, such as the right to abort. There were few female public leaders before Chávez won the presidency. In the 1997 National Assembly, for instance, only six percent of the deputies were women.
With Chávez’ 1998 electoral victory, a new constitutional campaign was initiated and had women’s rights at its core. Thousands of proposals were forthcoming by women’s organizations. The new constitution of December 15, 1999, is the first in the world written in non-sexist language. It is known as the non-sexist Magna Carta because both genders are used in referring to positions and titles, and because of establishing full rights and benefits in all arenas. All forms of discrimination, also in the home, are forbidden.
In the first Chávez-led National Assembly women deputies doubled and have since tripled. Thirty-eight percent of the work force is female as are 56% of university graduates. Six women have earned the rank of general. Six of the 15-member executive committee of the new Socialist United Party of Venezuela are women. There are 11 female ministers, making up forty percent of the 29 ministries. And most spectacular is that four of the five highest public leaders are women. Standing beside executive leader Hugo Chávez, women are the President of the National Assembly, leaders of the National Electoral Council and Human Rights Office, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (TSJ).
Inspired by the current female Chief Justice, a judgeship on the Supreme Court is an aspiration held by Rose León. Although she, and presumably most, if not all, beauty queen contestants seek equality and power, this does not prevent them from continuing some traditional sexual roles and with pink frills. Rosa, for example, affords herself the luxury—or affectation—of having her own bathroom in the offices where dozens of mayoral employees work. There are two bathrooms but the workers and visitors must only use one. A sign on one door states that this one is exclusive for Rosa. Unable to resist the temptation, I used it. I found the light on—something a cleaning woman insists upon so that Rosa does not need to switch it on—and the toilet seat covered in pink cloth; a pink hand towel hung beside the immaculately clean sink. Nothing was amiss except my presence, which the cleaning woman let me know in no unspoken terms when I came out.
Throughout my two months exploring the Venezuelan revolution, everywhere I spoke with people working or organizing the majority were women. Black women are more often political activists and community organizers than black men, as is the case for indigenous women, who represent or are active among the some 50 tribes in the country. They carry out Mission Guaicaipuro, the program to restore communal land titles and human rights for the half-million indigenous peoples.
I did not witness any brute macho treatment of women and most women accompanied by men did not look down or fear to speak up. In fact, women are most outspoken and many are not shy about showing other aspects of themselves, such as gyrating hips and breasts springing forth, a sight fair to this dirty old man.
But, yes, there is violence against women, especially in the homes. And there are rapes; prostitution too. Prostitutes are offered free tests for venereal diseases by local clinics. The courts do not prosecute prostitutes. Many judges are women. The new women’s affairs ministry addresses both violence against women and prostitution through information, conferences at the community Meeting Points and hotlines for women abused by men.
The Bolivarian Revolution is truly a transformation for women, an empowerment that half the population is not about to let disappear.
(September 19, 2008)
1. Coca-Cola was given the name Death Squads’ drink by the firm’s workers in Colombia as its management had hired para-militarists to kill several workers who sought bargaining rights through a union. In India Coca-Cola has dried up villagers wells and contaminated farmers’ lands. Some states have tried to ban Coca-Cola. See www.killercoke.org for more information.
The Green Revolution--1
I wanted to see how the new farm cooperatives were operating, and I needed a break from the house I lived in and from city life. I lived in an upstairs bedroom across the hall from a young woman, who spent most of her time locked inside her room watching TV. My room contained essential and rustic furniture. The sagging mattress had metal springs sticking through. The bathroom had a flush toilet and a single-stream shower. The plaster and paint in the kitchen and living room downstairs were cracking and falling. Caked dirt permeated all appliances and shelves. Fifty meters from this house stood a noisy car firm. Albeit a small city, La Victoria screams with noise from car alarms and horn-honking drivers, from ghetto-blasting radios, and boisterous children and adults (la bulla).
The upper classes complain that the Chávez government has limited the number of vehicle imports, although in the two previous years 600,000 private cars were imported. The government seeks to diminish importation and increase national production in all areas. It already produces many of its military vehicles and tractors, and it has just begun to produce its own cars for private sales in a joint venture with Iran. The ‘people’s car’ will sell for a modest $7,000—new imported cars sell for four times that at a minimum. The first 20,000 cars are planned to role off the assembly line in 2009.
Furthermore, the millions of Venezuelan drivers are privileged to have what must be the world’s cheapest fuel. While a liter of bottled water costs the equivalent of $1.40, the now nationalized gasoline costs about $.04 cents (100 centavos in national currency) a liter, or $.15 cents a gallon, which is 35 to 45 times less the price of gasoline in the warring-for-oil United States.
Early one morning in February, Diego borrowed his girl friend’s car and drove me to a low mountain range where Quebrada Seca’s farm cooperative is located. He spoke of its history, and I had done research.
I had read Central Bank figures, which show that the government had
increased financing of agricultural production by 738% between 2004
and 2007. About five million of the nation’s 30 million hectares
of cultivable land have been expropriated and turned over to about 200,000
people, most of them not farmers. In many cases, the very land titles
have been contested. Some lands had simply been seized decades or hundreds
of years ago by those with great local power and weaponry.
The Chávez government inherited a ‘one-crop’ economy based on oil, mostly owned by US and British companies. In 1935, 60% of the work force was rural, mostly in agriculture. By 2000, only 12% of the population was rural. In 1998, only 6% of GNP came from agricultural production, the lowest rate in all of Latin America. And three-quarters of the land was held by five percent of landowners. Under Chávez food production has doubled but demand has also grown, even more than national supply. So it has been necessary to increase foodstuff imports, which come mainly from the new regional economic alliances, Mercosur and the Venezuela-Cuba ALBA initiative, which now has four more member nations. (1)
The fact that the government has several times increased wages and pensions dramatically is a major cause for the increase in demand and consumption. On worker’s day, May 1, 2008, Chávez announced that the minimum monthly wage and minimum pension is to be the equivalent of $560, placing Venezuelans minimum incomes 2.6 times higher than the entire continent average.
Diego told me that three years ago about 150 people occupied this mountainous area of 1000 hectares owned by a wealthy German family. The Vollmers had long ago immigrated to Venezuela and became the largest agro-landowners in Aragua State. Like many wealthy plantation owners much of their land lay fallow. Who owns land and how it is used is fundamental to whether a society is based on capitalist market enterprise or socialist fellowship. And large private property owners have been the core power for hundreds of years before Chávez. His new national assembly passed a law allowing the government to expropriate idle land and redistribute it to landless peasants and other poor people. In October 2005, a comprehensive land reform was implemented with the name Mission Zamora. This occurred following President Chávez’ first public speech, in which he advocated a socialist system. He did so at the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where he said:
"Everyday I become more convinced…that it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can’t be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. But I’m also convinced that it is possible to do it under democracy, but not in the type of democracy being imposed from Washington.
"It is impossible within the framework of the capitalist system to solve the grave problems of poverty of the majority of the world’s population. We must transcend capitalism. But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion as the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path…a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything. That’s the debate we must promote around the world…"
Diego introduced me to the cooperative’s secretary and one of the two Cuban advisors. With his recommendation, and because of my CV showing eight years of working in Cuba, I was welcomed warmly and permitted to go about the farm and speak with whom I wished. Diego drove back and I went on my own. At the entrance to the farm land stood a large billboard sign. It read (in English translation): “Quebrada Seca. Free Town. Agriculturally Productive People. Socialist Future.”
After two kilometers across mainly brush land, I came across a cooperative team. Three women and one man were cultivating a plot. Juleen spoke for them.
“This year we’ve started a new work structure, hoping this will allow a surplus. Last year I was cultivating peppers and we lost the crop. We didn’t earn anything. The only way we’ve survived is due to a small annual stipend from the Ministry of Agriculture—which it stopped this year—plus credit for seed and farm tools. But now we plough the land with our bare nails, because our three tractors are broken down and we don’t have money for repairs. So, you ask how we eat?” chuckled chubby Juleen.
“We get help from our families who live and work in cities. And here we all help each other, we share what we have. Most families are headed by a man and a woman and one of them usually works outside on the weekends, at least one day a week. My husband and I alternate. He works at manual labor and I wash and iron clothes in Quebrada Seca. We each earn 30BF a day. We have no money for anything other than essentials, never for vacations, because then we work for cash in the town.”
It was nearly time for lunch so we started the long walk up a steep hill toward the housing complex. Working hours are from 07:00 to 11:00, followed by a three-hour lunch break, and then back to work from 14:00 to 18:00. On the way up, the four new farmers spoke about their three-year history. When Mission Zamora started almost all the plantation owners protested expropriations. They went to court, which would tie up the question of land ownership for years.
In the last three years, Chávez has often intervened to convince landowners to release fallow lands, sometimes offering compromises so that peasants and relocated city folk could get started. That was the case here. The government offered assistance on long-term credit with low or no interest rates to start farming. This included new housing for those who stay on. The houses are about 80m2, made of concrete and some wood, with tile roofs and floors. It usually takes up to a year to construct the houses in each cooperative and costs between 80,000 and 120,000BF to build. The first five years of residence is free. Once they reach the end of that time, a decision will be made about how much each cooperative family will pay. The objective is that full ownership is turned over to the families after 20 years.
“That’s the best thing about being here, our houses,” garrulous Juleen said, beaming. “You’ll see.”
The new farmers explained that production relations have changed three times in so many years. First everyone worked as one collective but it was difficult to motivate all to work equally hard. Most had never tilled soil. The second year, they broke into ten teams of four to six each. Still it didn’t work. Now each team is independent and is responsible for its own economy. There are only 57 residents left, 25 farmers work in five teams. Seven of them have taken farming courses. In theory, thirty percent of the total cooperative’s income should go back into the coop to pay off state credits. Seventy percent is shared internally. However, since real production has been so low almost no payment on credits has been forthcoming. The government does not press them.
“We have technical assemblies each week. There’s one this afternoon. Here we plan and learn together. We used to haggle about who works well or not but there was no way to determine this objectively. Then we decided individual income on the basis of just showing up for work. That didn’t work either. Now each team has equal status, responsibility and income from proceeds. But, in reality, there is no income to divide. Yeah, we’ve sold what little we’ve produced to local markets, to Mercal, but it doesn’t make ends meet,” I’m told.
Mercal is a mission, which seeks to increase the country’s food sovereignty, providing access to quality produce, especially grains, dairy and meat at subsidized prices, averaging about 40% of the chaotic supply-demand system's prices. From its initiation, in 2002, the items sold in local Mercals, usually located in private homes, has increased from just 15 elements to 400. The Ministry of Agriculture’s figures early this year indicate that 12 million people shop at Mercal’s 15,677 locations, meeting about 67% of the nation’s needs. The woman owner of the house where I stayed is coordinator of the local Mercal.
Twenty-seven new houses sit just under the peak of this mountain. They look like the 50 recently built in the local town and 10,000 more across the nation—a figure that lags behind the goal of building homes for everyone by 2021, which means more than one million. This project—Mission Hábitat—is part of the incentive for new farmers, and they are pleasant structures.
While Juleen and a neighbor woman prepare lunch for their families and me, I wonder about the fresh-smelling environment. The kitchen, which opens to a patio, has what is essential: refrigerator, gas stove, sink with drinkable water from nearby wells, cabinets and drawers. This house has two bedrooms and six beds. There’s an extra room. Two tiled bathrooms serve this family of six with shower and flush toilet. The living room has seating place for the entire family—sofa and two stuffed chairs—and there is a dining room. The ceiling is high, about five meters, and wood-paneled. There are many windows and good ventilation. Everything is clean and shiny. Each house has a small yard area. Some grow a few vegetables and herbs. In the center of the complex is a playground with swings, slide and teeter-totter.
Juleen’s husband comes in. He is a bit shy but answers a couple of questions. The kitchen hardware came with the house; the furniture they bought on credit and some were gifts. They also have a radio. As yet there is no television signal or telephones.
After a great lunch of fruit, two vegetables, beans, pasta and chicken, we walk down to the main building where assemblies occur. On the way, Juleen complains that the children must walk to and from school an hour a day.
“Some cooperatives have mini-buses to transport children to school and adults to shop at markets, but we don’t. The future: I don’t know. We don’t work as much or as hard as we should. We have internal problems. We have a five-member executive committee elected every six months. They receive no money for this service and are workers too. Sounds good in theory but our first president stole money. We fired him but he still hasn’t been tried. Our new president spends little time here. He mostly confines himself to his own production of 500 chickens for eggs and meat. We buy much of his produce.”
Twenty farmers came to the assembly and a few children. An advisor from the ministry came to speak about the ‘green revolution,’ combating plagues organically. A Cuban advisor spoke of Cuba’s success in this. They explained how they could get funguses and combative insects from government laboratories to replace costly insecticide sprays. Over time, production would increase in quality and quantity.
People listened attentively and asked questions. Suddenly the meeting was interrupted by a dog fight and subsequent laughter. The assembly ended with an account of what land was planted in what. Only about a fourth of the 100 cultivatable hectares were under seed.
I walked back to town for the bus, a bit down by what I had seen and heard. Making a ‘green revolution’ with city folk is not a quick process, but it had started.
(September 20, 2008)
1. ALBA – the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America was launched in 2004 by Venezuela and Cuba. Its purpose was to create a Latin American alternative to ‘free trade’ under Washington’s tutelage. The word ‘alba’ means ‘dawn’ in Spanish. Presently it has eight member countries including Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. The Mercosur countries are a regional trading bloc in South America that has rejected the neo-liberal economic strategy and emphasizes equity, justice and inter-dependence.
The Green Revolution – II
I had only observed cooperative farming. I wanted to participate. So I planned a bus trip to Carocote, which knowledgeable Diego said is a more productive cooperative located in the adjacent municipality of José Rafael Revenga.
Carocote is a mountain range area previously owned by the same Vollmer family. This 390 hectare area lay fallow in 2003 when one of the first land occupations took place. Forty-six families came from nearby towns of Sabaneta and Tasajera to claim the soil. And once again, Chávez intervened to accomplish the mission.
There is no level area here except a space bulldozed out for the 26 new houses finished a year ago. Only 25 families remain; the others left because of no housing facilities and lack of income. Five of those families which left, however, built their own ramshackle houses at the very top of this mountain range and grow their own crops. I was told that they do better than the cooperative. The National Institute of Land (INTI), which oversees Mission Zamora, still considers them part of the mission and assists them with credits and equipment, showing quite a bit of flexibility for a ‘dictatorial’ government, as the right-wing opposition and Yankees refer to it.
Nancy, one of the five elected cooperative leaders, took me to the empty house used for visitors. The houses here are just like those at Quebrada Seca. As I was arranging my bunk bed, I found stacks of information pamphlets promoting the constitutional reform referendum voted on last December. It would have qualitatively improved the rights, benefits and power of the poor and working class, but it failed to pass by one percent of the vote. The greatest disappointment was the failure of three million voters, who had voted for Chávez as president, to go to the polls. They were a large part of the 44% abstention. Chávez forces engaged in internal analysis and self-criticism. One of the main reasons for its failure was the lack of organizing for it; too few doors knocked on. And here before me was evidence: many hundreds undelivered, unused pamphlets.
Two Cuban advisors lived next door to the visitor’s house. With typical Cuban hospitality, Rudys immediately invited me into his house and asked if I had had lunch. He fed me leftovers from his Cuban prepared lunch of black beans, rice, yucca and a bit of meat. Rudys was eager to speak with me as he had seen the “contra golpe” TV interview and knew I had lived in Cuba.
Rudys had taken a three-year agriculture education in his home province of Pinar del Rio, north of La Habana. He’d been at Carocote 16 months and would be here for two years. The advisors get a vacation in Cuba at mid-term. Rudys was glad to be helping Cuba’s good neighbor Venezuela. He was also concerned about the great degree of thievery and insecurity that people experience. This must contribute to the fact that few Venezuelans invite people inside their houses. Despite the close cooperation these families experience here everyone locked their doors. I was told they did not have internal thievery but people from the town sometimes come looking for something to steal. Just the week before, someone had set fire to dry grass on a hillside, which burned some trees, but the residents were able to put it out before it attacked their young crops.
I hooked up with Nancy and part of her team, one of six. Two members were not present. The coop’s president, Nancy’s husband, was in Cuba for a two-week training course. On the way to their plot of carrots, a 20-minute walk, we passed seven long nurseries. They were well built steel structures. Nancy explained that they would be used for tomatoes and other vegetables but were just short of being completed.
“We should have had them functioning by now, but one big problem is that our motor pump was stolen.”
The carrot patch was near the end of the cultivatable area. Like the other crops, all the rows are dug on hillsides, making sowing, cultivating and harvesting quite difficult and even painstaking. The terrain here does not allow for tractors. Most of the weeds had to be pulled up by hand, if one wanted to take up the roots. But the others used hoes to cut them above the roots. There were far more weeds than carrot plants. In the two-and-a-half hours we worked—instead of the designated four—I cleaned four rows, revealing very few carrots. In some places plants were two even three meters apart. Most of this crop had already been lost to weeds. I had done this work when I lived in Cuba and know it is not a welcome task, but this was below par.
I asked Nancy why there were so many weeds and why the team didn’t have seeds with them to sow where carrot plants had been choked. She was embarrassed by my questions, admitting she should have thought of bringing seeds. “Next time.”
Ricardo, the other Cuban advisor, later told me: “The most important thing for farmers is consciousness, not the hack. If they cultivated more often, it would be easier to work the hoe and there would be more plants.”
In the evening, I had a long conversation with another neighbor, Luis, who gave me an overall view of their history.
“In the beginning, most of us still worked for wages nearby. Some of us built make-shift living quarters while we were here preparing the earth. Just clearing the earth and irrigating by hand took us three years, and there was the dispute about ownership too. It wasn’t until 2006 that we began to be full-time farmers. And INTI gave us a 200BF monthly stipend to make ends meet. That was terminated this year in the hope—and with gentle pressure—that we will produce enough to pay ourselves.
“Although about 50 hectares are cultivable, we only have 10 or 11 in seed. We will soon have 15 hectares planted. The majority of our crops are vegetables, some potatoes, a few herbs, and a couple of hectares in plantain and cambur”—the Venezuelan banana.
“Unfortunately, we have not yet begun ecological farming methods, but we hope to.”
“Each crop takes between three and six months from seed to maturity,
so we are harvesting and selling several times a year. Our teams are
economically independent from one another and sell on the local markets,
especially to Mercal.
“We decide what we will grow but INTI helps us with earth analysis, and the mission’s principle is based on producing necessary products at low costs and prices. We undercut the speculating supermarkets and the big plantation owners who hoard products.”
Luis’s wife, Juanita, is one of the adults who do not work the land but work in the home and take major responsibility for the children. Had the December 2007 referendum been passed, she like all housewives would have received a government wage for that work.
“Our lives have improved so much,” Juanita said softly with a smile as she joined us. “Chávez has accomplished so many good things. I am so proud to be Venezuelan now. But there are people who accuse our president of being responsible for all that is not good, for all that goes wrong. Some say he robs. What a lie that is. The truth is that the opposition is the thief; the rich are thieves. And everybody knows that all previous presidents were thieves, so some people just assume that Chávez is as well.”
Early next morning, after a hearty breakfast at home, I went to find a team to work with. None were about. Everyone was at home. I took a stroll over the hillside, passing a plot of young plants, down to the stream that crossed the mountain. I climbed up its bank under tall trees. The gentle rolling sound was suddenly overcome by a chattering flock of guacharaca. These turkey-sized birds cackle similarly as well yet fly more like predators. Locals hunt them for their red meat. Once they settled, another sound crashed into my ears from upstream. I followed its call to the foot of a waterfall cascading ten meters into an inviting pool. Stripped in a flash, I dived into the blue paradise. After a refreshing swim, I crawled upon a large warm rock. Bathing in the sun, one of the world’s greatest waterfalls sparkled behind my closed eyes.
Venezuela harbors Angel Falls, or “Kerepakupai merú”. At 979 meters, it is the planet’s highest free-falling waterfall.
After a leisurely early swim and sun-bath, I returned to the residential compound and found Enrique sitting contemplatively on his porch.
Enrique is, at 57 years of age, a new farmer. A former petroleum worker, he had worked his way up to production chief for a large oil company. Workers tripled production during his time as chief but they received none of the extra profits. Enrique took the issue up.
“You know what the owners’ bosses did? They fired me. It didn’t matter to them that I was an excellent foreman for them. What mattered is that I crossed the line to speak up on behalf of their productive workers. In their eyes, this was treason. It was then that I became a determined follower of Hugo Chávez.”
Enrique was an initiator of the cooperative. He looks upon his present life optimistically. He views the future as one in which the poor and the conscious working class of the Third World take the offensive against a decaying capitalism.
“It will not be far away when an explosive crisis will bring much of the working class within the rich lands on the side of their historic brothers and sisters around the world.
“Today, I live for our fellowship, our common life. I now earn about 5,000BF a year instead of 36,000 but I am a happy man. My children bloom with free education and health care, and we all live tranquilly.”
But Enrique is not naïve or fundamentalist.
“We still live as egoists in this land. We still are affected by the capitalist disease, greed. Our consciousness still lacks power.”
Enrique wanted to talk about Barak Obama.
“Obama could be the alternative man for capitalism-imperialism for three to four years. He won’t do much for the poor and workers. He’d be a good trading man for big capitalism. He can talk better with Third World rich leaders, blacks, Arabs, Latin Americans. But he’d disappoint many of his hopeful, idealistic followers. Maybe this would bring about a greater awareness of the real nature of capitalism-imperialism, no matter the spokesman’s color or gender, and maybe a radicalization would take off.”
I left this homegrown political intellectual and headed home. I passed a group of boys playing soccer. During a pause, I asked them how they felt living here. All of them expressed contentment. No worries; plenty to eat; transport to a school where they thrived. Good Cuban doctors in town.
My third day at Carocote was a rest day, Sunday, so I would return to La Victoria. But first, I wanted to talk with the oldest cooperativist. At 68, Pedro is a happy man with eight children and eight grandchildren—or is it six, mused the gray-haired black man.
“My memory fails me. But I remember how it was living here as a child. I was born in this same area. There was nothing. None of the governments before Chávez did anything for the poor, and we were the vast majority. We lived in tin-covered straw sheds with no water or electricity. We couldn’t go to school. Nobody knew how to read or write. We grew corn. Coño how things have changed since Chávez! Look at this house I have. My wife’s in town where we also have a room. She’s sick and can’t get about. She gets what care can be given, and it’s the Cuban doctors who are caring for her.
“Now we have land and houses. I plant cambur and ocumo. I hope Chávez continues leading and goes the way of Fidel. The bad ones, those who have the money, don’t want him. The President is with the people.”
Yeah, Pedro told it like it is! The man with the big heart, a man who came from the roots, the brave one standing up against Goliath—this is a leader.
(September 21, 2008)
A tall man with long flowing curly hair and warm eyes met me early in the morning after a drinking bout in a local bar. Carlos was a friend of a friend, Juan Luis; both were teachers and Carlos was a long-distance walker. He took me to the nearest mountain on the outskirts of La Victoria for a day’s walk.
I was exhilarated with the first steps up a dirt path. Trees surrounded us. We were alone for six hours of climbing up and down much of the mountain.
There were a few wooden houses scattered on the side of the path wide enough for a car, only one of which we saw. Although quite isolated, these houses enjoyed running water from a mountain stream and electricity brought in by the government.
We passed a coffee plantation no longer being cared for. Carlos explained that the owner spent most of his time in Spain, his birth place, and neglected the farm. Apparently there wasn’t enough profit in it.
We stopped to eat a lunch we had brought with us and I swam in a pool of the stream. We chatted while listening to the guacharaca, the only sounds we heard, apart from the eternally rolling stream. We enjoyed listening to the chattering, social tree-dwellers, which feed on abundant seeds and fruits found here. Carlos told me he taught mathematics at the local technical college, while his wife taught in Maracay’s Mission Sucre. They saw each other only on the weekends. He supported Chávez and the grass roots revolution, but was discouraged by so much inefficiency and corruption. Like many other intellectual workers, he remained on the sidelines, although he voted for the process.
When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we walked another kilometer to Juan Luis’ ‘summer house,’ delicately resting on an incline and partially hidden by skinny trees. He and his girl friend come to this rustic place most weekends. While Juan Luis and his lover prepared seafood snacks, a neighbor boy, who watches over their place and a handful of chickens, made coffee á la fagón—fireplace style—which tasted especially stimulating after walking 25 km in thin tennis shoes.
Carlos and I planned another trip soon. I spent the next days learning, looking forward to our next trip, this time to the very top.
Atop this 2000 meter mountain sits a unique town, Colonia Tovar. The 3,500-hectare area was settled by German farmers from Bavaria, in 1843. To this day, the well-maintained, colorfully painted buildings have Bavarian characteristics. The town is unusually clean and quiet, reflecting a European life style albeit none of the 6,000 residents are actually German, and hardly any one speaks German.
We had climbed seven hours straight up. We passed the abandoned coffee farm, then some fruit trees cared for by a lone farmer, and stopped at a cluster of houses served by one little store. It was crammed with cartons of Yankee products: Colgate, Nestle, Toms, and, of course, Coca-Cola. The Colombian store-keeper was unaware of the boycott against the Death Squads’ Drink. Carlos’ young cousin was with us this time; he deferred to my request and drank a national soda instead of the all-time favorite sugar drink.
We pushed onward and upward. I was surprised how well I—a smoker—kept up with a man in his mid-40s and another in his mid-20s, but the going was tough. Our legs were never planted straight, always stretching at an incline, sometimes required to jump onto rocks laid across the stream, which frequently crisscrossed our path.
As we neared the top, we saw small plots of land planted in strawberries, potatoes, coffee and peaches. Carlos wished to visit one such farm. As part of an education mission for which he had volunteered, he had once taught a girl who lived here. We soon found the house, quite unmistakable for its handsome and solid even stately character.
Tovar. Pedro's little farm is nearby.
Pedro and his wife are the owners. His grandfather had built the two-story house and it was long ago paid for. His two teenage daughters, one had been Carlos’ student, also live here. Pedro showed us his 1.5-hectare farm. He was proud of his sweet-tasting peaches and strawberries, and nutritious potatoes. He and his family earned a decent living from this small farm. They had a jeep, two TVs, refrigerator, stove, washing machine—all the modern necessities. They ate some of their produce, including chickens and eggs, and sold the rest. They had enough money left over to buy a CD or DVD from time to time. True, they had no rent and all the residents in this municipality get their water and electricity free. The house was clean, and decorated with flowers from the garden. It looked so different from the eyesore, dirty house I stayed in.
The family supports Chávez, as do the majority in this area, despite their German heritage and being private farmers. How can one man, with family help at peak times, till 1½ hectares of land on a steep incline, keeping it clear of weeds, and earn enough for all they owned and not be in debt—while the two cooperatives I had visited were so far from nearing this accomplishment—is such a big question, that I can’t enlighten anymore than I have: discipline, dedication, sense of ownership responsibility.
Once at the welcoming arch-gated entrance of Colonia Tovar, and despite our tiredness, we three men of three generations dashed for the tavern selling its own brew, a lá Bavarian. Cool, light, distinguished taste. The tavern blended the cleanliness and order of Germany, the flowers and warmth of Venezuela. Unfortunately, we had only time for two of their local brew. After the day’s trek, we weren’t about to walk down the mountain. The last bus to town left at 16:00, so we had to rush.
(September 25, 2008)
Grass Roots Democracy
Participatory democracy: people actively organizing in the communities and attending meetings where local issues are discussed and solutions are proposed and voted on is a major element of the Bolivarian Revolution. By August 2007, 2.2 million citizens were organized in 25,000 community councils (CC).
In February 2008, community councils, their elected spokespersons and municipal officials engaged in lively meetings to evaluate progress and lay a course for the future. These meetings were followed by gatherings of two of the three largest and most important political parties backing this process: the new PSUV and Venezuela’s oldest, the Communist Party (PCV). I attended some of these events.
In Las Mercedes district, where I lived, nearly 100 members of five
CCs gathered at a local hall. A large majority were women, mostly 40
years old and over. They met to consolidate their social organizing
and take a position on a structural change proposal. Direct participation
had allowed each CC to take individual directions, but this was leading
to a bit of chaos: differences in how to use resources, what programs
took priority, which CC should house the local bank that distributes
the funds allocated for community councils. Most of these funds come
from the federal government, some from municipalities. These authorities
were proposing that the structure be changed to accommodate a bit of
centralization and control, which could lead to greater effectiveness.
I was surprised and impressed with how people openly complained about the failure of the municipal government to disseminate adequate information and provide basic training for community leadership and organizers, and about how people’s admiration for Chávez did not hinder several in objecting to the new proposal. A few rose in opposition to the mancomunidades’ proposal, which would bring several CCs inside an umbrella body that would work with authorities from ‘above’ the individual CCs, as some viewed this.
“There is nothing in the law under which community councils operate that mandates such a direction,” said one opponent. “On the contrary, it speaks of direct power, and resources going directly to each council. Some of the municipal advisors are saying things here that is not the law, nor what Chávez has said.”
Another man spoke sharply from the podium:
“We lack training. We lack information from our local leaders. Some do not know how to manage administratively, either our projects or the moneys allocated. Too many of us are still driven by egoism. We have to learn how to motivate our councils, the spokespersons and our neighbors.”
The issue of where the bank administering CC funds should be located led to a hefty debate. The majority wished to move it from the CC where it was, because that council was not active and there was suspicion that the funds were not well utilized. Representatives from one council said the money they should have received was not forthcoming.
Solutions to these matters would be decided upon at another round of meetings and after street debate.
That evening I attended a local PSUV meeting. The main topic was the current round of CC meetings and the issue of mancomunidades, the free association of municipalities. The general attitude among these one dozen members, mostly over 45 years old, was that “a small group tried to sabotage the assembly,” as the chairman characterized the protest. Not all were caught up in heavy-handed terminology and limited condemnations, and some saw the need to struggle internally to solve significant problems not being addressed by their local government. Among those was the lack of caring and adequate medical treatment at the local hospital, which was raised by a retired doctor who volunteers there.
After the meeting, five of us went to a café to imbibe national brews. They asked my opinion on a variety of issues, and what I saw as the number one problem within the revolutionary process. I hesitated to render conclusions after such a short period of observing, but they insisted. My spontaneous answer was: lack of follow through.
Everyone agreed. Example after example plopped on to the wobbly table. I presented one and asked their opinion about the cause. I recalled what a young taxi driver had told me. As a supporter of the Chávez government, Gabriel had applied to take a Francisco Miranda course in Cuba. The idea behind this mission is to create a civilian cadre, which would form a military reserve for defense. The volunteers were often sent to Cuba to acquire a political understanding of revolution and some discipline. So far about 3000 had participated. My driver told me that when he returned from three months “enjoying the generous hospitality of Cubans, not least that of women,” there was nothing to incorporate into, there was no follow up at home. What little he considered he had learned in the brother nation he had forgotten with disuse. Gabriel was so disgruntled he said he would not vote for Rosa León again, albeit mayors have nothing to do with this mission.
Yes, that was all too familiar, the PSUV activists replied. “Lack of infrastructure; most people look after self-interests; some generals don’t want an independent militia; too much talk – not enough action.”
I encountered the same problem with the voceros. At the weekly meeting for all spokespersons of the more than 100 CCs, 17 showed up. They spoke about problems in advancing some projects, about too many activists meeting late or abstaining, problems balancing family, a job and volunteer work. One of the agenda items was an invitation for me to hold a lecture-seminar about communication, how to better reach people in the neighborhoods.
Many spoke enthusiastically about the need for learning. I could also offer advice about a newsletter soon to be launched. Agreement was reached on a day’s session with lunch and a date was set. I prepared for this important initiative. I heard nothing in the week to come. The day before the event, I phoned the municipality’s paid coordinator of the voceros. Oh, he said evenly, no one arranged anything. He did not understand my disappointment and dismay at the frivolous manner of not fulfilling decisions.
Why is making a revolution so difficult?
Ah, imagine your neighbor Sarah. She gets her news from the national and international corporate media. She does what pleases her. If she doesn’t see the fun in doing something she doesn’t do anything. Yeah, we know a lot like her. It might even ring a bell inside. So, what does it take to have Sarah change into a person who wants to cooperate with many others, taking her time, using her energy to create something new, something great for everybody, if everybody works at it? Just what are the tools we need—mental and spiritual as well as physical and emotional ones—and how do we develop them? That is not so easy to conceive let alone practice and transform society in a few years, right?
Already, through the energy generated by the mass behind the committed leadership, wonders have been created. Alongside those I’ve portrayed earlier in these writings, is an essential and historical one. Vicente Vallenilla, the Venezuelan ambassador to Denmark, told me before I departed for his homeland:
“We say that what is happening now is real sovereignty, and for the first time in our history. We are taking our natural resources into our own hands. We are transforming from the sole objective of profit-making for a few to greater distribution of the wealth, commonly created, replacing the raw materialism of today with a more spiritual life tomorrow, one of sovereignty and independence, of wholeness in fellowship and, thus, happiness.”
(September 26, 2008)
FARC, Bush-Uribe, Correa, Chávez
Sunday, 2nd March, 2008, I turn on the President’s television
monologue-dialogue show, Aló Presidente. The nation’s leader
is a charming entertainer and communicator. He sometimes gives orders
to his staff on this weekly show, though rarely so dramatically as occurred
Chávez recounted phone conversations he had had during the night of March 1st with Ecuador President Rafael Correa, whose land had just been invaded by Colombian troops, pilots and police. Their objective was not Ecuador itself but an encampment of FARC guerrillas located two kilometers inside northern Ecuador.
Raúl Reyes, FARC’s second-in-command, and twenty-four other guerrillas were murdered, many in cold blood. Among those murdered was Olga Marin, Reyes companion and daughter of Manuel Marulanda, FARC’s founder and leader for 40 years. The guerrillas had not been able to resist, because they were asleep, later found in their underwear, when attacked by planes from the US base Manta in Ecuador, which dropped five ‘smart bombs,’ followed by helicopters flying in from the south of Colombia. Several of them were shot in cold blood directly in the back of the head or face as was the case with Reyes and Julián Conrado, the only cadavers taken to Colombia in a police helicopter. The other persons were found by Ecuadoran troops in the coming hours. Three wounded persons, who were able to hide, were found and they gave eye-witness testimony to their rescuers and to an OAS (Organization of American States) investigation team, which later came to the area. Among the dead and wounded were five Mexican students, who were not guerrillas.
President Chávez told the nation that Uribe had lied about the operation to Correa, whom he telephoned after its ‘success,’ as Uribe viewed the bloodbath.
“Uribe is a lying lackey of the US Empire, a mafioso, a criminal supporting para-militarist assassins and a narco-trafficker. He doesn’t want peace.”
(Uribe did nothing to aid the process of returning four captured Colombian congresspersons, which FARC had unilaterally released just two days before this horrible massacre.)
“Uribe operates in the style of Israel, converting Colombia into the key arm of US interests in Latin America just as Israel is in the Middle East.” “We won’t tolerate this and we must protect our borders against this satellite. Correa has broken diplomatic relations and moved troops to the border. Correa can count on us. Generals, send ten battalions with tanks and aircraft to our border with Colombia.”
In the upcoming investigations by Ecuador, Venezuela and OAS we learned that Operation Phoenix, as the Uribe-US plan was named, used technology not possessed by any Latin American country and which had disclosed where the Reyes group was hiding. Army and police units from Colombia cooperated with Ranger army units of the United States operating out of its Manta base. Manta had been used for eight years against Colombian peasants and their armed forces, FARC, as part of the billion-dollar-a-year ‘Plan Colombia’ extermination operation. At least 50,000 Colombians, mostly civilians, had been killed in Plan Colombia’s eight-year operation. And 300,000 had been forced to flee their homes into the welcoming arms of Venezuela. They live there with the same rights and benefits as citizens, just as do all three million Colombian immigrants.
President Correa declared that he will not renew the Manta contract at the end of 2008.
In these days, I witnessed intense concern in La Victoria about a possible war, a subject that embraced everyone across the nation. Just after Chávez’ announcement of cutting diplomatic relations with Colombia and sending troops to the border, I heard my next door neighbors yelling, “Who wants war? Chávez that’s who. It was Ecuador that Uribe violated not Venezuela. Then why mess in it?”
My neighbor across the Plaza Ricaurte Park told me, “I support Chávez 100%. I’m ready to die for the fatherland. But I’m tired, tired of the oligarchy, the corruption within the Chávez government, tired of all the waiting. I want it all to end. It’d be better to declare war and get it over with.”
This park contained many opinions. There were those who applauded Chávez’ action and hoped it would prevent Bush-Uribe from testing Venezuela’s will to defend its revolution by sending provocative bullets across the long border, not possible to close off entirely. Then there were the young men with fancy cars and motor cycles who could not care less about anything else. As one neighbor described them, “They play with life and wait for capitalism to return in full.”
Both Chávez and Correa had been patient, too patient many militant revolutionaries maintained, with Bush-Uribe provocations. Chávez reminded us of occasions when Colombian soldiers and para-militarists had been captured on Venezuelan soil. They were preparing sabotage and murder, hoping to start a war. Para-militarists sold drugs and pistols to young inane gangsters, hoping to destabilize the government. After some arrests and a short time in prison, Chávez had agreed with Uribe to return them to Colombia. Correa told the world that he had been patient with Uribe too. His troops have found several small FARC camps and turned them away. Colombian soldiers had crossed into Ecuador five times between February 2007 and January 2008. And now this massacre.
During this tense week, Uribe’s generals claimed they had found three computers among Reyes’ possessions. Miraculously, they were the only material left untouched by the ‘smart bombs,’ and they allegedly showed that Chávez had financed FARC with $30 million. They also claimed that Correa’s people were cooperating and trading with FARC. Correa answered that his emissaries, and Chávez’, were on the verge of accomplishing final negotiations for the number one held prisoner, Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt. Chávez had served as the principle international negotiator in two prisoner releases by FARC. These seven released prisoners, and Betancourt’s mother, all praised Chávez for his humanitarian efforts on television.
Meanwhile in Bogotá, the cadaver of Reyes was placed on public display. A newspaper photograph showed a boy hitting his hanging body with a bat while his father stood proudly behind him.
VEA newspaper ran a photograph of a Coca-Cola worker in Venezuela wearing a t-shirt with the words: Don’t Drink Coca-Cola. Although there is no grass roots boycott of Coca-Cola in Venezuela as in Colombia, India, USA, UK and other lands, there is general knowledge that Coca-Cola companies inside Colombia pay death squads to murder workers who try to organize union, struggling for decent conditions. In fact, Coca-Cola is on trial in Miami for doing just that: murder. Chiquita Banana had to pay a $25 million fine for hiring death squads to murder its workers in Colombia. No one went to prison, of course. And Bush-Uribe talk of democracy, accusing Chávez and Correa of financing and cooperating with FARC, which the Coca-Cola/Chiquita bosses and their politicians contend are ‘terrorists.’ The devil claims God is the devil.
It is an Alice in Wonderland world we live in!
Just as the Venezuelan troops had settled in at the border, Chávez ordered them home. A week had gone by since the massacre in Ecuador. OAS had met with relation to the conflict and so had the 20-nation member Rio Group. Even before OAS’ investigation was completed, these bodies expressed unanimous agreement that what Uribe did was wrong. They simply needed to read aloud what is written in all the agreements of these bodies, the United Nations and all other international agreements. It is unlawful for any nation to invade another without the agreement of international bodies, namely the UN or OAS, or if not acting in defense of an armed attack by forces of another government.
Uribe said he was sorry and wouldn’t do it again.
Chávez called this a great victory for all of Latin America and a great defeat for the US Empire. Fidel did the same in his reflection writings. Correa was a bit less optimistic and somewhat taken aback when he saw Chávez embrace the “lying, murderous, criminal…” and then call Uribe his ‘brother’ and ‘friend’ a week later.
As the media was proclaiming that calm had returned, another leader of FARC was murdered, this time by a compatriot hired by the Colombian army. Pablo Montova turned on his leader, Iván Rios, killing him and his female companion and then cutting off one of Rios’ hands, which he turned over to the army as proof of his ugly deed. He was to receive $2.6 million for these murders, and the security, according to him, that the army would not murder him and his female companion. Although the death penalty is legally prohibited in Colombia, the government fulfilled its promise of paying the hired killer.
This occurred at the same time that unionists in Colombia and progressives conducted a peaceful march in Bogotá. They sought an end to the internal war and the corrupt Uribe government. Dozens of Uribe’s staff and ministers, connected to narco cartels and para-militarists, had been condemned and even sentenced to prison by a sometimes independent attorney general and Supreme Court. Within three days of this march, three unionist leaders of the protest were murdered, and one had been tortured prior to death.
In the middle of March, Marulanda died of a heart attack. FARC did not announce this, however, for two months. Half of FARC’s seven-man leadership was now dead. It had lost several thousands of its 17-20,000 forces in the past year; some had deserted; hundreds were held in torture chambers called prisons—none of whom Uribe was willing to trade for FARC’s well treated prisoners.
This was not the moment to back away from FARC, but that is what Chávez, and then Fidel, did.
In a speech on April 12 Chávez called upon Marulanda (not then known to be dead) to unconditionally release all their 50 prisoners. In July, Chávez went further and told FARC to put down their weapons and rejoin legal political life. He had always pointed out before that this would not be possible because the government would murder them, just as it did in the 1980s, when 4000 of FARC’s people were murdered after they gave up their weapons and entered the political process. Just after this discouraging speech, Chávez met with Uribe in Caracas to discuss cooperation against drug-trafficking. Fidel added his most respected voice: turn over all your prisoners without conditions, but don’t turn over your weapons. Take France’s offer for refuge.
It is an Alice in Wonderland world we live in!
(September 27, 2008)
The feud between Uribe and Chávez plus Correa vacillated up and down over the next two and a half years. Towards the end of Uribe’s term, he accused Chávez of harboring FARC camps on Venezuelan soil. Chávez cut off diplomatic relations and trade, which caused Colombia great economic losses. With the election of Juan Manuel Santos, August 7, 2010, the new president chose a conciliatory tone despite the fact that he had been the defense minister when his army had intruded in Ecuador and killed 25 FARC guerrillas, including Raúl Reyes. Santos returned Reyes’ computer to Correa and stopped accusing Correa and Chávez of supporting FARC. Diplomatic and trade relations were reestablished. In fact, Chávez turned Joaquin Perez Becerra over to Santos. This was the man who was wanted by Colombia’s government for allegedly being FARC’s international communications leader in Europe. Perez was arrested at Caracas airport, April 22, 2011, when he landed. On May Day 2011, Chávez went so far as to tell his political allies not to collaborate with FARC, which, he said, should cease all military operations.
The Red Letter
On my way to town hall, I saw a grass roots organizer talking with Diego at the beginning of Hunger Street. He was explaining that he was tired of periodic failures to adequately fulfill the plan Casas de Alimentación, which provides a hot meal daily for homeless and other needy people. The federal government pays for this with oil profits but it is put into action by municipal governments. This organizer complained that some of the 100 to 150 homeless and most needy were not getting their meal or use of a shower and he was threatening to organize a protest.
In La Victoria, 20 houses are centers for this program. There are 6000 such houses in the country. Housewives volunteer their time and kitchens to make the lunches.
Another connected alimentation plan is in place in public school, currently feeding 60% of all students. Students and teachers eat nutritious meals together, which are prepared locally. Any leftovers are given out the same day to needy persons, including homeless. Diego had recently given me a leftover lunch from his lover’s school. It consisted of paella: chicken and rice, with olives and red peppers; beets and two pieces of bread. Sumptuous!
At town hall’s center, about 80 assembled to celebrate the Communist Party’s 77th anniversary. I read their “Red Letter” leaflet printed in red ink for the occasion.
It clearly supports the Chávez-led Bolivarian Revolution and warns that imperialism, the final phase of capitalism, threatens the revolution as it does all people’s struggle for improvement, for liberation and sovereignty. The leaflet is written in common language and speaks to people’s discontent with local governments backing Chávez, including La Victoria, for failure “to accomplish the expectations generated by its electors.”
The experienced Communist party also calls upon Chávez party forces to align with it in forming a National Anti-Imperialist Front (FNAI), thus broadening the struggle against US imperialism’s real threats from abroad and internally.
Oscar Figuera stood at the podium. Short mulatto with stubby black-gray beard, he is the party’s secretary-general and a deputy from Aragua State in the parliament, one of eight Communists elected in 2005. In the 2006 presidential elections, the PCV received nearly three percent of the national vote making it the nation’s fourth largest. It added its 342,000 votes to the Chávez Patriotic Alliance for a total of 7.3 million votes. All but 15 of the 167 National Assembly members support the Chávez-led process.
I quote from some of Figuera’s comments.
“Thousands of us Communists have shed our blood on this earth to make a better world, to create socialism. We stand beside President Chávez today…We support the PSUV and we don’t want any of them to leave it for our party, which we must maintain to guide us toward socialism. If PSUV socialists left the party, it would leave its right-wing with greater influence. But we want our parties, and other radical ones, to increase the strength of the Patriotic Alliance, and to join us in creating a massive FNAI.”
There was strong applause when Figuera spoke in support of FARC, which he said the PCV viewed as a legitimate force and a strategic ally.
“We don’t condemn the armed struggle as a form of struggle against a state that closes the democratic process.”
Chávez had ceased criticizing the PCV for not merging into the PSUV, which had been his position. The PSUV had recently rejoined the shaky Patriotic Alliance, which also included the Party for All (Partido Para Todos), a second generation split off from the PCV. But, in July 2008, once Chávez had called upon FARC to dissolve and inexplicably invited Uribe to Caracas as a friend, the PCV exercised its political principles by conducting street demonstrations against the narco-trafficking, para-militarist Uribe. Chávez rebuked the PCV for this, something many Chávez supporters considered ingenuous.
Terrorist Posada Carriles
When Figuera ended his speech, I spoke with Murillo Baez. At 73, he’d
been a member of the PCV for 47 years. He had witnessed an act of carnality
committed by Latin America’s most infamous terrorist, Luis Posada
“Yeah, Bambi Carriles, as we knew him. He was the worst,” the gray-haired black man drawled, remembering the living nightmare. “I read he’s still a terrorist running loose in Miami with the rest of them. And Bush says those who assist terrorists are terrorists!”
“It was in late 1960s. Carriles was a high official in Venezuela’s secret police, the dreaded DISIP. Another right-wing Cuban exile working with the CIA was DISIP chief for some years (Orlando García Vázquez). I don’t know if Leóni Otero or Caldera Rodríguez was president. It didn’t matter, really. They were all under the US government, and their secret police was run by the CIA with gusano agents (Cuban right-wing exiles).
“Our party was prohibited and many were in the mountains. I was the president of the local CTA union and was in our office in La Victoria when we heard the screams and shots. Some unionists and underground comrades were meeting up the block. Somebody must have tipped off the DISIP. Carriles led the murder of 10 people. Some were ripped up. One pregnant woman gave birth under the attack. They burned the baby with cigarette butts. We couldn’t do anything. We had no weapons and the secret police were well armed.”
As Baez and I spoke, Carriles was a free man walking the streets in Miami where he would soon be honored, on May 7th, by 500 fellow Cuban Americans. He had been released a year before from a Texas jail cell when a Bush-appointed federal judge dismissed the only charge against him—making false statements to immigration officials. He came to the United States illegally after being pardoned in Panama, in 2004, by Bush-friendly President Mireya Moscoso. He had been captured in 2000 and tried and sentenced for the attempted assassination of President Fidel Castro who was to deliver a speech to students in Panama. The Panama Supreme Court recently ruled that pardon unconstitutional. (1)
The United States Attorney General refuses to even answer Venezuela’s request for Carriles’ extradition, thus abrogating the mutually signed extradition treaty. Carriles is wanted as a fugitive from one of the worst acts of terrorism: the bombing of a Cuban airliner, October 6, 1976, in which all 73 passengers and crew were killed. It was the first political air terrorism ‘hit’ in the Americas. Released FBI archives show that Carriles had informed his Washington DC handler that an upcoming ‘hit’ would occur against a Cuban airliner. (2)
Luis Posada Carriles is good friends with the rich and powerful in Miami and with Florida’s governor, Jeb Bush. Among his most powerful associates is co-master mind of the 1976 bombing, Orlando Bosch, also a free man living in Miami. (3) Both had been imprisoned in Venezuela for their role in the airline bombing, but the CIA assisted their escape in the mid-1980s. Another powerful ally was former CIA agent Jorge Mas Canosa, now deceased. He became wealthy in related economic activity as a CIA agent.
After his part in the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, he founded the Cuban-American National Foundation. CANF helped finance many acts of terrorism both within the US and in Cuba. Among them were explosions at tourist hotels in Cuba and bombing plans against museums. Carriles bragged to the New York Times (July 12-13, 1998) about these acts of terrorism, in which one man was killed and 11 wounded. (4)
The Cuban Five
Cuba was concerned about this sabotage. Not only was it lethal, it injured their primary income. Leaders believed (strangely) that the FBI might be interested in cooperating to stop the terrorists in Miami. Over 300 acts of sabotage and assassinations had been committed inside the United States by these terrorist groups since 1959 when Cuban exiles began operating there. Cuba had experienced thousands of terrorist acts, which had killed more than 3000 of their people and seriously wounded nearly as many. To defend their country, Cuban intelligence agents had infiltrated these circles over many years.5 During the years 1990 to 1998, 170 planned acts of sabotage and assassinations had been prevented by these brave men and women, among whom were: Gerardo Hernández, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando González and René González. (5)
In June 1998, the FBI was invited to Havana where they were given copies
of Cuban intelligence documents in the hope that it would keep its promise
to put a stop to this terror. As Fidel later said, some of the material
given included, “14 phone conversations from Luis Posada Carriles
in which he provided information about terrorist attacks on Cuba. Information
was provided on how to locate Posada…”
The FBI did study the material and was able to ascertain how Cuba had acquired such valuable knowledge. On September 12, 1998, the FBI arrested a dozen Cuban agents who were informing Cuban authorities about plans of terrorism against it. Five of them (named above) were sent to isolation cells for 17 months and then sentenced on “conspiracy against national security” charges to a total of four life terms plus 75 years. The Cuban Five pointed out in defense that they had only monitored the actions of Miami-based terrorist groups, in order to prevent terrorism against their country.
The PCV participates in an expanding international campaign to free the Cuban Five while demanding that the US government honor its own extradition treaty with Venezuela and return the convicted terrorist/mass murderer Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela for completion of his prison term.
The Cuban Five are not terrorists, and their actions were never directed at the U.S. government; they never harmed anyone nor had weapons while in the United States. The only crime they committed was to operate as agents of a foreign government without having registered, for which one can be imprisoned for one to three years. They are still in prison ten years later simply because they acted to defend their homeland against US-backed terrorism.
(September 29, 2008)
Notes and References
1. See http://articles.latimes.com/2008/may/07/nation/na-posada7. On
April 18, 2011 Posada was acquitted for
lying to immigration authorities.
3. Bosch died a natural death, April 27, 2011, at age 84.
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luis_Posada_Carrles; http://www.bardachreports.com/posada_files.htm
5. See my book about twenty-seven of them: “Backfire: The CIA’s Biggest Burn,” published in 1991 by Editorial José
Martí, Havana, and also available on www.ronridenour.com.
Ocumare de la Costa
Diego insisted that I take a relaxing trip to a resort area for ordinary Venezuelans called Ocumare de la Costa before I leave. I must see and do something else other than politics. He’d accompany me on the bus.
Relaxing it wasn’t. The curves winding up a jungle mountain last for an hour as head and stomach sway. Some people can’t repress their breakfast from spewing over the bus floor. Although the distance from La Victoria is just 100 kilometers, it took four hours in two buses. It was worth the dizzy ride.
Ocumare de la Costa is at Cata Beach in Aragua state, one of hundreds of coastline beaches. Its name is derived from Ocumare which is a fine-flavored cocoa chocolate found at this mountainous coastal town.
Nothing fancy about the beaches or the small town of 10,000 inhabitants. The most talked about feature is the new therapeutic hospital with Cuban doctors. There are plenty of liquor stores, cafes serving beer, rum and fish, and lottery gambling stalls, which also sell bets on horse races. Profits go to government supported programs.
At one of the beachfront cafes, Diego asked around for a decent and inexpensive hotel for me. A local man guided us to Restaurant Los Nonnos, an Italian restaurant with a guest house. I was the only guest in this house spacious enough for eight persons. I had use of the kitchen and a good double bed.
Diego did not want to stay after our fish soup lunch. He did not care for swimming and he wanted to rejoin his lover for the weekend. So he returned and I went for a swim. The salt water felt good on my skin. I stayed inside the reef, which crossed parallel to the beach about four hundred meters out, stretching from large boulders spilled into the sea from the mountain range. Cata beach is thus enclosed. At peak times about 100 people were on the beach. Most are fearful of the small waves and do not bathe unless the water is calm. This is not a surfers’ beach nor is it an environmentalist haven. Trash lay everywhere despite several trash barrels placed about, which remain empty or nearly so.
I walked a kilometer down the beach, skirting trash, to La Boca. Here, at The Mouth, was fishermen’s turf. There were dozens of small two-man motor boats docked or returning from the day’s fishing. They didn’t bring in many fish but each boat had a share of some of the best tasting fish in the world: dorado, aguja, bonito, pargo. The golden dorado, which weigh from 10 to 20 kilos, and the smaller red snapper (pargo) are my favorite. There were no fancy restaurants but numerous beachfront cafes or even stands that served grilled fish and cold beer.
As the sun sat glowing red, I watched the last boat return with an unusual shark. It was two meters in length. No one knew its name but one man called it “pure water”, because once cut open most of its 40 kilos proved to be nothing but water.
In the evening, I drank beer on Cata beach and watched the women. They were not bashful but were not after a quick sexual encounter either. Women in this country are definitely independent, strong, feminists without hatred of men from what I saw here and in the three municipalities I explored and in three visits to Caracas. During the day, many walk on and near the beach in g-strings. Most women normally dress so that their breasts and thighs are high-lighted. But I got no sensation that their display of flesh is meant to entice men, but rather is an expression of liberty and for comfort in this sun-baked land.
The next day, the water was calm and came above the reef line. I knew it was risky but I dared myself to swim over it. Remember the dare devil boy-wants-to-be man syndrome in our youth? I haven’t quite gotten over that even when alone with no one to impress about how manly I am. Maybe I do this because I don’t want to be encumbered. The open sea was most inviting, and I had my snorkel and mask, so maybe I could see some large fish.
I floated cautiously over the sharp-pointed reef, about three to four meters wide and into freedom. The feeling that I can do it propels me more than common sense. After a fruitless search for fish, yet having showed myself “I can still do it at my age” I turned back toward the beach. Though the current was not strong I had neglected to take into account that ebb and flow directions make a difference. As I approached the reef the current pushed me forward. I could not control my body entirely. As I lay flat above the reef, the inward current forced my legs downward. I could only mange to resist with one, the other foot scraped upon a reef. I ignored whatever damage may have been caused and swam to the beach with decreasing lung capacity.
Once upon the sand, I saw blood running from the gash alongside my big toe. I collected my shirt and short pants and hobbled up the beach to a police station, which fortunately was no more than a couple hundred meters away. A policewoman gave me toilet paper to hold over my bleeding foot. She asked for identification but I had left it at the hotel. I had only a few bolívars in my pocket. She and another policeman drove me the 10 kilometers to the Ocumare town emergency clinic. The hospital did not treat wounds.
I hobbled into the clinic as the police watched ready to help, if needed, while respectful of the do-it-yourself life approach whenever possible. There were a handful of patients but no waiting line. A nurse immediately guided me into a treatment room and the police departed. In the ensuing half an hour, three nurses and a doctor—all Venezuelan women—looked in on me. My foot was washed and I was given an anesthesia prior to being stitched. They all asked what had happened to my foot. Nurses, and the doctor, Dalia, about 55 years old, laughed as I explained my discovery that ocean waves and currents are stronger than my macho attitude.
Despite the anesthesia, it was still painful as Dalia sewed eight stitches through five centimeters of skin tightened over foot bone. They gave me another shot and asked me to sing. I am a terrible singer and know no songs, but I managed to recall from my teenage years in Brazil a couple verses of a song about cachaza (sugar cane pure brandy).
The medical workers appreciated my self-critique and humor. I appreciated their skill and affectionate care. After I was bandaged, the doctor had to fill out a brief form. It did not matter that I had no ID. Dalia just wrote down my name, age, the nature of injury and treatment. She wrote out a prescription against infection and swelling, and then told me:
“I love this revolution. I am a Colombian forced to flee 35 years ago. These past nine years have been most wonderful. Never before has a president cared for his people as does Chávez. He is almost too good,” she said, adding that his big heart causes some people to enshroud themselves in a sense of worthlessness.
There was no fee, not even for foreigners, and no papers for me to fill out. I later asked at a La Victoria private clinic what this would have cost: at least 100BF, I was told. Asked why people still came for private treatment when government health care was free, the receptionist replied, “Oh, our services are better, and we are quicker. The government hospitals and clinics are not as good as private ones and they are all full.”
It was only two hundred meters from the Ocumare clinic to the pharmacy where I paid 6BF, less than $3, for the pills. Within a few minutes, I caught a taxi back to the beach town where I sat at a café table on the sand and ate the day’s catch—dorado—and drank my name. Ron in Spanish means rum.
As I watched the sun set, I felt content and wiser. Through this accident, one I had unnecessarily caused, I learned first hand how well the new health care system functions. The emergency service clinics, and the 2,700 community health centers constructed in five years, part of the Barrio Adentro Misión (Inside the Barrio Mission), has profoundly improved the health and welfare of more than half the nation not previously covered by medical care. Three thousand more health centers are under construction, according to the ministry’s August 2008 figures. True, many of the old hospitals have deteriorated and there is no uniformly accessible, excellent health care everywhere; but how can the right-wing make this an issue against the current government for they did nothing for people’s health care when they ruled Venezuela.
Two days later, I splurged on a taxi to the airport, about a two-hour ride from La Victoria, depending on the traffic. The night before, I’d bid my new friends farewell. Over the course of my stay here they had all warned me about watching my back and my wallet. Maybe I was lucky, maybe careful enough, but I was never attacked or robbed, and no one had short-changed me in the entire time.
The airport was packed, five long lines waited to pass through the first check-in. In all, our baggage was checked three times, and our persons once or twice. There were the civilian airline checkers, the customs, and the National Guard specializing in drug detection. When my flight was called and my ticket checked, I was asked to stand aside. Eventually, three young women from three countries were also standing aside. We were escorted outside near the aircraft where National Guardsmen opened our bags in our presence. We were politely told that the cameras and scanners cannot always see everything in the bags so they make personal checks for drugs.
“We haven’t found anything today in this type of check. But yesterday, we confiscated 10 suitcases of cocaine destined for Mexico,” a young guardsman told me.
“You know,” he continued, “we confiscate and capture thousands of kilos every year and burn them—mostly cocaine, but also some heroin and marijuana. I wonder what President Bush would think, if he knew how hard we work at stopping drug trafficking, almost all of which originates in Colombia, not in our country.”
Drug free, we were boarding the plane, but not before we were patted down at the entrance. Fortunately, I had put Diego’s advice into practice. I would not buy a commercial deodorant with which to swathe my armpits but I did apply a blend of lime juice and sodium carbonate, something Diego’s mother used long ago. So I did not offend the nostrils of the guards when I raised my left arm, clenched my fist, and shouted the new sound of Venezuela: No volverán, the Empire and Oligarchy will not return.
(September 30, 2008)
The Ultimate Contradiction of the Revolution
The narrative Ron Ridenour has woven here in these pages provides a glimpse of the Venezuelan reality, which exposes not only the significance of the Bolivarian revolutionary processes, but also its contradictions.
Obviously, these contradictions are the source of much anxiety among the friends of the Bolivarian revolution throughout the globe. But is it not true that a revolution is as much about hope as it is about apprehensions and dangers? A revolution is always unsettling. You cannot ever pronounce the final judgement about the event called revolution. That is why what famous Marxist historian George Rudé said about the French Revolution is true for all revolutions – the "Revolution remains an ever-open field of enquiry."
Nothing remains settled in the revolutionary process—otherwise how can it be called a revolution? We need to understand that this process is constituted by conflicts among various ever-new possibilities that emerge at every moment therein. Ideological struggles are nothing but representations of these conflicts; in a more political programmatic language, these possibilities constitute the various lines within the revolutionary movement. These conflicts are what determine the course of the revolution.
To be more specific, there is always an impulse internal to the revolutionary process that seeks to control or limit the pace and extent of the revolution—to make things settled. It can have a positive implication to the extent that it compels the revolutionaries to be conscious of the course of the revolution and to be vigilant enough to differentiate between the forces of reaction and revolution that are internally germinating. The 'faces' of these forces do not remain the same—what seems revolutionary at one moment might dawn as reactionary at another. The conservative impulse we are talking about lies somewhere in the interstices of the moments of movement and consolidation, trying to break the simultaneity of these moments. When it is able to break this simultaneity, it morphs into a Thermidorian form with the apparent task of consolidating the revolutionary achievements, and protecting them from the enemies. This Thermidorian power externalises all problems of revolution—it tries to cleanse off the revolution of these problems so thoroughly that what emerges out of this deadly bath is a revolution sans revolution—sanitised of all contradictions.
The formalisation or institutionalisation of the achievements cannot be avoided. However, this is what gives birth to a new status quo, which tries to guard itself against revolutionary impermanence. It is a conflict like this that could be understood as a two-line struggle—between the emerging headquarters and the forces of continuous revolution. This struggle is in fact the revolutionary truth which cannot be avoided. No moment in the revolutionary movement is devoid of the forces of conservation, which have the potentiality of turning into a full-scale centrism or even reaction depending on the balance of class forces.
With regard to the revolutionary processes in Venezuela, it has been regularly emphasised that "the ultimate contradiction of the (Bolivarian) revolution" is the struggle internal to Chavism—"between the 'endogenous right' and the masses who have been mobilised." Chávez himself frequently describes the Venezuelan reality in Gramscian terms—"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born."
However, as Gramsci said, in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear—which appear in Venezuela (alongside the continued existence of the old oligarchy, latifundistas, monopoly capitalists and US imperialism) in the form of the new "boli-bourgeoisie", the military-civil bureaucracy, and "the party functionaries and nomenklatura" who seek to thwart the class and mass initiatives from below. These are the material forces, which with their dispassionate mannerisms try to conserve a pragmatic and 'realistic' Bolivarian future against the erratic spontaneism of grassroots initiatives. These are the Bolivarian headquarters.
The emergence of headquarters in a revolution is linked with the question of state, state power and hegemony. During a revolutionary period the state returns to its elements – it emerges as a naked instrument of suppression – of holding down adversaries. The proletarian dictatorship too will not allow its enemies to have a free play. Revolution is a period when class struggles begin to explode the barriers of the existing state order and point beyond them. On the one hand, there are "struggles for state power; on the other, the state itself is simultaneously forced to participate openly in them. There is not only a struggle against the state; the state itself is exposed as a weapon of class struggle, as one of the most important instruments for the maintenance of class rule."
The global division of labour and the US hegemony reduced the Venezuelan economy to mere accumulation of oil rents, thus making proximity to the state the only viable route to economic success. In such an economy, the statist tendencies are bound to be very strong and entrenched in every layer of society. To complicate the matter, revolutionaries in Venezuela found themselves at the helm of the bourgeois state by following its rules, not by any insurrection. In such a situation, reformist tendencies will definitely be stronger among the ranks of the Bolivarians, who find revolutionary measures futile and even adventurist. These tendencies did suffer a temporary setback during the attempted coup of 2002, but as time elapses the cautious self-critical forces begin to find safe-play, gradualism and tactical compromises essential to consolidate power and achievements and to pre-empt any such drastic attack by counter-revolutionaries in future.
The left Chavistas, on the other hand, stress on the task of smashing the bourgeois state from within while positing a new state from below based on co-management of social and economic life. Like the ‘endogenous right’ they understand the need to consolidate, but for them consolidation is not separate from the destruction of the existing state form. Like Russian revolutionaries, they emphasise the development and independence of the working classes and their organs of self-activity, because only in this way can the workers protect their state, while protecting themselves from it! The defeat of the 2002 coup also demonstrates the impact of unleashing of popular energy and self-activity and what they could achieve. Moreover, unlike in Russia, the state in Venezuela remains a bourgeois parliamentary state, which is alienated from the everyday life of the revolutionary masses.
Among several valuable insights that Ron Ridenour's text provides regarding the nature of contradictions that pervade the revolutionary transition in Venezuela, there is an important point on the Venezuelan state's approach to the struggles of the Colombian guerrillas, the FARC.
Ridenour hints at the vacillation in this approach. However, such anomalies are numerous, especially when it comes to international relations. Throughout the globe, post-1998 developments in Latin America have been watched very intently, with a lot of hope and expectation. The consistent defiance of US hegemony by the Chávez regime has been a source of inspiration for various progressive movements everywhere. At least with regard to its position on the American manoeuvrings globally, nobody can fault the Venezuelan state – it never wasted any time to decry the imperialist interventions anywhere in the world.
But this has led to a genuine rise of expectations for the support from progressive Latin American regimes (if not materially, at least through statements) for local movements against their particular oppressive states, even when there is no direct western backing to these states. In recent years, with many states lining up in defining their own 'war against terrorism' to crush local critical voices and movements against them, the stance of the Venezuelan and Cuban states has been not very supportive of the oppressed. In fact, any official voice from the West critical of the local states has many a times provoked statements from the progressive Latin American regimes supportive of the southern states like Iran, Libya, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka even when they are highly oppressive. This has greatly frustrated the solidarity movements—some even going to the extent of calling the Latin American revolutionary processes ephemeral.
However, one must understand that the revolutionary process is not linear and smooth. It is not something homogeneous, and its targets are not just external. The intensification of revolution is the heightening of contradictions that constitute it. In fact, these constitutive contradictions internalise the so-called external elements—'alien' class interests, the vestiges of old regimes, etc. Any attempt to avoid contradictions is a conservative attempt from the 'endogenous right' to homogenise the revolutionary voices behind the new institutions, alienating them from their organic roots in class struggle, thus giving birth to new bureaucracies – the agencies of the new order. It is the 'endogeneity' of this tendency that forces the revolutionary leadership to reassess the coordinates of the contradictions time and again. A fine discrimination of these coordinates in the revolutionary process gives an insight into the apparent anomalies. It was not for nothing that the 20th century revolutionaries time and again stressed the need to differentiate between the state (which even well into the first phase of communist society safeguards the bourgeois law) and the revolutionary masses. An understanding of this aspect is crucial in order to comprehend the problems and prospects of policy designs under a revolutionary regime, including its foreign policy and international relations.
It must be noted that revolutionary internationalism of the working class is an important weapon by which a revolution generalises itself, resists its degeneration into nationalist statism, not allowing the ‘revolutionary passion’ to die out. But it is not simply a subjective aspiration to generalise that gives birth to internationalism. Rather, it "is a necessity arising out of the fact that the capitalist class, which rules over the workers, does not limit its rule to one country." Thus, internationalism is a result of the class struggle going global – it is an endeavour to thwart the capitalist strategy of intensifying capitalist accumulation by segmenting the working class and its consciousness. It is in this regard, that a revolution itself can be termed as international both at the levels of its causes and impact. It represents a crisis for the capitalist system.
Solidarity efforts in support of the revolution beyond the immediate location of its occurrence, along with 'indigenous' revolutionaries' support for the movements beyond their location are crucial even for the survival of the revolution as a revolution. It can survive as such only by constantly asserting its international character, its inseparability from international class struggle. Otherwise, it will implode or be reduced to a mere regime change.
It is interesting to see how revolutionaries have time and again talked about a revolution's foreign policy, not just of the state. And that has been assessed by the revolution's galvanising effect on the struggles of the working class and the oppressed in other locations. While criticising the foreign policy of the Provisional Government (that emerged after the February Revolution of 1917) for conducting it with the capitalists, Lenin remarked:
Yet 1905 showed what the Russian revolution’s foreign policy should be like. It is an indisputable fact that October 17, 1905, was followed by mass unrest and barricade-building in the streets of Vienna and Prague. After 1905 came 1908 in Turkey, 1909 in Persia and 1910 in China. If, instead of compromising with the capitalists, you call on the truly revolutionary democrats, the working class, the oppressed, you will have as allies the oppressed classes instead of the oppressors, and the nationalities which are now being rent to pieces instead of the nationalities in which the oppressing classes now temporarily predominate.
It is in this regard that many struggling peoples across the globe find the foreign policies of the progressive regimes in Latin America wanting. Especially, Cuba and Venezuela, the countries which are in the leadership of the anti-imperialist realignment in the Post-Cold War era, have been criticised for not standing against the oppressive regimes of the Global South. They have been chastised for their frequent open support to these regimes, whenever they are attacked by the so-called international community.
The genuineness of these criticisms can hardly be questioned, however, they must go further and explain these stances in terms of their material foundation, rather than locating them in some sort of ideological and personality-oriented tendencies as many have done, who reduce the Chávez phenomenon to populist demagoguery and the Cuban regime to Stalinism. The existential anxiety of these regimes in the face of a strong imperialist unity against them is definitely one reason that must be considered. This makes them wary of any interventionist strategy on the part of the 'international community' against any regime. Further, the existentialist need to have an oppositional bloc in the international forums puts them in the company of strange allies.
However, we will have to make a fine distinction between the revolutionary process itself and the institutions, states and individuals that come up during this process. We cannot reduce the revolutions to their particular passing moments. We will have to recognise and accept that these revolutions are marked by intense internal contradictions, whose astute descriptions we find in Ridenour's travelogue. The states in themselves have a conservative agenda, even when they are deeply embedded in the revolutionary process. They have the task to defend what has been achieved, and in mounting this defence they frequently fail to differentiate between the actual enemies of the revolution and the revolutionaries who are aware of the dilemma, of which Rosa Luxemburg talked about:
"Either the revolution must advance at a rapid, stormy, resolute tempo, break down all barriers with an iron hand and place its goals ever farther ahead, or it is quite soon thrown backward behind its feeble point of departure and suppressed by counter-revolution. To stand still, to mark time on one spot, to be contented with the first goal it happens to reach, is never possible in revolution."
Pratyush Chandra New Delhi
1. George Rudé, Revolutionary Europe 1783-1815. Fontana/Collins,
2. Michael Lebowitz, "The Spectre of Socialism for the 21st Century." 2008.
3. Georg Lukacs, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, Verso, 1970.
4. V.I. Lenin, "Draft and Explanation of a Programme for the Social-Democratic Party" (1895-96), Collected Works, Vol. 2, p. 109.
5. V.I. Lenin, Speeches at "First All Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies" (June-July 1917), Collected Works Vol 25.
6. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution (1918). Available at www.marxists.org.
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