The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Venezuela: Arrival

First in a series

Tomas Gorman • 12 May 2005

My arrival in Caracas came off the back of a hectic week travelling around the Basque Country and Catalonia so the intense heat here compounded the burden of my heavy backpack. Walking through the airport, I notice a sign that translates as, "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, now for all." I came to Venezuela intrigued by the reports I had been reading of the "Revolutionary Process" that the left in Ireland and Britain had been debating about.

Some argue that Chavez's radical programmes aimed at alleviating the poverty suffered in this oil rich country fall far short of revolution given the huge wealth gap that still exists since his coming to power. Others argue that one must look to what came before Chavez to appreciate the radical nature of his policies.

Since coming to power in 1998, Chavez began to slowly deconstruct the corrupt political system that served the selfish purposes of the mega-rich minority. He instigated a nationwide consultation with the poor population of Venezuela that gave birth to a new Constitution that enshrined the right of poor in the country to a more dignified existence.

He sacked the corrupt executives of the National Oil Company that oversaw the annual "disappearing" of $40 Billion per year of oil revenue.

Having recaptured this huge amount of national revenue, he began spending it on a number of "misiones" or programs aimed at alleviating the deprivation suffered by the majority of the country's population. Most notable amongst these programmes are the free medical programmes in which oil is exchanged with Cuba for medical practitioners who operate out of specially built clinics in the country's poorest districts. Free education programmes at all levels have seen schools in the poorest area open to almost eradicate once widespread illiteracy in only a few years.

New land reform legislation that allows the Government to seize land that has not been productive for a long time has been passed. 80% of the country's land is owned by approximately 15% of the wealthy elite. On top of that, there is further legislation that makes easier for small farmers and cooperatives to access grants and credits to develop the agricultural production of the country. It is incredible to think that this fertile land with vast plains imported 80% of its food before Chavez's reforms. This is now changing. National food production is on the up and is helped along by a new chain of nationalised supermarkets that offer staples grown in Venezuela at cheap rates to the country's poor.

These along with countless other initiatives have paved the way for the true revolutionary aspect of Venezuela's recent history, the revolutionary change in the consciousness of the country's poor.

All of Chavez's programmes have awakened a sense of pride and dignity in the Venezuelan people that had been suppressed by the oppressive neo-liberal puppets of the USA that had come before. People are taking a more active role in their affairs. Poor inner city areas are heaving with community organisation similar to that witnessed in the past in the Bogside of Derry and Ballymurphy in Belfast. Fierce community pride reinforced with a deep suspicion of parliamentary politicians is pushing the people to create a dignified and promising future for themselves and their children. Aided with assistance in the form of educational and medical resources supplied by the national government, the Venezuelan people are at the baby steps stage to a truly democratic and grassroots socialist society.

The picture is not entirely rosy. There remains a huge reactionary presence in the country's civil service and government structures. Despite the Chavez government's sincere commitment to radical social change, there are those who wish to destroy the process totally, as well as those claiming to be for the process but frightened by the mass organisation and self-sufficiency being shown by the people in the poor "barrios". This has lead to tensions and conflict between the people and the conservatives within the revolutionary government- the revolution within the revolution as it has been called.

The Juan Batista Alberdi School in a poor barrio in western Caracas lay in near dereliction due to a lack of investment from the anti-Chavez mayoralty and was run by anti-Chavez teachers who joined in the "national strike" organised by the rich elite aimed at ousting Chavez. The people of the community responded with a counter-strike and ousted the teachers. The local community then organised and embarked on a renovation of the school so that it could serve to educate all in the area, children and adults alike. A democratically elected and administrative staff and teachers for the school was put in place and the school has expanded its alumni and curriculum since. It was a huge achievement; all of the labour and academic help was totally unfunded for the initial few years and is a credit to the community.

The children are responding well to the community approach to their education. There is a somewhat relaxed atmosphere in the school with no real atmosphere of austerity and discipline. The children love their teachers and openly display affection to them. Gabby, a voluntary teacher at the school, was greeted with hugs and kisses by laughing and smiling children when she guided me through school to show me where I will be working.

The Alberdi School is where I have volunteered to, in a small way, participate in the revolutionary process here in Venezuela, which, despite the dogmatic ramblings of those who profess the contrary, is taking place directly where revolutions do - on the very streets of the poorest areas of Venezuela. I have committed myself to basic English lessons for the primary school age classes and hope in return that the kids can improve my awful Spanish. After I finish my classes, I will then volunteer the rest of my day to help out the volunteer caretaker staff with the many logistical tasks required in running a school.

The work is the least I can do for the people in the Manicomio area where the school is situated. I have been received here like a local and been afforded lunches, dinners, and endless hospitality in many houses. I stress however the term, "like a local." There has been no exception made for me. This sense of community and sharing is the norm here and whilst my efforts are welcomed, I am just another helper in their efforts to improve their existence and I am grateful for that.

On my first full day here in Caracas I was invited to Oscar's house for a tasty breakfast of "arepas" (a bread dumpling made from corn flour), cheese, and coffee. After breakfast, a friend and "good comrade" called Luis and the three of us sat and drank coffee. I struggled to understand as Oscar and Luis sat and discussed the local community issues vigorously. Two men armed with the knowledge that they were affecting the affairs and changing things for the better for themselves and their community. It reminded me of the times I sat listening to my father and his friends discussing community and political issues at home in the mid-eighties. I was a child then and did not quite grasp the nuances of the politics they discussed but I sensed the feeling of community and popular struggle. Sitting with Oscar and Luis I sensed the same powerful feelings and longed for them to return to Belfast.


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

15 May 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

'The SDLP Hasn't Gone Away, You Know'
Tom Luby

Facing Fire
Anthony McIntyre

Venezuela: Arrival
Tomas Gorman

Fred A. Wilcox

Support IRELAND and PALESTINE on June 4th
Mags Glennon

11 May 2005

Always the Centre Ground
Anthony McIntyre

Those Voting Outside the Box are the Overall Winners
Sean Mc Aughey

Voting Respect
John Devine

Stand Down or Deliver
Paul A Fitzsimmons

Testing Free Speech in America
M. Shahid Alam

Whither Disorder?
Colin Kalmbacher



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