Dispatch from Venezuela: The Threat of Hope

Right outside of the subway stop in the barrio (neighborhood) called El 23 de Enero, the hillside is covered with brick houses built on land which was initially private property "taken" by the people that now live on it. With the new government, a lot of the "squatters" have been given titles to their land and houses so that now they are the owners and can sell the space, build onto it, or rent it out. Neighborhoods like this cling to the hillsides around the city, in a vast waterfall of tin roofs, orange bricks and cement. Steep alleyways and stairs weave through these areas. Jutting out of the barrios are gigantic rectangular apartment buildings from the 1960s that have laundry hanging out the window and waving in the wind. Hugo Chavez and the new Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela receives most of its support and participants from areas like this.

El 23 de Enero is well known for its militancy under previous administrations. Guerrillas were part of a Tupamaro group that were involved in an armed struggle against the police, who according to occupants of the neighborhood, would regularly round up "dissidents," imprison and torture them. One of the main jails/torture centers that was utilized by the police in the barrio is now home to a new community radio station.

April (mi companera) and I conducted a nice long interview with one of the main organizers of the radio, which we’ll be transcribing and writing more about later. But I’ll summarize what I can from memory about what he said: they received approval from the mayor of the city to take over the jail and transform it into a radio and community center. However, the police were reluctant to leave and kept postponing their departure which was expected after their long history of abusing power. Eventually, the locals occupied the building and said they weren’t going to leave until the police were gone. It worked. When we visited they were cleaning the building, reconstructing rooms, bathrooms, offices and so on. The radio now is about four months old and will be run in a similar fashion to other community radio stations in the country.

Besides hearing this incredible story about transforming a symbol of repression and fear into one of hope and empowerment, we had a great conversation with Gustavo Borges, the editor of www.el23.net. Gustavo’s son does the design for the site and Gustavo writes for it and takes pictures, along with other writers. I’ll write more about our conversations with Gustavo, his thoughts on Venezuelan media and politics in a longer article later, but for now I’ll just list some of the things he said about the new political process in Venezuela:

"What’s going on in Venezuela now is not a full out revolution, it’s a partial one. Chavez keeps the country at peace by not making radical changes; he maintains two parallel worlds [the revolutionary one, and the capitalist one]. He has created programs right next to what exists, to maintain peace. He’s done things very well so that blood won’t run. The work we’re doing now is for our children, for the future."

His website is incredible. The design looks beautiful, and the idea behind the project is very unique and important. Gustavo focuses only on his barrio, El 23 de Enero in part because he believes it’s a microcosm of what’s going on all over Venezuela. The local news is also a part of the political revolution that’s going on here that is often overlooked by mainstream media. The press will cite the numbers of people that have learned to write because of the government’s missiones, or the number of new houses which have been built etc. But one of the things Gustavo has done with this site is present the stories behind these programs, who the people are serving the food and teaching the classes and reporting on where the government and the people need to pick up the slack. More on this later, for now – check out the site: www.el23.net. (He said it crashed today, but hopefully it’s back up. For those who don’t speak Spanish, Gustavo said the English version of the site will be launched soon.)

The 6th World Social Forum is just now getting underway. We’ve spent most of our time visiting the barrios, (in Caracas, the word barrio usually mean poor neighborhoods/slum) where a lot of the government programs are located. Some of the programs include government subsidized markets with basic food, computer salons, health clinics, schools, literacy and occupational classes, radios and more.

One lesson I’ve re-learned is that even just one day in a country can teach you more than a year of reading about it. For example, I had been here last year for awhile but had forgotten about the intricacies of public opinion in the country. For some reason I had begun to imagine the majority of Chavez supporters to be in lock step behind the revolution. But it’s not that way at all. Yes, there is a lot of hope, participation and momentum, but there are criticisms, and space for criticizing the government. At the same time, there exists two parallel realities (among others) here. One is of the citizen who whole-heartedly embraces the new political process, and who, although has criticisms, sees it as a new hope for future generations and is plunging into it night and day, fully participating. She/he sees the government sponsored programs as working well and sees the elections in which Chavez has been re-elected various times as clean and legit.

Then there is the anti-Chavista who believes none of the government programs are working at all, all the elections were fraudulent and that Chavez is trying to turn the country into a new Soviet Union. (This is a big simplification of this divide, and is something I’ll expand on later.)

A physical manifestation of these two opposing views could be found in the contrast between the expensive apartments, rising high in the sky, surrounded by gates with electric wires on it and inhabited by rich Venezuelans who drive SUVs and are generally (from what I’ve gathered) anti-Chavista. Then, beside these high rises are the poorer neighborhoods where the majority of the population lives, and where the Bolivarian Revolution gets most of its momentum.

Those that are participating in this new political process are part of the leftist shift in Latin America which Naomi Klein has referred to as the "threat of hope." This hope is threatening corporate globalization and US hegemony. In Venezuela, this hope is very tangible. You can hear it in people’s voices, in how they describe what’s going on here now. They haven’t created a utopia – yet – but many believe they’re on their way.