As the Global Exchange tour bus makes its way out of Caracas, our Venezuelan guide explains that what we are passing—an extensive array of makeshift dwellings on both sides of the highway—is the largest shantytown in Latin America, rivaled only by the slums of Rio De Janeiro.
I compare what I see to shanties I have seen outside of Johannesburg, noting that the South African dwellings are on relatively flat terrain, while the Caracas suburbs are on steep hillsides. My suspicion that they would offer stunning views of the kind that inflate real estate prices in the United States is confirmed later in the trip when we are taken to witness up close an effort of the Government of Hugo Chavez to raze shanties and replace them with “living quarters worthy of human habitation.”
I was one of several Cal State East Bay professors who, together with a handful of Bay Area architects and city planners, constituted the core of the tour group. It was an exciting opportunity to view a social movement in progress dubbed “The Bolivarian Revolution,” and critically discuss what we saw, from the diverse perspectives of group members.
The Child of the Sixties was resurrected in me as I revisited lessons learned as a participant in the Black Freedom Movement. I was particularly struck by the high level of consciousness displayed by persons we encountered; consciousness of participating in a revolution aimed at transforming the lives of the poor.
Participatory democracy, and the idea that Chavez is the symbolic leader of a movement directed by the collective will of the people were recurring themes of presentations by leaders of cooperatives and economic missions. While Venezuela still has a long way to go on the road to being a perfect society, I saw a number of welcome indications that democracy is valued and freedom of expression is not only tolerated but vibrant.
One of the first indications of freedom of speech that we witnessed was in Caracas at a housing cooperative in which our guide and his mother reside. The mother responded candidly and at length to a member of our group who asked what she thought of Chavez. She said, in essence, that he talks a good game, but does not follow through with action.
The president of the housing cooperative made the first of several expressions of the view that Chavez is a symbol of a pervasive people’s movement. In the discussion that followed we were told how the cooperative runs the housing development with funds provided by the central government, which, thanks to an ample stream of oil revenue, seem to be endless. We frequently heard bureaucracy and bureaucrats blamed for failures of promised resources to materialize.
Although our guide by his own admission is not a follower of Chavez, our itinerary featured projects, programs and spokespersons of the Bolivarian Revolution. We also had opportunities to interact with representatives of the opposition and hear their point of view. A common criticism of the proliferation of cooperatives was the claim that opportunistic individuals and groups were gaining funding for cooperatives, which they proceeded to operate as individual enterprises.
One indication of the strength of the opposition was seen in spontaneous expressions of outrage towards Chavez’ presidency from persons encountered in a public park in an upscale section of Caracas. A frequently expressed complaint concerned a list allegedly maintained by the Chavez regime of participants in an opposition-led general strike, used to block listed persons from appointment to government jobs. Their anti-Chavez feelings were openly and energetically voiced.
We got a sense of the nature of the organized anti-Chavez movement from a representative of the opposition political party, who espoused a clearly capitalist ideology. She was highly critical of BanMujer, a government funded banking cooperative that boasts of its success in empowering poor women financially, claiming that it had mismanaged funds and fallen into bankruptcy. She lambasted poor Venezuelans for their lack the financial knowledge and personal initiative, insisting that government loans extended to help them buy homes or establish cooperatives were a waste of precious resources.
The bus eventually took us to Barlovento, center of the Afro-Venezuelan Network. The poverty of the region was starkly brought to our attention by, among other things, the fact that the hotel where we stayed turned off the water pump from six o’clock in the evening until early the next morning. We got used to taking cold showers, unless it was late enough in the day for the outside air to heat the pipes through which the water flowed. Some of the signs of change we saw were community colleges training teachers and nurses to work in rural communities, health clinics with second story apartments in which Cuban physicians resided, and cooperatives to process raw cacao, traditionally raised there, into candy and other products.
We were treated to cultural performances of drumming, dance, storytelling and song reminiscent of common elements of populations of African descent in diverse locations: polyrhythmic cadences, call and response, and artistic lyrics replete with earthy language. While we saw many planned cultural performances, one of the most memorable was a funeral procession strikingly similar to the New Orleans “Second Line” tradition that happened to cross our path one morning.
Four men carrying the coffin of the deceased on their shoulders would ritualistically move two steps forward and one step back to the tune of a jazz dirge by brass and woodwind players. We were told that the pallbearers’ movements represented the indecision of the deceased to leave the present world and move on to the next. We didn’t see the internment, but I would not have been surprised to hear it followed by an up-tempo version of “When the Saints go Marching In.”
Afro-Venezuelan leader Luis Perdomo explained how efforts to reawaken pride in and appreciation of their cultural traditions served to build a network that eventually seeks to improve the socioeconomic plight of Afro-Venezuelans and call attention to a racism of which the larger society is in denial. One indication of the depth of that denial is the fact that although the Venezuelan constitution provides explicit recognition of women and indigenous peoples, efforts are still under way to incorporate explicit recognition of persons of African descent.
The denial of racism, not only in Venezuela but throughout Latin America takes many forms, including the claim that Negrito and Negrita are used as terms of endearment by all segments of society, and by calling attention to the commonplace phenomenon of interracial dating and marriage. One member of our delegation noted an indication of racism in the expression of a white Venezuelan woman that she did not care to go to the beach because the suntan would diminish the advantages she derived from light skin color.
One of our Afro-Venezuelan hosts claimed that he had been told on a trip to Cuba that Castro is ready to amend the Cuban constitution to deal with the taboo issue of race.
We learned of two other issues besides race that still pose problems for the Bolivarian revolution. Abortion is illegal and homophobia is rampant. Our itinerary included a discussion with representatives of an organized gay rights movement. Chavez has recently been engaged in active consultation with priests from the liberation theology wing of Catholicism, in what appears to be a strategic effort to counter the effect of conservative Catholic beliefs on such issues as abortion.
Near the end of our ten days in Venezuela we met with Eva Golinger, author of The Chavez Code, a book that uses information from US government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to describe extensive ongoing efforts to destabilized the Chavez government using methods similar to those that successfully brought down the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua.
The revolutionary consciousness displayed by representatives of the projects and programs we visited appears to be so firmly embedded in the Venezuelan masses that no amount of planned destabilization is likely to reverse the course upon which the Chavez government is presently embarked, and a more rational direction for U.S. foreign policy seems to lie in diplomatic initiatives to further national interests in a new Latin America in which the Monroe Doctrine is passé and Chavez’ brand of democratic socialism is a growing reality.