For those of us living in a land of economic austerity and political atrophy, seeing a country demonstrate that there is an alternative remains an indispensible component of our long-term struggle to rejuvenate our society.
For more than a decade, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has been sending shockwaves throughout the political landscape of Latin America and beyond. The bold and independent stance taken by the country’s late President, Hugo Chavez, has shown for the first time in 500 years that the people of the region have the power, and the right, to determine their own destinies. In forging a novel political project that puts the needs of people first, the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ has begun to attract new adherents to a defiant and dignified mode of social and international transformation, articulated primarily through the new regional organisation of ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas). As part of a recent delegation to Caracas with the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign in Britain, I was given the opportunity to see first hand how the principles of ‘socialism in the 21st century’ were changing ordinary people’s lives for the better.
A bird’s eye view of urban transformation
In January 2010, the Bolivarian government opened its first cable car system (Metrocable San Agustin) linking the poor neighbourhood (barrio) of San Agustin with the city centre of Parque Central, which turned what used to be a one hour or more commute into a five minute journey into the city. As the car set off from the centre we rose over the vast urban sprawl of Caracas, offering a huge panoramic view of the city’s political geography, which bears out its history of social development.
With the oil rush of the 1930s, Caracas soon became a hub of social and economic activity, which drew in hundreds of thousands of people from across the surrounding areas looking for work as their traditional modes of living (primarily agricultural) began to disintegrate in the face of a booming oil industry. When the Acción Democrática (AD) party came to power through a coup against the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the party suspended the previous regime’s policy of evictions and house demolitions – prompting some 400,000 new arrivals to the outskirts of Caracas in just over a year – as a way of boosting their electoral base, yet with little regard as to the relative safety of such land occupations. This trend has continued unabated for the past 50 years.
As the cable car moves steadily upwards, I saw layers upon layers of houses, literally stacked one on top of the other, clinging to the valley’s mountainous terrain. Yet the most striking aspect was the vast public housing projects interspersing the urban landscape. These new residencies, built under the auspices of the Misión Vivienda, offered affordable – virtually free – apartments mainly to families who had lost their houses in mud slides, a common danger for those living in barrios perched on the side of Caracas’ surrounding mountain ranges. The juxtaposition of these monumental constructions – built specifically for the urban poor – nested right in the middle of Caracas’ metropolitan areas represented a powerful example of what the Bolivarian process seeks to build – a Venezuela that is open and accessible to all citizens.
Such principles have guided Chavez’s vision from the beginning; with a presidential decree passed in 2002, which saw the creation Urban Land Committees (Comités de Tierra Urbana, CTU) as community based forms of participatory planning in the regularisation of land and habitation. The central goal, according to one CTU leader, is “to define a plan for the transformation and democratisation of the city, [and] dismantling the dynamics of spatial segregation which have meant that more than 60% of the country’s population live in precarious settlements.” Fundamental to this struggle for the equality of social space are the issues of pride, rights, priority for the poor, equality of access to public spaces, and the equality of citizenship regardless of social class or geographic location.
Geometries of power and social change
The goal of redressing old spatial divisions – centre/periphery, rich/poor – goes well beyond the city of Caracas. Following his re-election in 2006, Chavez outlined a new constitutional reform that would strengthen the revolutionary process. Of the ‘five motors’ of change proposed (and passed) in the new constitution, one included the concept of ‘a new geometry of power’. This concept contains two inter-related aspects: firstly, the establishment of new political power centres based at the community level that are organised around consejo comunales (community councils); and secondly, the rationally planned use of the country’s territory and its corresponding social geographies.
We had the opportunity to witness a prime example of this concept of new geometries of power when we visited one of Venezuela’s first ‘socialist cities’, Ciudad Caribia. Nestled on top of a mountain range just outside Caracas, which separates the interior from the Caribbean Sea, the city embodies what Chavez hoped would become the cell-form of the revolution – a relatively self sufficient community provided with adequate housing, schools, medical centres, sports and cultural facilities, and cooperatively run small businesses, all of which were communally owned and managed through the community council system.
We talked with a young woman who sits on the community council. She spoke passionately about how the construction of Ciudad Caribia had transformed people’s lives. But as she also emphasised, this was an ongoing process that is in its infancy. The city itself remains virtually isolated, and obtaining the necessary means of transport to Caracas and other populated areas for all residents is constantly negotiated between the community council and the government ministries. Yet it was stressed to us that the idea of a ‘socialist city’ far surpasses the construction of one isolated town. We were pointed towards a small-scale model of what would in a few years become the full realisation of the project: a vast area comprising half a dozen cities like Ciudad Caribia and an industrial hub to provide sufficient employment for residents, all linked by a network of roads crisscrossing the mountain peaks. Such grand projects ultimately seek to alleviate unsustainably urbanised areas by using the surrounding space of the country in a more evenly distributed manner, and in the process bringing a safer, more rational, and more democratic mode of living to the traditionally marginalised sectors of society.
Re-generating civic space, rebuilding civil society
Other aspects of social change emerge in the most unlikely places, quite apart from the instigation of huge projects by the government. The re-occupation, re-use and transformation of idle spaces are also a large part of the revolutionary process. One of the most inspiring examples of this type of grass-roots ‘popular power’ (poder popular) was seen when we visited the Tiuna el Fuerte cultural centre, situated in the middle of one of Caracas’ biggest barrios, El Valle. We met with one of the leading organisers of the centre who gave us a tour of the industrial park that had been previously abandoned and now regenerated by Tiuana leaders and other residents from the surrounding neighbourhood.
With funds initially obtained from then PSUV Mayor of Greater Caracas Juan Barreto, the Tiuna team had amassed an impressive array of materials that are put into efficient and creative use (sometimes by simply re-using discarded and freely available materials) in order to build a multi-functional community centre integrated into the corrugated shipping containers that remained with the abandoned plot. No corner of this space was left untouched; every inch of the large containers had been painted with large and intricately detailed murals depicting images of indigenous peoples, historical icons from Venezuela’s past, as well as more modern pieces displaying the seemingly boundless artistic imaginaries of the community.
Situated inside these metallic canvasses, we found a community radio station, an internet café, a print shop for t-shirts and other apparel, a fully functioning music recording studio, and a large stage area in which all kinds of performances (dance, music, drama) are put on by, and for, the community’s residents. As part of their philosophy of community re-generation, Tiuna el Fuerte have now established international links with other underprivileged communities throughout Latin America, North America and Europe. Through these transnational networks of solidarity, the Tiuna collective have engendered and promoted a central principle of the Bolivarian revolution that goes beyond the boundaries of ‘the nation’.
The internationalisation of ‘Bolivarianismo’
The regional multilateral institution of ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) in 2004 was formed as a direct response to the previously failed attempt by the US to implement a region-wide free trade agreement (Free Trade Area of the Americas). As an alternative, Hugo Chavez proposed a new regional initiative geared towards social policies that rejected the neoliberal dogma. Officially inaugurated in 2004 with just two countries (Venezuela and Cuba), ALBA now comprises eight countries from across South America and the Caribbean (Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Ecuador, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). We met with Ruben Perreira, the Secretary for the Council of Social Programmes at ALBA’s Coordination Headquarters in Caracas, who conveyed the goals and aspirations of the ALBA countries, such as building solidarity and reciprocity across borders, while instigating large scale production projects (Grannacionales) as a means of pooling the region’s resources towards the provision of public goods.
A particularly innovative aspect of ALBA’s institutional architecture is the inclusion of a Council of Social Movements, which sat at the top of the institutional hierarchy, along side the Council of Ministers. Almost unheard of in any other regional institution, this council gave direct voice and influence to hundreds of social movements across the continent, from agrarian communities to human rights activists, from environmental movements to trade unions. Such inclusion also extends to groups who are based within states that are not officially ALBA members.
Another vital component of ALBA is the region-wide investment in health care provision. We saw an example of this type of international cooperation at the Salvadore Allende Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) in the Venezuelan state of Miranda, the ‘little sister’ institution to the original ELAM in Cuba. The Cuban health care system has been widely praised from the UN to the Pan American Health Organisation, and even the World Bank. To learn from the Cuban experience was therefore an obvious choice for the Bolivarian government, and since 2005 the government has been involved in an ‘oil for doctors’ exchange programme with Cuba, which allows Venezuela to import enough medical personnel and equipment to help run its Barrio Adentro mission.
However, such exchange initiatives are often channelled on a region-wide basis, with a significant number of physicians bound for Venezuela re-routed to other countries in an effort to widen the Bolivarian initiative of social service provision. Venezuela’s launch of its own ELAM is therefore aimed at more sufficiently meeting its health provision targets by providing medical training for its own citizens. Such training is free of charge, with a stipend provided to students. The only form of ‘repayment’ is in a two year post-graduate placement back in the student’s home country, and stationed in remote areas that have rarely if ever seen a physician before. As one medical student told me, these placements often result in a constructive exchange of knowledge between village elders and the young physicians, which lead to innovative combinations of advanced medical techniques and diagnostics alongside more traditional forms of knowledge of herbal and other natural remedies. The school now boasts a highly international complexion of students, from across South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Palestine. Its continuing mission of raising the health and vitality of the region’s people will form the indispensible human foundation from which the Bolivarian revolution can potentially flower.
These examples vividly demonstrate some of the underlying political values that animate the Bolivarian process both in Venezuela and in the wider region. In truth, we saw much more on our brief, 10 day journey through the revolution: the Bolivarian University in Caracas offering free higher education to all citizens; the El Sistema music network that provides extra-curricular activities to school children from as young as 4 to 16 years old; a group of trans-gender activists who have been working through a small organisation (actively promoted by Chavez) to combat prejudice in the wider society, as well as providing a network of support to other individuals facing such oppression; and a meeting with the president of the National Electoral Council, Tibisay Lucena, a soft-spoken yet stoic individual who painstakingly explained the long process of electoral auditing they had carried out in order to satisfy the opposition’s demand for a recount (although the opposition, and the United States, still remain the only two entities in the world that refuse to recognise the election results).
Relaying what I saw during this time therefore seems to be a crucial task given that most people just don’t get what’s really happening inside Venezuela today. The reasons why this might be are not hard to decipher; as with Venezuela’s media system (which is almost 95% privately owned and virulently anti-Chavez… lack of free speech?), the western media is virtually incapable of providing a more rounded view of Venezuela’s social transformation. It is vital that we understand this ambitious (and certainly incomplete) project of human emancipation, so that we might learn from its principles, its politics and its achievements. There is some debate on the left of whether the Bolivarian example can, or cannot, be replicated elsewhere. Whether or not this is the case, the Bolivarian revolution will continually stand as an example of what another world might possibly look like. For those of us living in a land of economic austerity and political atrophy, seeing a country demonstrate that there is an alternative remains an indispensible component of our long-term struggle to rejuvenate our society.