We hadn�t been in
Venezuela for more than three hours and we were already traversing the
brilliantly spotless subway system in hope of catching a Sunday presidential
celebration. Earlier, we caught a red-eye flight from Atlanta to Caracas and
hadn�t had a wink of sleep. That, and a few beers, will make even the most
intrepid of travelers a bit weary.
managed to pull it together and make it in time to see Hugo Chavez�s entourage
and the rally that led up to one of his long-winded speeches. But no matter how
long Chavez stands at the podium and talks about his political philosophy, his
followers always seem to be asking for more.
The event itself
was an eye opener for us. Pictures of Chavez and Che were everywhere. From
T-shirts to posters, the icons of revolution were ever present. Hope with a
�red� flare filled the damp air that day, as did a new brand of socialism. It
would be hard for one to walk away from such an experience, where the poor and
less fortunate had gathered to hail their leader, and not feel something
profound. It was something extraordinary. The only thing that compared to this,
for most of us, were the antiwar protests leading up to the second Iraq
invasion and the anti-WTO actions in Seattle. No matter what you may think
about Chavez or his policies, there is no doubt that Venezuelans adore him.
We were fast waking
up to something we hadn�t felt before as we battled Bush day in and day out in
North America: revolutionary hope, Bolivarian style. And we hadn�t even had our
first sips of Venezuelan coffee yet.
From there we
traveled southwest by subway and bus to Caricuao with baseball aficionado Cesar
Rengel, an activist and organizer with the Bolivarian Revolutionary group,
Frente Francisco de Miranda. Rengel was our guide and translator to the missions,
the hugely popular anti-poverty and social welfare programs instituted
throughout the country by the Chavez government. We proceeded first to a modern
full-service medical clinic, Clinica Popular Caricuao. The lines were long and
doctors were extremely busy when we arrived, so we spoke to a patient waiting
for service. Zulay, a raven-haired, middle-aged woman, dressed in a tank top
with track pants and baby blue sneakers attested to the improvements in medical
care under the administration of Venezuelan President Hugo Ch�vez. She said
that the clinic was staffed with 60-70 doctors and provided medical care
without charge for Venezuelans. To alleviate the waiting times, a new clinic is
being erected nearby which will be staffed by Venezuelan and Cuban physicians.
The Cuban doctors, we were told, are a temporary measure until Venezuela has
enough of their own to staff the clinics.
Close by the
medical clinic under construction is a government mercal (store), Mercado de
Alimentos. Lisbeth 1. Pineda is the administrative assistant at the mercal with
13 employees. Pineda, sporting a comfortable gray sweatshirt and jeans, is also
pursuing a college degree at one of the Bolivarian universities, created by the
Chavez government to do away with illiteracy and make education available for
all, something people of impoverished background were previously unable to do.
She proudly showed us her university ID card, all the while glowing with a
smile that could melt steel. To us, that proud smile neatly symbolizes the
sentiment of the Venezuelan masses: a sense of pride that comes in benefiting
from and contributing to something revolutionary and life affirming.
The mercal opened
two years ago to provide durable foodstuffs such as rice, beans, dried
vegetables and cooking oils. Other mercals also have fresh vegetables and
fruits. The products here were often labeled with revolutionary messages. Meat featured
Argentinean beef and Brazilian chicken, at 15 percent of the retail cost to
Venezuelans. Pineda mentioned that the retail capacity had recently been
doubled due to the popularity of the store. The Chavez administration does not
want Venezuela�s food needs to be dependent on outside sources, so a concerted
effort has been made to produce all foods locally.
Many such missions
were dispersed throughout the region. Pineda averred, however, that the
mercals, although in competition with local shops, had not affected small
Pineda led us
downstairs to where low-cost pharmaceuticals were also sold. Dayana Rosario
runs the pharmacy in this mercal where she showed a variety of Venezuelan and
imported drugs for assorted maladies, including contraception.
outside, Rengel said that the changes in Caricuao have been substantial:
"In two years everything has changed." He pointed out how the
low-cost housing has been and is being upgraded. The new coats of paint that
have been applied to the high-rise complexes, which appear to have never been
painted before, were very apparent.
brought us to an unassuming building where we ascended to the fifteenth floor
apartment of a vivacious revolutionary matriarch, Nancy de Ramon. Her passion
for the revolution and Chavez were readily apparent. She beamed as she
displayed a Chavez photo set in a heart-shaped frame.
Like so many other
Venezuelans we met, Nancy said the people were happier under Chavez government
because significant changes were being made to their daily lives. She extolled
the country's president. Chortled de Ramona, "Chavez has four balls. He
has the balls of [turn-of-the-eighteenth-century revolutionary leader] Sim�n
Bol�var's horse and his own balls."
When asked what she
thought of George Bush's nut sack, she indicated clearly by the downward
crushing motion of a clenched fist into the flat palm of the other hand.
On March 16 we
visited the Casa de la Alimentaci�n, a mission soup kitchen in Valencia, a town
located 115 kilometers (71 miles) west of Caracas. The mission is housed in a
modest brick structure with corrugated tin roof. The structure, like its
patrons, was weathered. It has been open since October 17, 2004, and is looked
after by a stout woman with a red revolutionary ball-cap, Corina Torres. Torres
explains how the mission, supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, provides
two meals a day for homeless and needy people who cannot afford their own food.
There is a weekly menu to ensure nutrition and variety for the clientele, which
grows as the word of the mission spreads, according to Torres. The mission has
a five-person staff that runs from 6 a.m.
to 2 p.m. every day. According to
records shown to us by Torres, the soup kitchen provides about 85 percent of
the basic daily caloric needs of the people it serves.
Torres sees Ch�vez
as key to the entrenchment and expansion of the missions. "If Chavez is
removed from power, the social improvements might end," Torres fears.
A man selling
frozen treats in front of the mission was interested in sharing his thoughts in
broken English. Gustavo Gottberg, who describes himself as a writer of mixed
German-indigenous descent, is more optimistic about the social changes
happening: "If Ch�vez [is] dead, there are too many people who have
learned [about the revolution for it to end]."
Noting the enmity
between the Venezuelan and US leadership, Gottberg states that Americans are
"very good people." Leadership is a different matter, however.
Venezuelans likely view George W. Bush similar to how Americans view Hugo
Ch�vez, he says diplomatically.
The missions are
prioritized to providing essential social services to Venezuelans. The clear
impression from us all is that the missions are tangible evidence of the Chavez
government's commitment to improve the lot of the Venezuelan masses. The
missions do something more than look after the educational, medical, and
nutritional needs of ordinary Venezuelans. The missions give the people hope
for a better tomorrow.
Hope is what
threatens US power. Hope is what drives the revolution forward.
To see photos of this trip, click here.
edits the radical news blog www.BrickBurner.org
and is the author of "Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W.
Bush," published by Common Courage Press (2005). Josh can be reached at BrickBurner@gmail.com.
Kim Petersen, Co-Editor
of Dissident Voice, lives in the traditional Mi�kmaq homeland colonially
designated Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunil K. Sharma is the Editor and Publisher of
Dissident Voice, based in Santa Rosa, California. He can be reached at: email@example.com.