Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Important Dates in Venezuelan History

The recent history of Venezuela is marked by a series of important dates that are etched in the minds of the people here. These dates serve in some ways as 'bookends' to distinct periods in the country's history. Throughout my blog I have mentioned a number of them but thought it would be useful to list some of them here and explain their significance.

January 23, 1958Dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez was overthrown by a coalition of political parties, mass movements and the military, and he fled the country. Up until that point Venezuela had been under almost 50 years of dictatorship (only broken by a brief 3-year period of democracy). The departure of Perez Jimenez marks the beginning of what is called the Punto Fijo period, which refers to a pact that was made in the city of Punto Fijo between the major political parties and key resistance movements in order to install democratic governance. In addition, this date was taken as the name of a neighborhood (23 de enero) in Caracas where tens of thousands of people occupied previously vacant government housing (see above photo). This neighborhood became the hotbed for political resistance against the new government (including the home of many urban guerrillas from the 60s), and has since played an important role in the development of leftist politics in the country.

February 18, 1983 – After a surge in oil revenues in the 70s as a result of the creation of OPEC, Venezuela suffered a devaluation of its currency, the Bolivar, on this date. The 70s were considered the 'golden years' in Venezuela (to be sure, they weren't golden for everyone, and those who benefited most from the oil revenues were already comfortable and politically powerful). But after a series of corrupt and inept governments, the country suffered from declining oil revenues and massive state expenditures. This date marks the beginning of a downward economic spiral that would produce rising levels of poverty. Within the next ten years, more than 50% of the population would be considered by international standards to be living in a state of poverty.

February 27, 1989 - The Caracazo: the name of the massive and violent street demonstrations that lasted for more than a week around the country, but mostly centered in Caracas. The demonstrations were spontaneously provoked when people got up on Monday morning to go to school and work only to find that their bus fares had increased by double and triple, a result of an International Monetary Fund Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) announced by the president in the previous week. With the country struggling in deepening poverty, presidential candidate Carlos Andres Perez had promised to not institute an SAP (a program which focuses on privatization of public services, debt repayment, and free market integration), only to renege on his promise two weeks after taking office. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets (sometimes violently so) and were severely repressed by the military and police. Anywhere between 300 and 1,000 people died. This was the first protest against SAP in Latin America but it would be followed by many across the world. (photo courtesy of

February 4, 1992 – An attempted coup d'etat led by military commander Hugo Chavez Frias against Carlos Andres Perez. Though popular movements had been organizing themselves against the government since the Caracazo, this was mostly a military coup which ultimately failed. Significantly, however, Chavez came out on television asking coup instigators to lay down their arms because 'for now' they couldn't achieve their goals of changing the government. That 'for now' made him an instant hero of the people, signally that change of what was considered a corrupt, elitist government would eventually happen. Chavez and fellow coup leaders were sent to prison where they continued to organize themselves, this time through a political party called The Movement for the Fifth Republic (the period 1958-1998 is considered the Fourth Republic). See youtube clip:

December 6, 1998Chavez is elected President of Venezuela with more than 56% of the vote. The election represented the rejection of the previously dominant two-party system and the entrance into a new era of Venezuelan politics, which would later be called by the Chavez government the Bolivarian Revolution (referring to Simon Bolivar who had led the independence struggle against Spain). Chavez immediately calls for the election of a Constitutional Assembly (one of his campaign promises) which over the next 8 months writes and approves a new Venezuelan Constitution.

April 11, 2002A coup attempt against Chavez is led by the national business council FEDECAMARAS and major media outlets (some argue that it was also supported by the US). Chavez is forcibly removed from the presidential palace, Miraflores, and taken to an island. Meanwhile most media outlets report that Chavez resigned his position allowing for a 'democratic' transition. Massive street demonstrations erupt calling for the return of Chavez. With the help of the presidential guard at Miraflores, Chavez is returned on April 13, 2002, giving rise to the phrase 'every 11 has its 13' (referring to the dates). This marks the beginning of a progressive radicalization of Chavez's political agenda for what he calls 'Twenty-First Century Socialism'. The following clip is the first in a series from a film called 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'. (If you go to youtube to look for the other clips the comments give you an idea of how passionate both sides of the pro/con Chavez debate are.)

December 2002-February 2003 – A national oil strike, another attempt to remove Chavez from office, grinds the country to a halt. The strike is led by the opposition and supported by several large international businesses. As a petroleum-based country, the strike has a severe impact on national GDP over the next couple of years. Chavez supporters remember this as a difficult time when food was scarce and transportation was unaffordable, but they also think of it as a time when people pulled together as a community and did what they had to do to keep Chavez in office. This was the second time they 'saved Chavez'.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Great Gray Paint Mystery

About a week ago I started to notice people in my neighborhood painting their front doors and gates gray. Shop fronts have rolling metal doors and most houses have metal gates in front of their doors and metal frames around their windows. I didn't think much of it at the time, just thought that someone had bought too much gray paint and was sharing with the neighbors -- something that wouldn't be so unusual here.

The next few days, however, I saw others painting their doors. This was much more than a couple extra gallons of paint. As I watched people paint over their red doors (see photo) I came to the conclusion that people were expressing their disappointment in the Venezuelan Socialist Party, whose color is red and who had just held primary elections a couple of days before. This seemed a strange reaction and a complete turn-about-face in a neighborhood that voted almost 80% for the Socialist Party in the last election. But, again, things change quickly here and I wasn't that surprised.

As I was walking home from the metro yesterday, even more people were on the street painting their doors and window frames. And these were doors of all colors: yellow, green, blue, black, white, etc. I saw no fewer than 6 groups of people painting everything gray in my 5 minute walk home. The air was filled with paint fumes and everywhere you turned doors were in some stage of transformation. This was becoming more strange by the minute. What is going on? So I stopped and asked someone.

Me: Excuse me. Can I ask why you are painting your door gray?

Neighbor 1: I don't know. Chavez told us to.

Me: Chavez told you to? And you don't know why?

Neighbor 1: No (slight grimace).

I continued my inquiry and asked every other person I found on my way back. The responses varied as follows.

Neighbor 2: It was the mayor. He said everyone has to paint anything metal gray.

Neighbor 3: The mayor decreed it. I don't know why. There's the president for you. [notice the interchangeability between the mayor and Chavez]

Along the way I realized that no one really knew what was going on. They were apparently given notice that they had 8 days to paint. Some thought the order went out to the whole city of Caracas. As I started to imagine the whole city painting its beautifully-colored doors and windows gray, I started to realize how surreal the situation was, like being in a film where outlandish things are taken as completely normal. And the fact that no one is complaining, resisting or even asking 'why' is the most surreal part.

My investigation into the 'Great Gray Paint' mystery has led me to discover that in fact no other neighborhood in the city is painting its doors gray. Everything else is the color of the rainbow, that is, normal. I also found out that it was an order by the mayor's office, not from Chavez (the confusion comes as part of a larger problem with attributing everything, good or bad, to Chavez). It was only this morning that I was told the order was only for this very small part of the neighborhood surrounding my house, which is apparently considered an historic district. The historic part comes from the fact that an ex-president from the late-1800s had a hacienda here, which is still standing to this day and serves as a community center. As a result this entire zone is considered historic -- news to people who live here. Nonetheless, the mayor wants to keep an historic 'aesthetic', and for that reason is requiring everyone to paint their doors and windows gray.

There is a not-so-slight absurdity to the situation, especially considering that the 'aesthetic' they are trying to preserve has very little to do with the reality of the neighborhood which is poor to working-class, with houses that are not always in the greatest repair, on streets that are usually filled with informal street vendors, and that sits face-to-face with one of the steepest, most colorful shantytowns (e.g. self-built housing) in Caracas. Despite the absurdity, Venezuelans carry on finding ways to creatively and colorfully decorate their businesses and houses. (see final photo) Long live absurdity! Viva!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Vote for me!!

This past Sunday (May 2), the Venezuelan Socialist Party held their primary elections for the National Assembly. More than 3,000 candidates were running for 110 possible positions, and about 38% of the registered party members came out to vote. The election is seen as a critical first step to ensuring that the opposition does not get more than 40% of the Assembly seats. Currently, the Socialist Party, which supports Chavez, holds almost all of the seats in the Assembly due to the opposition's boycott of the previous election.

From those who support Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, there are two concerns in relation to the primaries. The first, as has already been mentioned, is the worry about defeating the opposition in September's national elections. From this perspective the strategy is to elect Socialist Party members who are well known and have had experience in the government. The second concern, however, has to do with the these very people who have been in the Assembly or in other ministries already and who have seemingly done little except promote their own interests.

It is this second position that I am finding more and more of in the barrios. At two recent meetings of the Urban Land Committees – one for the whole Metropolitan Area of Caracas and the other a local district meeting – the debate revolved around getting people elected who had done good work in their local communities and demonstrated themselves to be committed to 'the people'. Though there was some concern about the opposition, there was almost equal concern for reproducing the same centrist political positions within the Socialist Party and rewarding people who haven't done much to change the old economic and political systems.

Unlike my experience from two years ago when people were very excited about the party and many declared themselves 'militants' of the party, this year people are putting a distance between themselves and the party. This reflects a trend that I am witnessing overall: a continuing commitment toward the process of socialism but a deepening critique and wariness of state institutions. In the time that I have been coming to Venezuela (since 2008) new spaces have been created in which people who support 'the process' are allowed to raise serious critiques about it – even critiques against Chavez – without being thrown out into the street (figuratively speaking) or considered to be 'opposition'. This shift reflects a growing discontent with state institutions that are not completing the promise of 'Twenty-First Century Socialism'. It is important to recognize that these critics often support the vision of socialism, or at least see the importance of changing the country from what it used to be in terms of political access and economic distribution. Yet they might not be convinced that the current process is able to achieve those goals.

The state, it's various institutions and levels of government, is less and less an instrument of significant change towards a socialist vision and more and more an entrenched bureaucracy that is struggling to maintain its power and influence. And unlike the extreme opposition would have us believe, this is not completely the result of Chavez. Rather, I would argue, it reflects the history of the country and the tendencies established decades ago, as well as, the general tendency of any bureaucratic system to seek its own interests rather than the interests of the people it is meant to serve.

The result of the primary elections was that only 22 of 106 assemblymembers who sought re-election were elected. I guess the people have spoken...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Pursuit of Ideas

A friend of mine who lived in Venezuela for two years once jokingly told me that you could stick a television camera in front of any Venezuelan and they would be able to talk as if they had a lifetime of experience speaking to the public. With every meeting I attend and every conversation I have, I am reminded again and again how true this observation is. For example, it is not uncommon for people to speak at length (5, 10, 15 minutes or longer!) at a community meeting, especially when something important is under debate. It is only recently, however, that I have come to realize how important the collective development of ideas is to the political process underway here.

Two recent experiences have sharpened my awareness of this. The first was the Encuentro Nacional (National Meeting) of the Shantytown Dwellers Movement held on April 9-11, 2010. On the first day, people were broken up into different groups where they each shared the story of their local organization – what was important to it, what its concerns were, who else they worked with, etc (see above photo). On the second day, the major themes that had been raised in the stories were put up for discussion/debate with the intention that each group would come out with agreements about the major concerns of the movement as a whole and proposals for moving forward. On the third day, each group presented what is called the 'synthesis' of the discussion and the proposals. In order to be taken up, the proposals offered had to be agreed upon by everyone at the meeting. (See photos for an idea of how all the ideas and debates were collected.)

The second experience was a series of discussions held by the Caracas Chapter of the Council of Social Movements for the ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America) regarding the environmental summit being held in Cochabamba, Bolivia this week. The meetings were conducted in a similar format as the National Meeting (the Shantytown Dwellers Movement helped to organize these meetings, too).

For the purposes of this entry, what was notable about these experiences was the importance placed on the generation of ideas through collective discussion. Though I have long known that Venezuelans love to talk and can seemingly do so with ease in public, it crystallized for me – especially in the Council of Social Movements – that it is not just 'talking'. Rather, they are engaged in ongoing sharing and discussion of ideas; and the new or sharpened ideas that these discussions produce are just as important as the actions people are taking in their local communities. In fact, the new ideas form the basis of practical action. Though this may seem logical – ideas and action inform each other (or in Paulo Freirian terms there is praxis) – what is striking is the commitment to the constant refinement of ideas and the equal commitment to finding consensual ground from which to work together. For example, neither the National Meeting nor the Council of Social Movements' meeting were isolated events. In fact, they were based on similar meetings that had taken place in local and regional community groups. This means that the 24 hours of discussion at the National Meeting and the 30+ hours of discussion at the Council (it might be added that these discussions went well into the night) were in addition to the many hours of discussion at local levels.

It is hard to imagine the significance of this, especially knowing that many people work, have families and participate in other organizations. Coming from a somewhat depoliticized society where we (myself included) value one-hour, to-the-point meetings, it is even harder to imagine that this kind of discussion happens at all. Of course, many people have told me that before Chavez such political discussions were rare. Yet again, these activities are an example that 'el processo', as the political process is called here, has two (at least) distinct strands. One is at the level of government and Chavez, and the other is people in their local communities driving forward towards the development of common vision(s). This second process though perhaps inspired by Chavez, does not depend on government intervention or international non-governmental intervention (e.g. NGOs) for that matter, and in fact resists such intervention.

The production of ideas as a collective practice based in the lived experiences of people and communities is something others of us (I am speaking to my colleagues in academia, as well as those of us who are concerned about politics in our own communities and countries) would do well to learn from. Though it is not always comfortable - yes, people yell here!! - it is absolutely essential if we are in the pursuit of social justice or political transformation, or if we are simply looking to produce what I like to call 'useful newness' in the world, something I feel we are in desperate need of.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Todos los 11 Tienen Su 13

I arrived in Venezuela last week for my third visit to this exciting and complicated country. On my first day here, I was immediately thrust in to the complexity of the politics when I attended the national meeting of the social movement that I am working with. After a whirlwind weekend, I arrived in Caracas in time for the annual street demonstrations celebrating April 13.

April 13 is marked in the memory of Venezuelans as the day when 'the people' overturned a coup that was enacted against Chavez on April 11, 2002. In the two days after the coup people took to the streets, and with the help of the presidential guard, forced the coup leaders to flee the presidential palace while Chavez was returned from where he had been sequestered (for an interesting documentary about this watch The Revolution Will Not Be Televised). For those who support Chavez, April 13 is celebrated as a victory of the people, who were able to reinstate their democratically elected president. The phrase in the title of this post can be translated to, 'Every 11 has its 13,' and has become a mobilizing refrain for those that support Chavez. Every year since then, Chavez's return has been celebrated with a demonstration in the center of Caracas to which I was able to attend this year. (The demonstration consists of people lining up to see Chavez ride down the middle of the street -- something I waited two hours to see and got about 11 seconds of video clip of him -- see clip below.)

Though the coup and the counter-coup is an intensely interesting story and completely unexpected, to say the least, the more interesting part of the story is how it has marked the presidency of Chavez and the trajectory of what is called the 'Bolivarian Revolution'. The coup in 2002 was the first of many attempts to remove Chavez from office by the opposition groups. Others included a national oil strike that lasted for almost three months and a referendum, which Chavez soundly beat. The result of these and other less-known attempts to thwart Chavez have instead pushed him and his supporters to more and more radical positions (Steve Ellner argues this in a number of his recent books about Venezuela) creating an almost god-like allure to him. Chants for Chavez (Uh! Ah! Chavez no se va!) are common, and he is considered by some to be only person who can see this process through.

These 'wins' for Chavez have also given the grassroots people a sense of collective power – they were the ones who protested on the streets, endured months of hardship during the oil strike, and voted en masse to save Chavez. This experience has had a remarkable effect on the level of mobilization and political activity, especially within poor sectors. Many people have told me that until the coup happened they were not involved in any kind of political activity, but the coup radicalized them and convinced them to take to the streets. It has also fostered a strong sense of agency, that is, that the power of the government comes from the people. In the popular sectors, Chavez may be the leader but the people are the actors in the process of creating socialism. The truth is a bit more complicated than this, but I'll save that for another post.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Food, Water, and Other Little Big Things

I have just returned to the US. I tearfully left Venezuela, knowing that I will return in a 7 months' time. Upon my return I enjoyed a hot shower and flushing toilet, the benefits of always-running water and permanently installed hot water heaters, things that are in short supply in most of Venezuela. I stood in the shower that first night half wondering if I should turn down the heat of the water and half wondering how long I could stand under the jet until my boyfriend began to wonder if I had drowned. These are little luxuries that almost every American I know takes for granted. I know I usually do, despite my long-time interest in poverty and social justice. Yet the warm water shooting out of the showerhead made a stark contrast to the cold bucket of water I called a 'shower' during the previous weeks and brought my two realities into sharp relief. I haven't been the same since.

Another poignant moment: the produce section at the Berkeley Bowl. For those who are not San Francisco Bay Area-ers, the Berkeley Bowl is an independent grocery store in Berkeley (of course) that prides itself on providing produce 'second to none'. 'Independent' in the Bay Area is also code for 'alternative', which means that the Bowl attracts a mish-mash of wealthy ladies from the Berkeley Hills, burned-out hippies, struggling students, and cool hipsters – the perfect storm for my reintegration into US society.

As I walked through the doors I was hit by the cool breeze of the high-powered air conditioning keeping a multitude of lettuce, in every shade of green imaginable, fresh and crispy. Another step in and I began to catch wafts of late-summer fruits – plums, nectarines, peaches, grapes – as they weighed down rows of long tables with their heavy juices. Swinging around to my right I found 5 (yes, 5) different kinds of asparagus and then tomatoes in every color of the rainbow. It was at this point that my awe at the site of all this fresh produce took a sharp turn into panic. The tears were coming, and fast. I hadn't seen more than one variety of anything in months; I hadn't seen anything really crispy and green in just as long. The truth of the matter is that I hadn't eaten a vegetable that didn't come in a can or qualify as a root the entire time I was in Venezuela. That's just the way it is in a country that is the sole net-importer of agricultural goods on the continent. Variety and quality are not the norm at the vegetable store (usually the size of a 'breakfast bar' in an average American suburban house), and things of quality are too expensive to buy, even for a foreigner with dollars in her pocket.

I was overwhelmed. I walked up and down the aisles in disbelief: berries of all kinds, vegetables that I can't pronounce let alone use, apples as far as the eye can see, the list goes on and on. And then I noticed a young student-type: short razor-cut hair pulled over to cover one eye, black-rimmed glasses, slimfit jeans and a hipster button-up shirt. He was perusing the exotic fruit section, picking through the lychee, mulberry, and star fruit. And I thought to myself, “Why do you deserve all of this? Who are you to casually select a fruit from Indonesia and buy it here in California and not think anything of it? What struggling farmer has worked the fields so that you can decorate your dessert with passion fruit?” And that's when I realized, I was not crying for joy, I was crying at the injustice of it all.

People talk about culture shock when you come back from time abroad. I'm not sure what kind of shock this is, or if it's shock at all. I knew what I was coming back to: a comfortable bed, big cars and drivers who obey traffic signals, hot showers, fast food, English, track homes and bulk items. And I know how people from the 'Third World' view the American lifestyle: it's nice but it comes at a cost, and usually it's a cost to them (think of the coffee grower who barely makes ends meet so that we can enjoy a grande, iced, non-fat, no-foam, caramel latte at Starbucks).

I suppose what I recognize is that I – a die-hard foodie who would joyfully spend hours cooking a good meal and then spend just as long describing it in excruciating detail to anyone who would listen – now have a completely different relationship with food, water, space, air. All the things that we take for granted in the US. And I'm not saying that all peoples of the world need 5 kinds of asparagus in their grocery store – I'm not sure anyone needs that. Maybe Venezuelans don't care for asparagus, and that's fine. What I am saying is that we interact with the world not just when we take an international flight, but when we buy lunch, turn on the water faucet, drink coffee. Unfortunately, all of these things arrive at Safeway, our homes, and the local cafe without us ever having to think about it – neat, clean, and fast. We forget what it takes to make these things happen and we forget (or don't even know) who made it happen. Other people don't live like this. Right now I'm not sure I want to live like this. Give me a bit of dirt on my carrots, a few fewer choices of lettuces, and a time-limit on my showers. Makes me feel a bit more human, a bit less sterile, and much more connected to the world. That's what I miss about Venezuela.

Who is Chavez?

The central figure in the Bolivarian Revolution (the name they give the socialist process here) is of course 'El Comandante' Hugo Chavez Frias. To the outside world Chavez appears to be a mostly crazy populist leader. YouTube clips of 'Alo, Presidente!', his television program which airs at least once a week, often show a ranting, long-winded man with a penchant for quoting long-dead heroes at length and offending international leaders. To an outsider who is well-versed in the formalities of politics and accustomed to reserved, well-rehearsed politicians who prefer to say as little as possible, this kind of behavior seems crazy and out of order. Shouldn't a politician be a bit more respectable? At the very least, he should be a bit more diplomatic, right?

It is this behavior that makes Chavez both reviled and revered the world over. Reviled because he breaches international standards of decorum (e.g. offending the king of Spain over dinner), and his 3- to 5-hour long speeches are interpreted as the rantings of a wanna-be dictator. Revered because people feel like Chavez says things they wish they could say, such as 'To Mr. George W. Bush: you are a donkey, Mr. Bush! ... a coward, a murderer...'

For the part of a Chavista (supporters of Chavez), the importance of Chavez goes deeper than this. It is not uncommon to hear people say, 'We are all Chavez.' This has a double meaning. One one hand, Chavez is like them. He talks like them (yes, Venezuelans can be very long-winded!); he is expressive like they are; he comes from a poor family like they do; the color of his skin is theirs. Chavez is 'mi hijo' (my son), 'mi nieto' (my grandson), 'mi amigo' (my friend), 'mi comandante' (my leader). In a country with big families, where neighbors come in and out of your house as they wish, where lives are open and lived in community, to say that Chavez is part of them is not such a strange thing.

The other meaning that this phrase takes on is slightly more complicated: everyone is a Chavez in his own right. That is, they are fighting for social justice, politicizing poverty, marching the streets in protest, and confronting what they see as a repressive past. Chavez is a place-holder, a symbol of the desires of the working and poor classes. He gives them power – 'El Comandante asked us to do this' – because they give him power – 'We voted for him; we let him lead this country.' The relationship between Chavez and el pueblo is not simply uni-directional. It is tied into a sense of identity and a renewed pride in that identity, and it comes from a new understanding of community power.

I am not trying to suggest that all Chavistas are self-reflexive in this way. For some, Chavez, Simon Bolivar and Jesus Christ all sit at the same table together. An affront against Chavez is the worst kind of sin. At the same time, not all people who are supportive of the Revolution are Chavistas. They may disagree with Chavez or simply see him as useful for the moment; they are not crazed fans but pragmatic supporters.

My opposition friends will cringe at this entry. For them Chavez is what is wrong with the country. He is the 'third rail', the 'red wire', the 'hot button'. Many aren't sure what they want, but they know they don't want Chavez. I can sympathize with the frustration – heck, I've never sat through an entire 'Alo, Presidente!' in my life. However, the importance of Chavez is not just the man himself, it is what he represents to people who felt neglected and repressed, whose identity has been belittled and marginalized. We cannot chalk up the popularity of Chavez to simple populism, an argument that is over-done by North American and European politicians and academics. It is popularity rooted in the historically-determined needs of millions of people (both within and outside of Venezuela). As one rural Chavista woman told me, 'We will keep voting for him until he stops being what we need. Then we won't.'

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Where Does Your News Come From?

A series of casual incidents have prompted me to think about where my viewpoint about Venezuela comes from and what that means about other viewpoints. First, I met another American the other day. He's living in the richest neighborhood in the city (I'm living in one of the poorest) and his analysis of what is happening in the country largely comes from a middle- and upper-class critique of Chavez. Of course much of what he says is true -- the economy is in crisis but no one wants to admit it; labor unions are being undermined; the oil industry is running inefficiently; and there is no growth of other industries. For him, these are the most salient issues facing the Venezuelan state.

Then this morning I read an article by a Spanish journalist ( about his experience covering coups. His story begins with the coup in Thailand and ends with the coup in Honduras. In both cases, he says, international journalists landed in the capital cities where they witnessed pro-coup demonstrations while they stayed in 4 or 5 star hotels and ate at nice restaurants. What journalists failed to see was the outskirts of the cities or the rural areas where poor people organized anti-coup demonstrations and had another story to tell about the recently-removed president. As a result, the journalists told one side of the story.

These two incidents have made me think about the structural problem of where information comes from. Third World countries are often dominated by a single city, which often is also the capital city. Think of Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Lima, Bangkok, Lagos, Nairobi, and of course Caracas. These cities operate as the principal, if not only, access point for international capital, travel and information. Additionally, the richest people in the country live in these cities, where they create enclaves that look uncannily like wealthy North American neighborhoods. These are the neighborhoods that receive international journalists and tourists. A great example of this is the neighborhood of Altamira (see photo above) in Caracas, which is where most decent hotels in the city are located. The first time I popped out of the metro in Altamira I thought I had been transported to a tree-lined boulevard in Southern California -- so different than where I live in the barrio (see photo below).

We must also remember the that these cities house enormous inequalities and that the class battle (something that is a foreign concept for most North Americans and even some Europeans these days), both within the city and between the city and rural areas, is fierce. Information on both sides of the class divide is riddled with this underlying tension, and most of the time international journalists only see one side of it. This is because it's harder to get to marginalized areas and most people outside of the rich neighborhoods don't speak other international languages. Also poor neighborhoods have reputations of being too dangerous for foreigners, or anyone for that matter. For example, most middle-class Venezuelans are shocked when they find out where I live. Most have never even been to where I live, but have no problem expressing a very negative opinion of it. It's simply less comfortable and kind of scary to see 'the other side'. Information, therefore, comes from a particular place which has a particular viewpoint based on economic and political power. A old phrase - 'wherever you go, there you are' - takes on new meaning in these circumstances.

What does this mean for a place like Venezuela? In means that while my new American friend sees the upper-class critique that Chavez is consolidating power, I see the perspective that resources and decision-making capacity are finally reaching the barrio communities. Which side do you think gets reported on the airwaves or on the internet? In short, the complexity of the situation -- of most situations (think Honduras and Iran) -- is not reported, much less understood. My argument is that this is not only due to political ideologies but also to how cities are physically constructed based on economic power.

And before I sign off on this post, a word of warning: let's not fall into the classist (dare I say colonial?) trap of thinking that 'those poor people' are too poor and uneducated to have a 'correct' view of the situation, making the above argument irrelevant. The most interesting, nuanced critique of the current Venezuelan context that I know of comes from barrio people. They see their situation in the context of the historical legacy of Spanish colonialism, dictatorship, global capitalism, North American intervention, international class struggle, and the uniqueness of barrio culture and identity. This is not the critique of an ignorant people but of people who are actively producing new ideas and knowledge and participating in what they see as the construction of a new society. It is a shame that this is not newsworthy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Another Latin American Voice

Check out Democracy Now's interview with President Correa of Ecuador. In some ways he presents a more 'sane' version of what Chavez and other leftist Latin American leaders say regarding the global economy, their relationship with the United States, and their move to the left. On the other hand, in this interview he is appalling weak on the indigenous situation in Peru and his own environmental stance. So, not a friend of the Amazon, but someone North Americans might actually listen to? Decide for yourself.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sugar? Milk? Sugar? Milk?

Another reality of barrio life: food runs out here. Have you ever been to a grocery store and there wasn't any milk to purchase? Probably not. At least in the US there's usually 3 different brands of milk to choose from in full-fat, 2%, 1%, non-fat, buttermilk, on and on and on... In the barrios it's a different matter. I have been searching for milk (one brand, full-fat or skim) and sugar for the past week. And when I say searching, I mean going to the 4 different 'formal' stores that usually sell milk and sugar, the dozens of 'informal' street stalls that sell food stuffs, as well as the carniceria (butcher), panaderia (baker), fruteria (fruit store) that sometimes sell other items. Finally, I found a carton of milk hidden behind a can of dried milk. And there are rumblings on the street about sugar -- there just simply isn't any in the whole neighborhood. The lack of sugar here probably means that people aren't drinking coffee (because they like it *very* sweet), a national passtime in Venezuela. The people standing in the queu at the grocery store are talking about the problem. So I strike up a conversation with a little old lady behind me. Has she seen any sugar recently? No. She's looked everywhere too.

A day later I'm back out buying fruit (shopping for food here is an almost daily routine.) And I start talking to the woman selling avocados on the street in case she knows where I can get sugar. Yes, but you can only get it on the street in the 'informal' economy. It's being sold in plastic bags and god only knows where it comes from. Two people in the community are selling it. One is sold out, so I go rushing to the other. Finally!

Food runs out on a regular basis here. It's hard to tell why. Some say it's because the government cap on prices for essential goods (milk, sugar, cornmeal, some meats, veg oil) restricts production. Others say that the producers hoard goods to force the prices up. If history is anything to go by both cases are true. And it's the barrio people that suffer. I'm sure if I took the metro 45 minutes to the rich neighborhoods there would be no lack of sugar -- and the prices there are almost guaranteed to be cheaper. These are the day-to-day realities of severe inequality. In the meantime, word on the street is that cornmeal, a staple of Venezuelan food used to make empanadas and 'arepas' (a thick, round, cake-like corn tortilla that is cut open and stuffed with things), is about to go missing. Better stock up!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Housing Take-Over and Eviction

My week has been crazy. I was invited to go on a trip with a small commission from the land committee. They were going to another community to give some political advice and see how the land committees could support the work of this community. The story with the community is that they had taken over some government housing that had been sitting empty and derelict for a long time. These are people who live nearby and who don't have housing or have *very* poor housing (I saw some pictures and it's awful!). There were 284 families who participated in the take over. Of course this was illegal, but they felt that the government was corrupt (which it is) and that taking the housing was the only way to get attention and to solve their problems. On the first night of the take over the police came to evict them and it erupted into a violent conflict -- thankfully no one was killed. And the people stayed.

It is now one month later and they are trying to negotiate with the mayor but it is proving impossible. So they come to Caracas seeking support and advice. A group of 8 of us go to the community, which is about 7 hours away. It's a somewhat rural community where people grow some of their own food and where everyone knows everyone. It's a fairly poor community too. Even the *nice* houses have hard dirt floors and don't have internal running water.

Upon our arrival on Wednesday the team decides to try and get a meeting with the Mayor to see if any agreement to have a dialogue can be reached. Little do we know that the Mayor has already been alerted that we are on our way, so he is prepared to meet with us. A big assembly meeting is held in the community on Wednesday night and a proposal to the mayor for a dialogue and for some way forward with the situation is decided upon.

Three people from the Caracas commission and myself go to meet the mayor. The meeting reveals the gravity of the situation, of which we were completely unaware. The mayor's position is intractable: as long as the community is in the housing he will not negotiate. After 2 hours of trying to negotiate he tells us that we have 30 minutes to tell the community that the police force is coming back to evict them that day. We are shocked. We negotiate for one hour and race back to the community to tell them what happened.

When we arrive people are in an uproar. Some are terrified and rush back to the houses to collect their things and leave. Some are ready to fight the police with rocks and sticks and whatever they can get their hands on. Some are crying. Finally, we are able to get people into an assembly so they can decide together what to do. Do they resist and face jail, injury or worse? Or do they agree to leave on the condition that the mayor finally sit down and talk to the community and risk that he reneges on his promise? They agree on the later. Just as they do the police arrive -- 30 minutes earlier than they had agreed to. They are outfitted in full riot gear: guns, shields, helmets... They come pouring out of huge vans and surround the assembly meeting.

People are scared, because of what happened the last time the police were there, and angry because they feel like the government doesn't recognize the severity of their housing problem. Thankfully, enough people have the presence of mind to recognize that getting the mayor to agree to work with them by leaving peacefully might be the only way to avoid terrible violence. So they make the agreement: we will leave peacefully as long as the next day the mayor begins work on resolving the situation.

People spend the rest of the night moving their few belongings -- most have to carry things on their heads and walk down the dirt road because they can't afford to hire a car. Many families have nowhere to go so we have to find them a place. The community is devastated. They had their hopes set in these houses and had come to think of them as home. The whole thing is incredibly sad. I spend most of the night wandering around comforting people and talking to them about working with the mayor to get the houses back.

The next day (Friday) we attend the meeting that has been set up to decide how the community and the mayor can work together. At first it looks like the mayor is just going to run in circles. He explains to them the legalities of the housing situation. You could feel the room getting restless and falling into further depression. But after more than 2 hours of talking (!!) the mayor finally started giving into things, agreeing on very specific ways to work with the people. He even makes agreements to things that hadn't been imagined. By the end of the meeting people are excited. They see hope -- even though it might be awhile in the future. In the meantime, I don't know where people are living and that worries me.

To celebrate, a group of the most active organizers of the take-over take us to a local river. We mount the back of a big truck (about 20 of us) and take off down the rural road fitted with beers in one hand and oranges (of which there are a load in the area and they're amazing) in the other. We go swimming in our clothes and 'air dry' on the way back to the village where the housing is located. The neighbors, most of whom have supported the take over, have prepared 'sancocho' -- a soup made of different meats and root vegetables. It's something that is made by people bringing what they have at home and everyone sharing. It's lovely!!

People are dancing and celebrating -- their first time really working together as a community and it feels good. They feel like they've won something, even if it's just recognition that they have a legitimate position. I'm overwhelmed. So much has happened in the past three days and I'm emotionally full. All I can do is sit back, eat loads of sancocho and enjoy the amazing hospitality.

We leave that night and arrive in Caracas on Saturday morning. I've spent a good part of the bus ride crying. Crying for what happened. Crying for the families that still have nowhere to live. Crying that people could be so generous in such a difficult situation. Crying that justice is so hard to find. Crying that I can do so little here, that I'm little more than a witness to what is happening. Crying for how beautiful the river and the surrounding landscape was. Crying for how much I love this country.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Venezuelans Demonstrate for Honduras

As you might have heard Honduras had a coup d'etat yesterday morning. From what I can tell by looking at the BBC and CNN websites, Michael Jackson's death is still garnering more attention in English-speaking media than the overthrow of a democratically elected government. On the contrary, Latin American news is awash with this issue. On Sunday the 28th, the day of the coup, hundreds of thousands across Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador (and perhaps other countries) demonstrated in protest against the coup and in support of 'el pueblo' of Honduras. (see sidebar for video that I shot of the demonstration in front of Miraflores, the Presidential Palace) At the moment, I am receiving various letters from Latin American social movements all of which condemn the actions of the military and call for full reinstatement of democracy in the country.

What little English-speaking coverage there is makes the situation -- and the legitimacy of the Presidency -- very confusing. I have read numerous reports that suggest Sunday's election (the apparent reason for the coup) was for a referendum to change the constitution. This was not thee case. It was a poll asking if the people wanted to change the constitution -- there were no specific changes up for vote. This attempt at changing the constitution comes at a time when many Latin American countries are changing constitutions to expand human rights, to include indigenous peoples, to deepen democracy by making it more participatory, and to shift power away from business interests (foreign and domestic) to local people. Sunday's election must be seen in this light and not only in the way it is portrayed in the media, e.g. he was trying to extend his stay in office.

US media has make the link that Zelaya was ousted because he as overly influenced by Hugo Chavez and argues that a democratic country should not be intruded upon by outside influences, suggesting that the military had a right to remove him. Failure to discuss US intervention in the same light makes this argument disingenuous and sadly laughable. What is at the heart of this concern (for both the Honduran elite and international business interests) is that Zelaya, who started out as a pro-elite, pro-business candidate, has taken steps to start redistributing the wealth in Honduras, a country where 70% live in poverty. He was not a radical president by any means, but he was beginning to build alliances with his colleagues across Latin American (in addition to Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador) and moving to a more socially-oriented agenda.

A comment about the participation of Venezuelans in this situation: As an foreigner I was quite stunned to see the outpouring of support for Honduras. The fact that people took to the streets the same day the event happened, without prior organization, was both surprising and inspiring. It reflects the politics of the Bolvarian Revolution, which is not just about Venezuela, but about building solidarity with all peoples in Latin America. This is what Simon Bolivar sought in his war of independence from Spain and what Che Guevara and others have talked about. This is very much alive and well in Venezuela. In fact, at the moment I found out about the demonstration I was sitting in a meeting talking about the situation in Peru (the indigenous protests against the government and the subsequent attack on a peaceful march) and what we could do to show support for the Peruvian people. As we were wrapping up the meeting people started receiving text messages about the demonstration in Miraflores (the government often uses text messages to inform people of breaking news, such as alerts about swine flu, etc.). At that moment the whole group decided to go to Miraflores to show our support. Hours later groups from the across the country are sending out letters of support to Honduran social movements and community groups.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Visitors and Friends in Caracas

My boyfriend Kevin came to visit for a week. We went to Merida (see separate post) and then were in Caracas for two days. It was so great to have him here and so nice to have some one from home see what I'm experiencing here. We had a "great time" navigating the Venezuelan transport systems (like I bought a ticket, but they forgot to give me a reservation so I had no seat on the flight to Merida -- my first time to yell in Spanish!). The State of Merida was an adventure (I actually arrived). It is truly spectacular and well-worth the distance to get there. In Caracas we met up with my friends Onias (left) and Sylmy (right) who have befriended me since my first trip here in 2008. These are my go-t0 people when things get a bit rough here. The four of us took the teleferico (cable car) up to the top of the Avila -- the highest peak in the Caracas valley mountain range. Check out the video -- the views of Caracas are stunning.

(skip to 1.30min to see the best views)

Political Propaganda

The political propaganda on both sides of the political spectrum is rampant across the country. Walls along every major highway and urban street are covered with "Si, Chavez" (yes, Chavez) or "No, Chavez". Kevin and I found this particular wall in a small town in the Andes Mountains (see below for more photos). This slogan comes out of a rap song that was written for the constitutional amendment campaign in February 2009. Though the US media paints Chavez as a pseudo-dictator (and the opposition here claims that he is), if you talk to many of the poor and working class people here they have plenty of reason to love him. Before, poor people in the country had virtually no political or economic rights. Now there is universal health care, universal education (including higher education), the ability to elect your own representatives (before they were chosen by the President and the ruling political parties), to name a few things. Kevin made the comment that he was surprised by how well-developed ordinary people's political thinking was -- it surprises and excites me every day.

The Popular Power Festival

One of the most interesting things happening in the country (and I might be biased because this is what I am studying here) is the popular power movements. This is a photo of a festival celebrating the popular power movements which includes the Peasant Movement and the Urban Land Movement. (I'm studying the urban land movement.) The primary things that make these movements interesting is that they have arisen from the poorest communities in the country and they are autonomous from the government. The peasants have created their own communities, which include autonomous local governments and agricultural co-operatives. The urban movement is fighting for urban land redistribution and housing security (e.g. renters' rights), as well as the creation of what they call 'new socialist communities'.

A live roundtable was broadcast from the Popular Power Festival. The central idea of the peasant and urban movements is that socialism must come from the bottom up; it must come from popular power (the term 'popular' in Spanish means 'the people', and usually 'the poor '). To quote the urban movement: 'Socialism is infinite democracy, it's the people deciding on all the processes that make up collective life: the production and distribution of goods and services, politics, laws, all the little decisions that are made in everyday life and all the largest national decisions.'

The architectural model that you see in the picture is a model of a 'new socialist community'. These communities are being created by barrio residents who have nowhere to live (many grew up in the barrio and need to leave their parents' house because they have their own families, or live in overcrowded conditions, etc.). They search for empty land (not an easy thing to find in this city) and create a plan of how their community would look. They then pressure the government to turn over the land to the community. The idea of the community is that it is entirely self-constructed: they build their own housing, schools and clinics; they identify the skills in the community (e.g. teachers, firemen, mechanics) and employ their own people by creating businesses around those skills; they are self-governing and employ participatory democracy (usually the communities are 200-400 families). Their are 5 of these communities in Caracas at various stages in the processes and many others around the country.

The Day of the Cross

The Day of the Cross is a catholic holiday celebrated in May (also called La Cruz de Mayo). Religion is a very important aspect of barrio life. It has formed the basis of many social movements and forms of resistance against oppressive regimes across Latin America. Even today it is as much a political engagement as it is a spiritual engagement. In addition, the group that is dancing here was organized and taught by the Cultural Mission. The Chavez regime has created various 'Missions' which do everything from teaching literacy to senior citizens to providing free health care to barrio residents to provide university level eduction. The Missions are one of the most successful and celebrated aspects of the Chavez regime.

Most of the people here are also politically active in the community. As you can see from the picture we are assembled in the middle of the street. Barrio life is lived in the streets. Any day of the week, and especially on the weekends, you will see people hanging out, playing music, eating, dancing, selling their goods, etc. on the street. Life is very communal and not very private. People freely come in and out of each others houses, little kids wander from house to house without their parents worrying about them because everyone knows everyone else, and often you go to sleep listening to the pounding music on the street. There is something insanely wonderful about barrio life...

The Socialist Party

Two years ago Chavez and other leaders in his government decided to create a the Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV -- the 'V' symbol on the t-shirt is the symbol of the party) so as to fend off the opposition in a more organized way. Barrio communities flocked to fill the roles of the party. Almost every weekend in any barrio community you can find a table like this one set up to register people into the party. These are often the same people who organize the other community groups, like the one I'm studying. Like any party, there is an incredible danger of being hierarchical and power hungry. There are also deep seeded divisions within the party that, for the moment, are held together into a common purpose by the figure of Chavez. However, some now fear that the flaws within the party will undermine popular movements and that when Chavez leaves (or worse...) entire socialist process will fracture and civil war will erupt. Though possibly an extreme view it is the reason so many ardently support Chavez as the leader of this socialist project.

CTU National Assembly Meeting

CTU is the Comites de Tierra Urbana, or Urban Land Committees. They form the primary group in the urban movement, and they are the group I am doing my research about. Each CTU is comprised of up to 400 families. They started out as the result of a Presidential Decree in 2002 that basically allowed barrio residents to petition the government for title on their land. Barrios are where people have squatted on land and over the years constructed a house, built roads, put in water pipes and electricity, built schools, etc. Many people have lived on these lands for more than 40 years with no legal rights to the land -- meaning technically they could get kicked off at any time. 60% of the city of Caracas lives like this. There are now more than 1200 CTUs in Caracas alone, and they have formed themselves into a national social movement that is now organizing for more than land -- they want popular power (see explanation above).

The CTUs are trying to pass a law that allows for collective land ownership and the transfer of private land over to the barrio residents. Up until now, except in one case, only public land has been titled to barrio residents. One of the big problems is that the country has never had good record keeping of land ownership. So you often have 2 or 3 people claiming ownership on the same piece of land. Meanwhile, hundreds, if not thousands, of families have occupied the land since the 1950s, and with the improvements they have made the argument is that they have just as much claim on the land as someone with a piece of paper.

National CTU people

CTU Meeting in Los Teques

This is one community that I have been spending a lot of time in. It is on the outskirts of Caracas and has a very particular way of organizing itself. They have built what they call a foundation, or what we might call a non-profit organization, with the purpose of helping each other organize CTUs (the whole process of land titling is incredibly complicated and sometimes lasts years). This is a semi-regular meeting where people discuss their particular issues as well as local and national politics. The central city of Caracas has a similar meeting that has been meeting weekly for almost 7 years! There might be 40-150 people debating the politics of the movement.

The CTU Meeting

The Los Teques team waiting to talk to people about the new land law.

I helped hand out information about the new land law they are trying to pass. In reality, the only people who wanted to talk to me were young men who were curious about the 'gringa'. This country is seriously machista. At first I was shocked and offended about the comments I would get (a common joke is: 'You're old enough to be my grandfather!' Response: 'Yes, but I'm not...') Now I've come to appreciate the fact that I'm the most beautiful woman in the country (well, I must be if I'm getting so many compliments!). :)

Venezuelan Update #1

I am almost a third of the way through my trip in Venezuela -- I can't believe how fast the time is going! Luckily my research is going well, I'm making good breakthroughs with some communities and new friends are showing me how to have a good time Venezuelan-style (see 'Merengue!' photo). :)

My day usually starts at about 6am due to the sound of honking horns and people walking to work. To those who hate LA traffic (including myself), come to Caracas for a day and you'll appreciate how well our traffic system works. Most Caraquenos (those that live in Caracas) give themselves at least 2 hours to get to work, or more if they live at the top of the hills. Hence by the crack of dawn the metros are full of people and hundreds of thousands of cars and 'por puestos' (run-down mini-buses/vans) cram the city streets. And of course everyone has to honk their horn -- even though, with traffic as far as the eye can see, they know very well that there's nowhere to go!

Most of my days are occupied by meeting people from the shantytown communities (what are called 'barrios' here) and attending meetings about various issues ranging from installing potable water to the passing of new housing legislation. The politics of the place (e.g. are you for or against Chavez?) permeates every social interaction here: a long line at the grocery store is the result of the 'bad' government; a new job is because the goverment is 'good'. A common joke says that rain is considered good or bad depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall. As a student of politics all of this is fascinating. What is even more interesting are those communities that are creating their own political agenda (a hard thing to do here with such strong govermental and oppositional forces at work), and building social movements from the ground-up. These are the people I'm working with most.

If you want to see where I'm living go to Google Earth and type in 'Mamera, Caracas, Venezuela' or 'lat=10.459063, lon=-66.98647'. As you zoom in you'll be able to see photos of the surrounding area and get an idea of what it looks like here. (I live a block away from the photo 'Iglesia de Antimano'.) Most of the southwest of the city (follow the major road from the center of Caracas to Mamera) is barrios and this is where I spend most of my time. The eastern side of the city is where the very wealthy live, though there are many barrios there as well. To get an idea, there are 6.5 million residents (and growing) in Caracas and more than 60% of them live in self-built housing in the barrios.

If you have any thoughts or questions about what is going on here or what I'm doing I'd love to respond to them. Also, I've included some pictures of the area surrounding my house and of a recent trip I took to a community that is installing their own water system (the 15-foot trenches they are digging will stretch over a 1/4 mile and provide water and drainage to the surrounding houses -- and they did it themselves!).

The view of Barrio Mamera from my metro stop

The View from the top of Antimano

Self-built Housing

Water Committee Project


I have spent the past 15 years traveling to and living in various countries -- South Africa, Ecuador, Guatemala, England, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, etc., etc., -- compelled by my interest in global politics and especially global inequality and social justice. After working as a community organizer in the United States for 4.5 years and finishing a Masters degree in England, I am now pursuing a PhD in politics with the interest of integrating both my academic and my activist experiences.

And so I find myself in Venezuela -- a hotbed of leftist politics -- on the hunt for the grassroots social movements that I believe are desperately needed if we are to see truly revolutionary global changes. My deep suspicion of 'objective' academics, my inclination to take the path less-traveled, and my commitment to bridging the, seemingly, greatest social differences have led me headlong into the shantytowns of Caracas.

Here I have found noise, trash, gunshots (!!), poverty, not-so-nice smells -- all the things you think of when you think of a shantytown. But I have also found laughter, friendship, inspiring histories, contentious politics, music, 'cuba libres', and magical people. By far, the best thing about Venezuela is its people and its history. I hope to share some of that on my blog, to dispel some of the myths of the 'revolution', to imagine the what the future holds for this contradictory country, and what it might mean to the world.