Venezuela at a Crossroads

After the Referendum, Toward the New Party and Beyond
Talk by Suzanne Weiss and John Riddell to a joint forum of Toronto Socialist Project and Socialist Voice, January 13, 2008

Suzanne: There is the Venezuela we know from the Internet—from the expert reports and well-informed discussion—and the Venezuela of the streets. They relate to the same reality, but the texture is different. John and I were on those streets six weeks ago. Much has happened since, but we’ll focus on what we heard and saw.

What is going in Venezuela? The Venezuelan majority, the poor, are taking matters into their own hands to provide themselves with the essentials of life. In alliance with the Bolivarian government, poor people in Venezuela are pulling out of their poverty, and are beginning to address their problems with new forms of government, including communal councils.

John and I arrived in Venezuela during a national debate on the government’s proposed constitutional reform. We went to two massive demonstrations of reform supporters, one of 750,000 people. In a sea of red clothing and banners, our Canadian banner stood out, and people ran up to welcome and thank us. We talked to hundreds of people, there and in visits in Caracas and elsewhere, and in street encounters.

For millions of people in Venezuela, there is a birth of hope, a sense that their lives are improving, and that this is a result of not just of government efforts but of what they themselves are doing in their own communities.

What are their priorities? Water in their homes, accessible health care, improved housing, universal education, secure food distribution, access to employment, assistance for family businesses.

Most people we spoke with felt the reform would promote such goals. They referred specifically to key aspects of the reform, often citing the clauses by number. They were deeply interested in the political life of their country. They felt part of a revolution.

What have these people achieved? Here are a few of the things we saw:

1. First, you have all heard about Venezuela’s great public health program, Barrio Adentro, which has brought free care, medicines, and hospitals to the 70% of the population that were previously neglected. We found the new system superior in many ways to what we have here. For instance doctors give prompt service at any time of day or night. Barrio Adentro is a community-built and community-run system.

As you know, Cuba provided 20,000 medical personnel for this program. Venezuela now has 19,000 medical students, most headed for the public system. A new host of doctors, pledged to serve the poor: this is a radical political shift.

2. On voting day, we ate lunch in a kitchen in a mountainside district of Caracas. The kitchen was well equipped with industrial sized utensils. Every day, it feeds 150 of the most vulnerable local residents—the sick, the old, pregnant single women, single mothers and their children. The space is donated by a local family; neighbors do the cooking; equipment and food comes from the government. There are 3,000 of these new kitchens in Venezuela, serving free meals to half a million people a day.

3. The Venezuelan police are holdovers from the old regime— and they are not trusted. One community we visited decided to build their local police a headquarters. The police there never had buildings before—a symbol of substandard service. Community people secured the land, raised the money, and provided the labour. The grateful police, immensely proud of their building, donated an office in their station to the community, to better coordinate their work with community needs.

4. One of the neighborhood projects that we visited in Libertador, in the state of Carabobo, was a centre for street children. These kids used to work as rag-pickers in a huge rubbish dump run by criminal gangs. 98% of these kids no longer rummage the dumps and are now in school. In Libertador, child homelessness has now almost vanished.

The children’s centre has a drum orchestra and a marshal arts school—both of extremely high caliber, who have competed internationally. The kids have had a rough life so far, but they are affectionate and supportive of each other. They are the pride of their municipality.

5. We went to a mountain farming community of 200 persons called Altos de Uslar. We reached it through the world’s worst road—splashing through a river five centimeters deep in dry weather.

Residents are organized in a communal council, which decides on local projects, spends the money, and administrates them. Their first action was to build a community centre, which also serves as a school. We saw them building a new structure for a pre-school. The community meet every two weeks—sometimes every week—with 40 to 100 in attendance. All the community work is voluntary and unpaid. They have no executive: all decisions are taken by the assembly. There are more than 10,000 councils like this in Venezuela.

6. Karl Marx said that workers rule means cheap government. Here it is in action. Councils use their connections, ingenuity, and labour to keep costs down. If they have money left over, it goes for other local projects. A community leader told us her council had received funds to electrify one of its 14 hamlets. With careful management, they stretched the funds to bring power to three of the hamlets.

7. The most urgent appeals we heard were for more housing. Nationally, there is a deficit of 2.7 million homes, and another 1.3 million houses are improvised shacks. Construction is limited by the lack of building materials. In 2006, 200,000 homes were built; last year was better.

Argenis Loreto, mayor of Libertador, explained that the way to resolve this crisis is for community councils to receive the money and build the homes themselves. He gave the example of one local community was given money to build 10 houses but instead built 15.

8. Seven years ago, the mayor organized a survey asking residents what was their most urgent need. Health and education led the list by a wide margin, and that’s been the focus of efforts. Then, they had nine health centres; now they have 74. They built 48 schools this year. They recently did the survey again. No one mentioned health as an area of need; only one or two mentioned education.

The people we met in Venezuela were high-spirited and full of hope. They understand that have many obstacles, the greatest one being imperialism.

John: The 69 constitutional reform proposals aimed at entrenching the communal councils and various social reforms in the constitution, giving official recognition to various forms of social property, and deepening social inclusion. There were measures to grant state pensions to all working people including housewives, to counter discrimination against women, to shorten the work week, and to remove the two-term limit on presidents. The package was presented as a way to open the road to an advance toward socialism.

All this was misrepresented in the private media, and there was much talk of totalitarianism, presidential dictatorship, seizure of personal property, and the like. As you know, a large part of the Bolivarian ranks stayed home, and the reform was narrowly defeated. (See Chávez Pledges to Continue the Struggle)

Much has been said about the role of tactical errors by the government in this defeat. We’d like to pose the question differently. The vote shows that the Bolivarians have a majority only when the issue is clearly posed and their ranks fully mobilized. The vote reveals the underlying relationship of forces between these two camps.

What are the continuing sources of oligarchic influence, and how can the relationship of forces be shifted to the advantage of popular forces? How can poor people gain social hegemony?

Some socialists have argued that the masses are turning against Chávez because they gained little from the revolution. That was not our impression. The masses won a great deal from social reforms and also benefit from the booming economy. Indeed they now have a stake in the status quo – that is, in the continuation of Bolivarian reform.

We also noted that the left critics of Chávez who are so often quoted in the international Marxist press were not visible during our visit; we saw no trace of their organizations, newspapers, or slogans.

But the lives of Venezuelan working people remain shaped by capitalist productive relations, which generate capitalist consciousness. Tens of thousands of cooperatives have been formed, but they are still dependent on the capitalist market for raw materials and sales outlets. Linking coops together in networks is at a very early stage. The coops that we visited were related to the informal family-based economy: restaurants, beauty salons, handicrafts, artisanry, farming.

How can an alternative socialist economy be created? There are compelling reasons for the revolution to expropriate the oligarchy’s land and giant businesses. But we did not see that concept expressed in Venezuela. Should the banks be taken over, for example? We did hear workers cuss out the banks, but they thought in terms of creating new Bolivarian financial institutions, not expropriation.

According to planning minister Haiman El Troudi, the Venezuelan state already controls almost 70% of economic activity. But in this sector, he says, bureaucratism, inefficiency and corruption are rife, and the workers are exploited. What would be gained by extending this pattern to the rest of the economy? (See Socialisms in the 21st Century)

The remedy here is obvious: a revolutionary movement of industrial workers, acting on behalf of the entire people’s movement, that contests for control of the economy. But since the heroic days of the bosses’ strike four years ago, there’s been little sign of that. The unions have been the weak link of the Bolivarian movement. In the referendum fight, we saw one leaflet, short but good, from the paper workers. We saw some union T-shirts in the mass actions. Aside from that—nothing: no banners, no publications. The Bolivarian unions remain consumed by factional strife; the workers’ control movement has found little resonance there; union officers reputed to be the most radical are estranged from the Chávez leadership.

What of the media? During Chávez’s speech to the mass rally Suzanne referred to, he warned Globovision, the right-wing TV monopoly, that if they broke electoral law by prematurely revealing results, they would be expropriated. The crowd was ecstatic. The private media are deeply hated for their lies and slanders. Moreover, they portray a society that is privileged and European – North American in its values – to a working population that is poor and dark-skinned. Simply to shut them down would be resented: Globovision’s shows are popular.

But how ready is the Bolivarian movement to create its own compelling TV dramas? Working-class youth are now flooding into the universities; let’s hope that many are taking media studies.

Why such obsessing over the media? Because what we see in Venezuela is in part a struggle for influence over the popular imagination. This crops up in unexpected ways. Consider, for example, the controversy over the prisoner exchange in Colombia. In the days before the referendum, this was consistently the top headline issue.

When Colombian president Uribe rejected Chávez’s attempt to negotiate a prisoner exchange, the media played this up as a sign of Venezuela’s isolation. That was a factor in the referendum defeat. I have not seen it mentioned in any left commentary.

This shows that many socialists abroad are underestimating the importance of international issues in the Venezuelan struggle for power. What is at stake in the prisoner exchange issue? Chávez says that the war in Colombia should be resolved in a Latin American framework, without U.S. interference. Uribe is for continuing the war because it is essential to maintaining the country’s alliance with the U.S. And this question – a Latin American framework or an orientation to the U.S. – is the fundamental issue in the battle for Venezuelan public imagination.

Venezuela’s success in forging ties with other anti-imperialist governments challenges the oligarchy’s vision and validates the Bolivarian project. No wonder that the main battlefield in imperialism’s counterattack against Venezuela is now the desperate struggle in its ally, Bolivia.

Suzanne: Or consider for example the communal councils, the institutions of “people’s power.” Thousands have been formed, and as I described, their assemblies have considerable executive power, including over spending. Hundreds of thousands of working people are taking part in government, making decisions on their community’s welfare. For participants, this is a living refutation of capitalist values. The build-out of councils is uneven, and they function better in some areas than in others. Chávez says strengthening them will be a big priority this year – good news for Venezuela.

But the promise of the councils is undone by governmental obstruction. Libertator is one of the places where the councils originated. In his article on people’s power, John told the story of how the ministry of the environment quashed local plans to solve a problem of pollution from hog raising operations. Here’s another example: local bodies developed a plan to construct 15 ponds, to stabilize the local water supply and also enable local farmers to raise trout. The environmental ministry said no: that was against zoning regulations.

What explanations do the ministry provide? “None whatsoever,” says mayor Argenis Loreto. “Just as we always say: this bureaucracy is eating us alive… We can’t change things with this type of state.” Even among inherited municipal officials, “the apathy is barbaric. We have to establish a new conception of a staffer,” Argenis says. “I’d like to dissolve the municipal administration … and create a confederation of community governments.”

To take another example: a few years ago, the Bolivarian government launched a campaign to grant legal status and voting rights to millions of immigrant workers. The campaign was an immense success. But since then, a Colombian immigrant told us, the number of undocumented workers has risen rapidly. The legal framework is fine – they have the right to receive papers. But the bureaucratic procedures are too onerous and the officials are hostile.

John: The problem does not come solely from holdovers from the old regime. Radical Bolivarians we spoke to all explained that the movement is divided between two wings, the revolutionaries, led by Chávez, who want to advance toward socialism, and conservative officials who want to call a halt. They add that many in the conservative wing work behind the scenes to frustrate Chávez’s initiatives, like the constitutional reform – or to disrupt the communal councils that we visited in Libertador.

Obviously, the Bolivarian administration is sending mixed messages, and one of these messages is reinforcing the opposition. Chávez spoke to this question with great emphasis on Friday. He said he realizes that there is an “ill feeling [among the people] due to the contradiction between the words of the leader and the reality.” (Fred Fuentes in Venezuelanalysis)

One of the “tactical mistakes” contributing to the referendum defeat was a failure to sense this “ill feeling.” In discussions before the referendum, we were repeatedly told that “yes” support was running well behind Chávez’s vote in last year’s elections. But how was that fact to be communicated to the top? Opinion polls? They often conceal darker impulses. Reports? But there is no articulation, no system of common discussion and thought, between leadership and ranks.

Last January, Chávez proposed to establish such a common framework through foundation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Members were enrolled and base units were formed, but the party itself was not structured. Meanwhile, the party’s provisional governing bodies were formed of holdovers from the old political elites.

At party meetings we attended, members were enthusiastic and energetic, but lacked experience and know-how in political organizing. New leaders will emerge from among these activists, but it will take time. Meanwhile, the small scattering of members with previous revolutionary experience take the lead. We met many such leaders. They were from diverse backgrounds: Christian socialism, Trotskyism, armed struggle, the early Bolivarian movement in the army, ultra-leftism – yet they all had much the same approach. We heard of preparations to organize a revolutionary wing at the future congress.

We also met half a dozen members of the Communist Party of Venezuela, all of whom indicated regret over their party’s decision to stay out of the PSUV. We share this regret. Experienced socialist cadres can contribute much more inside the united party than on the sidelines. The new party is among other things an effort to desectarianize the Bolivarian movement. This effort is understandably jarring to some established currents, but we hope it succeeds.

The PSUV provides the best chance of uniting the Chávez leadership with rank-and-file activists in a common vehicle for united discussion, decision-making, and action. The need to consolidate this vehicle is the main lesson of the referendum defeat.

Thus the best news from Venezuela since the voting is that yesterday, after many postponements, the PSUV’s founding congress finally met in initial session. “Enough with betraying the people,” Chávez told the delegates."We have arrived here to make a real revolution or die trying.” He called for a struggle against the rise of a “new Bolivarian oligarchy.” (Venezuela Analysis)

Chávez’s proposals for the new year are to consolidate, rectify, and resume the revolution’s advance, particularly with respect to the communal councils and the PSUV. This seems a wise course. There must be a response to the discontent of the Bolivarian ranks, and the mass movement must resume its forward march. Only in this way can the delicately balanced relationship of forces shift in favour of working people.

Some of those we talked to felt that Chávez has too much influence and that his term of office should be limited. But we heard this view only from the opposition, not from the revolutionary ranks. Their confidence in him is clearly based on his consistent record of having acted on their behalf. Indeed, he is a revolutionary leader of a caliber not seen in Latin America since the Cuban revolution.

The course he has mapped out in the past week coincides with our impression that there is no impulse from the Bolivarian ranks for an immediate revolutionary offensive and showdown with Venezuelan capitalism.

But this status quo is not sustainable. Only the mass movement sustains the Bolivarian government, and for it to survive, it must make tangible gains. On the other hand, if the mass movement can be worn down and demobilized, the way will be clear for the oligarchy and its U.S. backers to reassert control.

The oligarchy’s agenda is not “Bolivarianism without Chávez”; it is the reassertion of the old order, including direct U.S. control, particularly over Venezuela’s oil. The oligarchy is committed to violence: its backers carried out many partisan murders during the referendum campaign. Pinochet’s Chile, the Canada-U.S. conquest of Haiti, the endless war against the Colombian people: these are the menu of U.S. alternatives to destroy Bolivarianism.

What Venezuela has witnessed is a great uprising for democracy and against imperialist domination. This rebellion has engaged the working class masses, who have created a movement for socialism. To hold open that socialist potential, we must defend Venezuela for what it is today: a giant breakthrough against neoliberalism and the U.S. empire.

Suzanne: The best conclusion is the words of Argenis Loreto to us in Libertador: “We thank you infinitely for the support you are giving. For us you are the first line of defense internationally. We are up against a huge monster that is trying to destroy us. You can break the wall of silence. We can’t do this; we depend on you. You are like brothers and sisters to us.”

We have a big job here in Canada. We need not only to learn how the people in Venezuela are changing their lives, but act in Canada to defend their efforts.

The Venezuela We Are With You Coalition is composed of a wide range of organizations and individuals interested in Latin American solidarity in the spirit of Bolivar. It includes more than half a dozen socialist currents.

Sign up and get our monthly mailings, and notices of meetings. Check out our website. Come to our meetings and join our work.


Venezuela Tour Notebook November 19 to December 3

By John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss

We visited Venezuela from November 19 to December 2, 2007, as part of a solidarity brigade organized by the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network (

We have organized the highpoints of our tour notebook under seven headings:
1. In memory of a recent martyr of the revolution

2. "Sí o no?”: Two vignettes of the referendum debate

3. Visits with Venezuelan cooperatives

4. Meeting the United Socialist Party of Venezuela

5. Delivering health services to working people

6. Libertador: Pioneer of People’s Power

7. Visit with Bolivarian student leaders


Chavez Sends Solidarity Message To Bolivia

Bolivia Under U.S. Aggression
From: Mathaba

The President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez Frias, on behalf of the State and Venezuelan people, sent a solidarity message to Bolivia.

Montevideo, Dec 18 (ABN).- This country is going through a hard political situation, in which some opposition groups pretend to ignore governmental institutions and its Government. This message was sent by Chávez directly to his Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales, this Tuesday, during the 34 Presidents and Associated States of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) Summit, which was carried out at the Plenarios Hall, in Montevideo, Uruguay At this opportunity, the Venezuelan President talked about the geopolitical issue and he stated: “Even if it is true that we can not blame external factors for our failures, we can not totally ignore them either. It would be a naïve stance, do not recognize or not take into account the impact of all of those factors”.

He reminded that Venezuela has been nine years tolerating aggressions, campaigns, and psychological operations that have hurt a lot; therefore, “a denounce again, and I am forced to do it due to the permanent aggressions against us, the North American empire as the one behind all these actions.

To put an example of how much can hurt these kinds of permanent psychological campaigns to cause troubles, he mentioned the case of the Venezuelan airplane, a Hercules, which was sent to Bolivia with humanitarian help.

However, a group opposing Evo Morales threw stones at the plane.

“They (United States) have poisoned people telling them that we are sending weapons to Bolivia for a war. Then, people, victims of that campaign and led by wrong leaders and foreign people, threw stones at the plane that was going to refuel, forcing it to make an emergency take off. The plane landed, almost without fuel, at a Brazilian town”, he recounted.

He pointed out that the airplane was carrying medicines, water, and engineering machinery to work with Bolivian soldiers and people.

“Right now, Bolivian situation is very hard, where legitimate process are being ignored, some democratic ones like the Constituent, which approved the new Constitution, as well as State and Government institutions. Everything is done in the same format applied in Venezuela (in 2002)”.

See Evo Morales on UTUBE - Bolivia at the Crossroads -
The Indigenous peoples are on the Rise all across America -

Canadian Labour Congress: Support the Bolivian people and government

Canadian Labour Congress / Congrès du travail du Canada
Kenneth V. Georgetti President / President
Hassan Yossuff Secretary-Treasurer / Secrelaire-tresorier
Barbara Brea Executive Vice-President / Vice-présidente executive
Marie Clarke Walker Executive Vice-President / Vice-presidente executive
December 19, 2007

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper Prime Minister of Canada
House of Commons
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, ON

By fax: 613-941-6900

Dear Prime Minister:

On behalf of the 3.2 million working Canadian men and women affiliated to the Canadian Labour Congress, I am writing to encourage you to extend Canada's support for the people and government of Bolivia, in the face of conflict surrounding the new Bolivian constitution. This action would be in line with the governments of nine Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela). It would be in line with a statement from the Organization of American States (OAS) and would also be in keeping with Canada's expressed interest in renewing and strengthening relations with our "neighborhood" of the Americas.

President Evo Morales was elected in December 2005, with a clear mandate, as the first Indigenous president of Bolivia representing a large Indigenous majority. President Morales fulfilled his promise to convene a Constituent Assembly, with the mandate to fully integrate the indigenous majorities in the political sphere and improve their situation after centuries of social injustice. The Constituent Assembly was to submit the constitutional text for approval by means of a referendum.

The opposition governors of five of the nine Bolivian departments (Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, Tarija, Beni and Pando) said Monday that they would not recognize the new constitution which is supported by President Evo Morales and had been approved on Sunday. They confirmed that four of them will apply their regional autonomy regardless of the constitution. This is clearly an attempt to destabilize the democratic process in Bolivia and should be rejected.

While the minority opposition has every right to have its voice heard in the constitutional process, their systematic interruption of the Constituent Assembly's sittings, as well as recent violent protests, calls for civil disobedience and ugly racist declarations are impeding the exercise of a democratic process.

The Canadian Labour Congress expresses its solidarity with the democratically elected government and its support for the constitutional reforms demanded by the majority of Bolivians.

We condemn the calls to violence and secession, these which are anti-democratic attempts to destabilize the country and deny the oppressed majority their right to reshape Bolivia on a more equitable basis and in recognition of its First Nations.

We have confidence that President Evo Morales will manage the current situation, with respect for democratic principles, and will ensure that Bolivian political forces maintain a climate of dialogue and understanding, rejecting all attempts that endanger the stability of the country's institutions and the democratically elected government.


Kenneth V. Georgetti President

cc. CLC Officers and Executive Assistants
CLC Executive Committee
The Honourable Maxime Bernier, Minister of Foreign Affairs
The Honourable Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Minister of Labour
The Honourable Jack Layton, New Democratic Party of Canada
The Honourable Stephane Dion, Liberal Party of Canada
Mr. Gilles Duceppe, Bloc Quebecois
Ms. Elizabeth May, Green Party of Canada
Embassy of Bolivia in Ottawa

Unite Forces For "Anti-imperialist International"

Chavez Calls For a Battle of Ideas to Combat U.S. Interference in Latin America
December 12, 2007,
by Kiraz Janicke

Speaking at the Cultural Encounter for the Integration of the Peoples of Our America, in Buenos Aires on Monday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for increased Latin American integration and a "battle of ideas" in order to combat United States interference in the region.

The U.S has launched a colossal media war against the peoples and governments of Latin America Chavez said, because "We have left behind being the U.S.'s backyard, this is why they attack us so much."

"They bombard us without clemency, the minds of children, young people, men and women to try to convert us into human beings without a past, disconnected from reality, and into people without a future. However, he argued, "We have the right to a future, to have a homeland, to create the great homeland. I believe that the next 500 years will depend on what happens in these years, as the panorama of the Conquest [Spanish colonization] changed our map, imposed on us a course, as what happened 200 years ago marked the course of the last two centuries, now we are again in a definitive epoch."Reaffirming his commitment to socialism as "the only path that will permit us to save the world, because capitalism is the path of the destruction of life and the human species," Chavez stressed that, "Only the conscious peoples, in organization and in motion can make history, therefore the consciousness of our peoples, of our nations, is essential."

This is precisely why North American imperialism attacks and bombards us using their "cultural artillery"- to placate and divide the peoples, Chavez argued.

"Through offices, analysts and millions of dollars, the United States carries out a media war against our peoples and governments. With different intensities and variants but in exactly the same format," he explained.

The Venezuelan people and government have been subjected to a fierce media war for the past 10 years which was intensified in the last few months, with a dirty psychological war appealing to peoples fears, aimed neutralising the Venezuelan people, Chavez said. This was one of the key reasons for the electoral defeat of the proposed constitutional reforms during the referendum on December 2 he explained.
Chavez also warned that Venezuela possesses documents to show that "the United States has plans to invade Venezuela." He also said, "the gringos have plans for a coup against Evo Morales."

"They aim for civil wars to then justify the ‘blue helmets' [of the United Nations Peace Keeping Force] or a national intervention."

While the major attacks are aimed principally against Venezuela and Bolivia, Chavez said it is likely that a rightwing campaign of destabilisation will intensify against the Constituent Assembly process in Ecuador.

"In Ecuador the Constituent Assembly is beginning, and it is probable that the conflict will intensify; as in Bolivia, where they carried it to such extremes with the manipulation by imperialism and its lackeys through the media war, that is one of the harshest and toughest confrontations of ideas."

Each government cannot confront the threat of imperialism on its own, Chavez argued, rather it is necessary to unite forces and create an "anti-imperialist international of the peoples," to confront imperialist aggression."If the empire attacks us, we cannot remain limited to separate resistance. We will have to create an international resistance of workers, of soldiers", he argued.
Chavez indicated that he had spoken of the idea with Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador and Ignacio "Lula" Da Silva, president of Brasil.

However, the changes and transformations occurring in Latin America are "irreversible, Chavez assured. The newly created Bank of the South would push forward Latin American integration he said, and build on previous initiatives such as Petrosur, a project for regional energy integration and development, and Telesur a Latin American television network.

Other projects Chavez pointed to include the University of the South and the ‘social missions' of the South, initiatives oriented towards combating problems of social exclusion, illiteracy, malnutrition as well as ensuring access to health and education for the peoples of the region.

Chavez, who attended the swearing in of newly elected president of Argentina, Christina Fernández de Kirchner, and the creation of the Bank of the South on Sunday, also told Argentine business groups at a meeting at the Hotel Sheraton in Buenos Aries on Monday, that relations between Venezuela and Argentina would be strengthened, "politically, socially and economically" under the leadership of Christina Kirchner.

Eyewitnesses Report on Venezuela Referendum

Dear Friends,

This is a report from two leading members in Venezuela We Are With You Coalition. John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss traveled to Venezuela at the end of November, as participants in a tour organized by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network
After Referendum Defeat, Chávez
Pledges to Continue the Struggle

A Report from Caracas

By John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss

Responding to what he termed a "photo finish" defeat in Venezuela's December 2 constitutional referendum, President Hugo Chávez pledged to continue the struggle for the measures that were presented to voters.

Announcing the results on national TV, he accepted "the decision made by the people" and thanked all voters, both those who voted "yes" and those in the "no" camp. But he called for his movement to stay on course. "I do not withdraw a single comma from the proposal," he added. "The proposal is still on the table."

Chávez also recalled the words he used after the failure of the Bolivarian movement's initial bid for power: "As I said on February 4, 1992, we could not do it – for now.'" On that occasion, the Venezuelan masses seized on the words "for now" (por ahora) as a commitment to fight on until victory was won.

Chávez closed by saying that a major proposal in the constitutional reform project, the expansion of social security to include workers in the informal economy and housewives, does not require a constitutional amendment and would be carried out as soon as possible.

The right-wing victory in the vote was paper-thin: 51% to 49%. The "no" camp increased its vote only marginally (about 2%) from the opposition's score in last year's presidential elections. The big change was the abstention of more than a third (38%) of those who voted for Chávez last year. Unconvinced of the reform proposals but unwilling to associate themselves with the opposition, they chose this time to stay at home.

Profile of the Reform
Chavez announced plans to reform Venezuela's 1999 constitution shortly after his reelection in December 2006, as a way to open the road for the country's advance to socialism. On August 15, 2007, he proposed amendments to 33 articles of the constitution. This triggered an extensive public debate in all parts of the country.

Following this discussion, on November 2, the National Assembly adopted a package that included not just Chavez's amendments, but others affecting another 36 articles. The referendum followed automatically 30 days later.

The reform's main provisions can be grouped under six headings:

Popular power:
Creation of a new level of government consisting of communal and other councils that would receive at least 5% of the national budget and would take decisions not through elected representatives but through assemblies of all members.
Non-capitalist economic development: Provisions for new forms of collective, social, and public property alongside private ownership; subjection of the central bank to government direction; stronger measures for land reform and against capitalist speculation.
Deepening social inclusion: A variety of measures to counter discrimination, democratize higher education, and move towards a 36-hour work week.
New territorial divisions: New presidential powers to channel resources to designated regions with special needs.
A stronger presidency. Removal of the two-term limit on a president's time in office; provision for suspension of freedom of information during a state of emergency (a response to the capitalist media's role in organizing the unsuccessful 2002 military coup); and other measures.
Socialism as the goal. The amendments proclaimed a socialist society as Venezuela's goal, without specifying what that would mean in practice.

(For a fuller outline, see Greg Wilpert's discussion in http//

The view from the streets
When we arrived in Caracas, 12 days before the vote, the streets in downtown and working-class areas were lined with banners, posters, and graffiti calling for a "yes" vote ("Sí con Chávez"). The "no" campaign conceded the streets, relying instead on its vise-grip on the media—the strongest instrument of political control.

We saw little evidence of public discussion. Efforts were being made to circulate the text of the reforms, which filled several dozen pages of legalistic prose. But at first, we saw these distributions only close by the National Assembly. Not until the last few days did we see "red points"—with tables, banners, and music—carrying out the distributions across the city. In the last week, a "dual-column" version was also distributed. We spent time pouring over it, trying to grasp the changes, but it was slow going.

Only in the final few days before the vote did we see flyers that attempted to summarize the changes. Just back from a lengthy trip abroad, Chávez spoke stirringly during the final week in defense of the reform.

Nonetheless, on the whole, we did not see any concerted effort to explain why the changes were necessary.

A loaded debate
Most of criticisms we heard from "no" supporters were based on obvious distortions of the reform, including claims that the changes would abolish private property, end free bargaining for employment contracts, make Chávez president for life, abolish elections, and end free speech.

Other charges were even more fanciful: the government was arming criminal gangs and promoting incursions of Colombian paramilitaries, planning to take children from their parents, and preparing to convert Venezuela into a "totalitarian" state like Cuba or North Korea.

Such accusations were usually delivered in a scattergun style that made reasoned response difficult.

The whole debate was loaded against the Chávez supporters — to vote "yes," you had to support a wide range of proposals which were individually and collectively difficult to understand. But to vote "no" or abstain, you only needed to object to a single proposal, or just feel uneasy or uncertain. The capitalist media made certain that everyone heard plenty of reasons for unease and uncertainty.

The `yes' campaign
During our two-week stay, we talked to many hundreds of "yes" supporters. In the two mass demonstrations we attended, we carried a banner reading, in Spanish, "Canadians in support of the Bolivarian revolution." Marchers crowded round to greet us, talk to us, and express their internationalist convictions.

Given the complexity of the issues, it was striking how well and thoroughly these "yes" supporters understood the reform. Whenever we asked, "Which change is the most important?" we got specific and thoughtful responses, often quoting the constitutional paragraph number, and often taking up complex topics remote from the speaker's immediate experience.

Partisans of the "yes" often overestimated our knowledge of the changes. On a voting lineup in the "23 de Enero" district of western Caracas, a "yes" supporter, asked which change was the most important, replied, "Well, I'd say article 115, but also articles…" and he reeled off a series of article numbers, far too quickly for us to jot down.

We took part in a pro-reform student demonstration of more than 60,000 – the largest such action so far – and a campaign windup that mobilized some 750,000 in downtown Caracas. Both actions were far larger than anything the "no" forces managed. At both events the mood was confident, joyous, and militant.

And as Chávez points out, the vote of 4.3 million for reforms that endorsed a course toward socialism is a historic achievement.

The impact of our discussions with "yes" supporters was overwhelming and is hard to convey to those who have not witnessed revolution. Here we have a revolutionary vanguard of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions—experienced in struggle, wise, passionate, and determined—that has several times rallied a decisive majority to beat down attacks of the imperialist foe.

Defections from the Bolivarian camp
Yet again and again, "yes" activists told us that support for the reform in their milieus was noticeably less than support for Chávez in the presidential elections last year. This uncertainty in the progressive camp was reinforced by a series of much publicized defections, including the Podemos party (which scored 8% in last year's vote) and former defense minister and army chief Raúl Baduel. Many Bolivarian activists told us that the reform faced possible defeat.

In this context, it seemed to us that the revolutionary forces urgently needed to organize an intensive dialogue with those in Bolivarian rank-and-file who were uncertain about the reform. We expected to see efforts to canvass working-class areas similar to what took place earlier this year, when five million signed up to support the project of a new unified socialist party (the PSUV). But we saw no such initiative.

A PSUV meeting we attended in the Catia district of Caracas, a week before the vote, concerned itself with the organizing of scrutineers at polling places – a crucial and complex task – rather than with organizing discussions with voters in its region and getting out the "yes" vote. For the newly formed party branch we visited, just getting the scrutineers in place and provided with logistical backup was a major challenge. The party shows great promise, but did not play a strong visible role in the campaign. (See "The Battle for the United Socialist Party of Venezuela," by Kiraz Janicke.)

Hammer of counterrevolution

The opposition campaign proceeded along two parallel tracks. On one hand, "no" spokespersons – with Baduel and Podemos in the lead – cloaked themselves in the mantle of the 1999 constitution, an early Bolivarian achievement, claiming they merely wanted to defend the movement's original goals (although in fact, the opposition at that time had bitterly opposed that progressive document).

At the same time, the opposition readied its "Plan B." Opposition groups engaged in repeated violent provocations against "yes" supporters, including three wanton killings of Chávez supporters. Elements of the right-wing student movement that is strong in the country's traditional upper-class universities were prominent in the disorders. There was talk of insurrection if "yes" forces won.

Opposition leaders did little to disavow and prevent such actions. During the campaign they did not pledge to accept a "yes" victory. All this reinforced fears about voting.

In the aftermath of the vote, some opposition leaders made conciliatory gestures, clearly seeking to build a bridge to more conservative forces within the government. Yet the entire course of the opposition since Chávez's election in 1999 has aimed not just at halting the Bolivarian process but at forcibly destroying the revolution root and branch and fully restoring U.S. domination and oligarchic rule. In view of Venezuela's oil wealth and world political influence, the opposition's masters in Washington can settle for nothing less.

If the opposition can preserve its control of Venezuela's most powerful social institutions, starting with the private economy and the media, it has good reason to hope that over time they can divide, grind down, and crush the revolution.
This fact was a central motivation for the constitutional reform proposals. The Bolivarian movement's socialist course is not a change from its original goals, which included national sovereignty, a break from neo-liberalism, endogenous development, popular democracy, equality, and the well-being of the working masses. Rather, as Chávez has stated, these goals can be achieved only through a fundamental re-organization of society along socialist lines.

However, many supporters of the Bolivarian cause preferred to stand pat on the social achievements of their movement, rather than risking an uncertain advance toward socialism. The dynamics of elections under capitalism, which isolate working people from each other while maximizing the impact of hostile media, reinforce such conservative impulses.

Yet the revolutionary process has as yet been able only to slightly alleviate the grinding poverty of the Venezuelan masses. Society has only begun to recover from the devastation of neo-liberalism. A still-dominant capitalist class conspires to heighten instability, while seizing on it to discredit the government.

The revolution cannot stand pat. It must advance – or ultimately lose all.

That choice will be made not in parliament but in the arena of mass social struggles, where the multi-millioned Bolivarian vanguard, if successfully deployed, has decisive political weight.

The referendum's outcome is a serious setback. But the resolute response of President Chávez, plus the vigor and determination of the Bolivarian ranks, provide good reason to believe that the revolution will resume its forward march.

Published in Socialist Voice, December 7, 2007:

Daily Log From Eyewitnesses: (1) In Memory of a Recent Martyr of the Revolution

Venezuela Tour Notebook
By John Riddell and Suzanne Weiss

We visited Venezuela from November 19 to December 2, 2007, as part of a solidarity brigade organized by the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network ( We visited Venezuela from November 19 to December 2, 2007, as part of a solidarity brigade organized by the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network (

We have organized the highpoints of our tour notebook under seven headings.
The first of our highpoints:

In Memory of a recent martyr of the revolution
Danilo Anderson (1966-2004), a state prosecutor investigating instigators of the anti-Chávez coup, was victim of a notorious right-wing assassination. A display in his memory was mounted in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a few weeks before the referendum on constitutional reform. The display is adorned with signed graffiti by students, which express their feelings about Danilo and the revolutionary process.

• For a great and revolutionary homeland through your example.
• Danilo you are present with your people in every struggle.
• For Danilo. Yes to the great homeland that you wished to achieve for us.
• Yes to dreams. Yes to love. For all that is good and for the future of Venezuela and the world – we say “yes.”
• For the truth and dignity of the people.
• Danilo, friend, we will follow the path of our homeland’s future.
• A “yes” for integration of our—the Venezuelans’—people’s power. Ever onward to victory.
• Yes for our future—that of all the indigenous peoples.
• Yes for a country.
• Danilo, people like you never die.
• Forward to the 21st century with the constitutional reform.
• Down with the contras [escualidos]—revolution and transformation. Yes to the reform!
• Danilo – because the “yes” will create justice.

Daily Log From Eyewitnesses: (2) "Si o No?": Two Vignettes of the Referendum Debate

The second high point of our tour notebook: "Si o No?": Two Vignettes of the Referendum Debate

November 22. On streets around downtown Caracas, the debate on Venezuela's constitutional referendum is heating up. Many stalls and "red points" are distributing copies of the 69 amendments to the 1999 Bolivarian constitution, which will be adopted or rejected in voting December 2.

Broadly speaking, the changes aim to update the constitution to take account of the forward march of the revolutionary process since it was adopted eight years ago. Among major changes are: institutionalization of peoples power - that is, direct political control by peoples committees; social security for all working people and housewives who do not have formal jobs; the six-hour working day; expansion of the "protection of property" clause to include various forms of communal ownership as well as private property; inclusion of the anti-imperialist goals of foreign policy; and removal of the two-term limitation on presidential tenure.

We got some insight into thinking on these changes when we went into the main civic administration building, a handsome structure from the early republican period built around a generous treed courtyard. In one corner we found a man reading a history of Caracas, who offered to explain the reasons he intended to vote against the reform.
He made these points:

* The vote is rigged in advance; the results will be phony.
* The "missions" (government special programs to provide urgent help for the poor) are a fraudulent vote getting scheme. We never had them until Chavez started holding all these elections. They are a giant pinata spending the oil revenue rather than using it productively.
* Venezuela is becoming more and more dependent on oil and the rest of the economy is lagging.
* Agriculture is weak because of the unsettled conditions.
* People are happy because they are buying things, but everything they buy is imported.
* There are ten times as many kidnappings as 10 years ago, being carried out by gangs from Colombia, drug traffickers. This is new. Before Chavez we had no problems with Colombia.
* There are many more armed attacks in the cities, and the criminals are getting their guns from the armed forces.

We wandered over to the opposite corner of the courtyard and introduced ourselves to Carmen, a cleaner on the municipal staff who is for the reform. She explained that above all it is good for poor people. Before Chavez we had all kinds of problems with basic things like electricity, gas, and water, she said, but now these and other things are going much better for us. We asked what clause of the amendments was most important to her. She replied:

* The most important article is on the university, which is now going to be democratic. Now a professors' vote is worth that of 45 students; with the reform everyone's vote will be equal. And the universities are being opened up. Before they were only for the people at the top, but now its open to everyone.

* Also, there is the problem of bureaucracy. Right now, when you have a problem, the bureaucrats send you from one office to another (she pointed to various offices around the courtyard) and you never get it settled. With the reform, we will have peoples power. The communal councils will have the power to get around the bureaucracy and make decisions directly. Participation in government - that's the main thing in the reform.* There will be no more monopolies. Like the banks: they refuse to lend to poor people, and when they do lend, its at 28 percent interest. Now we can go forward with peoples cooperatives.

Most of those we talk to are for a "yes" vote in the referendum. They know the reforms well, frequently referring to specific articles. But opinion is sharply divided, and several "yes" supporters have told us they believe support for the reform is so far not as strong as support for Chavez in last years presidential election.

The opposition has taken heart from the fact that a number of well-known figures on the right wing of the Bolivarian movement have chosen this moment to break with Chavez and go over to the opposition. Meanwhile, some right-wing figures are making ominous threats that suggest a replay of the 2002 coup attempt. There is a big disinformation campaign in the media, which pro Chavez forces are trying to counter.

On Tuesday we participated in a magnificent student demonstration of 60,000 that marked what many consider to be a rebirth of the revolutionary student movement. It was many times larger than the unruly and provocative actions of ultraright students that have troubled Caracas in recent weeks. We carried a banner in the Tuesday demonstration that read (in Spanish) "Canadians in defense of the Bolivarian revolution. Venezuela We Are With You Coalition" and included the CVEC website. Our banner was met everywhere by a joyous response.

Daily Log From Eyewitnesses: (3) Visits with Venezuelan Cooperatives

Visits with Venezuelan cooperatives

We visited the Miranda Cooperative Centre in a middle-class district of eastern Caracas. The centre is located in a sprawling and dilapidated former textile factory; it now houses more than 40 cooperatives set up under the government’s NUDES coop program (Nucleo de desarrollo endógeno socialista.

When we arrived, about 100 workers were meeting to discuss the coming referendum vote and to organize themselves to register a workers’ council as part of the country’s new people’s power structures. After a good deal of back and forth discussion, the best-known leader of the centre, gave a talk on the referendum, Hugo Chávez’s role as a mediator in the Colombian civil war, and Colombia’s historic ties with Venezuela. He wound up with a rap on Che Guevara, Latin American revolution, and Cuba’s role in African liberation.

The textile factory had 3,600 workers until it was shut down in 1993. In December 2006 the vacant complex was occupied by a group of about 75 workers in an unauthorized lightning action—carefully planned to avoid a confrontation with police. The occupiers’ hope was that the textile factory could be re-equipped and put back into production. Government ministries have so far not given their support to that proposal. The former owners have never turned up. The facility is now home to 45 different cooperatives, and 250 coop members work here. There are coops providing carpentry, services, accounting, bakery, food production, mechanical, metal working, design, childcare, distribution, and truck transport. The coops have combined to establish workers’ commissions for education, administration, culture—ten of them. The centre is signed up with the federation of worker-run factories, FACTA, which unites 300 workplaces.

There’s a coordinating body elected by the workers, which meets weekly, and the results are taken to the assembly.

The coops are planning to set up more than 100 stands at Christmas, selling goods at a solidarity price, seeking to expand markets and increase employment here.
There are 80,000 cooperatives in Venezuela, with from five members and up.
At first, the Miranda centre was helped by the municipal government only and survived mainly through volunteer labour. In October, it received government credits. “To establish the centre,” Tony said, “we have had to fight the company that owns most shopping centres in Caracas and wants to develop this site as a mall, including with a casino and—of all things—a bingo palace. As if we needed a bingo palace! It’s been a story of popular resistance. We aim to prove that the people themselves can manage production and that the wealth will go not just to individual needs but social needs like schools. The vast factory, still mostly unused, remains property of the old owners, who disappeared in 1993. It remains for the government to determine what is a fair price to pay for this business. It is not clear whether it can be used for a textile factory or should be used for other purposes. Work is under way to set up a grocery market, a lunchroom, a parking lot, and a warehouse.

Tonny Rodríguez’s Story: Tonny’s background was of interest: “I come from a poor background; my father worked in this factory. I worked to get money for the family and did not finish school. I joined the reserves (a common way to get a job), so I was in the army two years, and afterwards I had contact with revolutionary groups. I was in the revolutionary organization of high school students, later in La Unica Via. This group folded, so I joined Chávez’s movement and took part in the failed 1992 uprising. I continued revolutionary activity and was arrested, and stayed in jail until Chávez’s victory in 1998. Then I worked in different projects: for social housing, for the 2000 constitutional referendum, to help with the mudslide tragedy in Vargas.

In 2000 I had problems with a neighbour who was involved in drugs. With two accomplices, he tried to kill me, and I took shots to the leg, body, and arms. I spent a year in bed and almost lost the leg. But they sent me to Cuba for an operation, and I spent three years there. The Cuban doctors saved the leg. I went in a wheel chair and came back on crutches and began to walk, now I am OK with a special cane—which the Cubans got from Canada, by the way. The Cubans are now proposing an operation to extend the bone in my short leg so I will not need a cane.
“My attackers were also victims of oppression. They continued in their life of crime and were all killed by other criminals.

“Such killings were routine in the Fourth Republic. Now we are trying to rebuild a sense of humanity. We have to go beyond just trying to accumulate wealth, beyond consumerism. We can live without poverty but without luxury—a different kind of good life.

“We want to build support for other peoples, like the United States, which has the highest drug consumption in the world and those killings in the schools. It is not the people who are responsible for that.”While touring the factory, we met a group of visitors from a textile cooperative, the Cooperative Textileros de Táchira. They also occupied a closed down facility. They got credits, restarted operations, and are a going concern. They have been paying back the loan for 18 months. They aim to create a social productive network that can link up directly with markets.

A few days later, we visited a smaller cluster of coops in the state of Carabobo: a shop producing and selling handicrafts and pottery, a furniture-making coop, and a lunchroom providing meals to the community. The centre offers free workshops for the community, and we see young kids doing sculpture.

Daily Log From Eyewitnesses: (4) Meeting the United Socialist Party of Venezuela

Meeting the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV)

We attended a meeting of PSUV activists in the “Manuelita Saenz” battalion (branch) in the Caracas district of Catia on Sunday, November 25. We talked to Roberto, an assistant spokesperson (vocero) in his early twenties.

“There is no culture here of coming together for meetings,” Roberto said. “But more people are starting to break through to become active in the PSUV battalions. They see the importance of the struggle and of making their voice heard within it. There are many social activists in the new party, but it is only in formation, with no statutes yet in place.
“The party exists not just for electoral purposes but to let people know about the revolution. Many issues that come from Marxism and other revolutionary traditions are entirely new for people here. Chávez throws in a lot of enthusiasm, and this is central to the new Venezuela. Each battalion has a unit for territorial defence, to protect the district from radical opposition elements.

“Spokespersons are chosen by the battalion membership. The battalions make decisions and the spokespersons are bound by them. Today we meet to discuss strategy leading up to next Sunday’s vote. Our task will be to ensure that no obstacles are placed in the way of the vote by the radical opposition. Workshops for poll-watchers are being held today, followed by a meeting.

“A battalion has on average 220-250 members of whom about 50-60 are active. Meetings are held weekly, and sometimes more often. The old parties have just one big rally; the PSUV has frequent little meetings taking place everywhere. Delegates from the battalions form a socialist circumscription (district), which elects a delegate to the founding conference. We are in the 16th circumscription, which includes seven battalions.

“In most battalions, 70% of the members are women, but they tend to elect men as leaders. Men are the majority of the commission in this battalion, but the battalion itself makes the decisions. The vast majority of members are poor working people, although there are one or two lawyers and a few retired. Lengthy working schedules get in the way of attendance. We meet Sunday, but some members work on that day, and others work very hard Monday-Saturday and have little time Sunday.

Some members are old revolutionaries from 30-40 years ago [three in this battalion]; some come from the AD and COPEI—now rightwing parties—and are trying to find their way to the party. Some were part of Bolivarian organizations formed for prior elections, but they lapsed after the vote. This time we have a structure, albeit partial, going into the elections.”

“The big media campaign against us is similar to last year, but then the issue was clearer. These reforms are something new, so the right-wing media attacks have more impact. People who are active in the community councils understand better this issues at stake in the reform. We are in regular daily contact with our members. There are Red Points to distribute the reform and talk to people. And the big demonstration is coming up Thursday. We get instructions from the Zamora command (organizers of the “yes” campaign), which do not always correspond with our experience of the right way to do things.

We attended a meeting of the circumscription, including about 50 battalion representatives, 50% of them women. Most participants were 30-50 years old.

There was a long and animated discussion—sometimes with several discussions going on at once—and most members spoke at least once. A typical issue: one polling booth has in the past been very hotly contested, with long line-ups to vote. Last time the pro-government forces won by only four votes. There were fist-fights. This will be a big job for the battalion, but it is a weak battalion and weakly represented at this meeting. They get 15-20 to meetings and can get 10 to the polling booth.

Comment by a couple of participants: We should have done all this work several weeks ago. The opposition is very well organized, but we’re in the final week still trying to figure it out.

Daily Log From Eyewitnesses: (5) Delivering Health Services to the Poor

Delivering Health Services to the Poor

a) Interview with two medical leaders

We met Dr. Felipe Guzman, former minister of health, and Dr. Graciela Angarita at a rally of Bolivarian journalists. The two doctors had been among a contingent of progressive health professionals who organized a demonstration of support at this rally. What follows integrates comments made by both of them.

Health is conducted on a much broader basis now, with 250 families for each primary-care doctor. Before, 70% were excluded from care. The first priority was to include these, and this has been done through the missions, like Barrio Adentro. These are a sort of parallel government, alongside the bureaucracy.

Barrio Adentro I, the primary-care service, is being carried out more and more today by Venezuelan doctors. Barrio Adentro II, which provides integral diagnostic, rehabilitation, and high-technology services, is still staffed to a greater extent by Cubans. Two-thirds of the Cuban contingent is still here in Venezuela. Doctors provide service in the morning in their clinics and do house calls in the afternoons.

Not everyone is sympathetic to the Cubans. There is some xenophobia built up by the media. Barrio Adentro was launched because qualified Venezuelan doctors did not want to provide service for the poor. At that time, most of the public hospitals were nearly abandoned. The doctors assigned to them would go there an hour or two a day, and be paid for eight hours. The rest of the time they were in private clinics. The medicines would be channeled off from the hospitals to these clinics.We now have 19,000 students in medical school in Venezuela, 50% women. Before, only privileged people went to university, but now people in the barrios can become doctors and are doing so—and winning scholarships to study in India, China, England, and France.

There are signs of change: mortality in pregnancy is down; parasitic infections are down; preventive medicine is much more effective; the AIDS problem is under control, with 15,000 under treatment with retroviral drugs supplied free. We have big problems with the drug monopolies, of course: we have relationships with Indian drug manufacturers; all medicines go free to poor people..

There are homes for old people, but in Venezuela the family looks after their elderly members, with the help of neighbours.

Contraception is free, and young people can obtain it without involvement of their parents.

b) Visit to Barrio Adentro I clinic in Libertador, State of Carabobo: The centre is simple A-frame construction with the consultancy below and a dwelling for the doctor above. It was built with municipal funds. The Cuban doctor, Idis Merina, has been here four years. She sees 50-60 patients daily. All services are free, as are medicines. Mision Milagro operations are done here—more than 200 so far—this is also free. The greatest health problems are parasites, which are now seen less often, and dengue fever, a new problem brought on by the wet season.

Before Barrio Adentro, the municipality had nine primary care health centres; it now has 74, all built with community support.

c) Barrio Adentro II. We visited a Unified Diagnostic Centre (Centro Diagnostico Integral) in Libertador. It is located in Juncalito, though it serves a bigger area. It is a single-storey building with several rooms, four doctors, and about 20 beds in total. Different rooms provide for intensive care, observation, and assessment; a pharmacy, a cafeteria. The centre analyzes blood, urine, and results of other tests on the spot—50 such tests a day. The most frequent problems are dengue, parasites, blood poisoning, and iron deficiency. Modern equipment such as a defibrillator and ultrasound is available in the centre..The doctors are Cuban, but Venezuelans come to be trained. The equipment comes from Cuba, most often made there but in some cases bought internationally (the new Toshiba X-ray equipment). One of the doctors served in Pakistan, in the mountains, after the great earthquake. “We donated 30 hospitals. It was so cold up there!”

Patients who arrive with urgent problems are seen immediately. For consultation, the wait would be 15 minutes at the most. As we arrive (late afternoon), the hospital is functioning but not busy; we see about half a dozen patients of which two are in beds. The centre provides medicines and all other services free. They practice alternative medicine when possible. There is one ambulance for the municipality, which is quite adequate and provides near-immediate service; if needed, ambulances in neighbouring municipalities can be called in.

A doctor explains: “We are not here to change anyone’s political views but out of humanitarian commitment. We look after everyone, including some people committed to the opposition, and some who are Cuban gusanos (exiles).”

There are four such centres in the municipality, of which one is equipped as a top-tier hospital; the other three second-tier diagnostic centres. This one serves 25,000people. Patients can come directly, but the usual route is by referral from the primary-care centre, one of which is on the same property.

Beside the hospital is the Centro Integral de Rehabilitación, with a gym, massage room, heat treatments, ultrasound, laser, hydro-therapy (water massage), foot treatments, speech therapy. The entire centre (rehab, diagnostic, primary care) was established in the last few years..

d) A centre for seniors:
About 60 frail seniors come here in the morning for supervised exercise, with blood pressure taken before and after. There is a sleeping area. About 30 of the most needy stay for a substantial meal. This is a community project, which cost 30 million bolivars ($15 thousand). The structure is bare and elementary. Cuban workers come here from the Barrio Adentro Desporte service, a program providing sports training inside the communities.

Daily Log From Eyewitnesses: (6) Libertador: Pioneer of People’s Power

6. Libertador: Pioneer of People’s Power

a) Discussion in City Hall
We met with several leaders of the people’s power movement, including Fidel Hernandez, one of the mayor’s close advisors.

Fidel Hernandez: We are the pioneers of popular power. Before, the people had no ability to make any decisions. They just voted for the president every five years. And the structures of the state extended down only to the municipal level, with no contact with neighbourhood communities. The state had executive, legislative, and judicial powers; in 1999 the electoral and moral powers were added. The executive and legislative powers extended down only to the municipal level, and the judicial only to the state level. The moral power—an ombudsman function—existed only at the national level.

Our proposal is that all these powers be distributed down to the community level; that all powers of the state be represented wherever people live. To do this we have created community governments. We have unified communities that had no relations previously, and they have found that their needs are quite similar. We now have 35 social territories, or communes, composed of different but related communities. In each of the 204 communities there is a communal council. These community governments have responsibility for sports, schools, etc. The mayor’s power is proportionately less.

At first this project was opposed by other state institutions, saying that money would be thrown away. We persisted and the system worked. Last year the community councils spent 84% of the municipal budget. For some projects, like major public works, communities combine; others can be done only on a municipal level. There were 384 projects last year, with a 72% success ratio.

We aim to extend the judicial system to the community level as well, so disputes can be resolved on a community level.

Example, a flood control project was agreed to with a budget of 184 million bolivares ($90 thousand). But in fact the community councils were able to organize it for 47 million and had lots left over for fixing roads. In another case, the local council got a price of 80 million for electrification of a district. The community council was able to do three districts for that price.

Cooperatives carry out tasks for the community councils. Community governments have to offer contracts first to coops.

We have a system to control the money, paying by cheque a bit at a time as the work is done.

A woman leader: The mayor sends promoters to explain street by street what is a community government. Each street elects a delegate who convenes people to an assembly. At the first meeting, a commission is chosen by secret vote. Then the council must be registered. Each community designates its top 10 priorities and these are taken to the municipality as a whole.

Maria Morello, president of Mont Vernont commune government: She comes from a campesino area in the hills. Before people’s power the community could only ask for help. Now they are themselves carrying out projects to provide medical care and electrification in previously desolate areas. All the community work is voluntary. There are 204 communities and 35 social territories (communes) in the municipality. Most elected representatives are women. There are 14 communities in Mont Vernont; Maria gets to visit about three in a day; she goes on foot. There are no phone communications. Before people’s power, there were no municipal services, schools, or electricity. In 2002 work began to bring in services.

The settlements in Mont Vernont were cultivating parts of a giant abandoned farm, as squatters. She shows us pictures of the abandoned equipment. An effort was made to renew the community through a cooperative, but this broke down over the issue of land ownership. When Chávez first ran for president, the landlord told them to vote against him. In fact, Chávez was elected with strong support from their district. So the landlord evicted all the residents. He gave them a week to get off the land. The landlord harassed the people, shot at them at night. Two were wounded. Police were called, but they wouldn’t help. The residents stood form and took the landlord to court.

In 2004 Maria stepped in on behalf of the municipality, and the residents gained rights to the land through the Bolivarian land law, which provides for takeover of unused land.

Now the farms consist mainly of bee farms and orchards of lemon trees; they sell in the local market and to a wholesaler.

b) A progressive capitalist: Across the yard from a health centre is a new preschool for children of 0-6 years. The land for all this was donated by a private company located across a field, whose owner acted from humanitarian feeling. It has donated other land for a home. The business’s owner has never expressed political positions but is helpful to the community and supports the social programs. “We consider him part of the process,” a neighbourhood leader tells us.

c) A farming community: We visit Las Vegas del Torrito, driving in over an incredibly rutted rural road that reaches the settlement by diving down into a gully and splashing across a stream. It would surely be passable only by a truck or 4x4, and then only in dry weather. As we drive in, we pass several heaps of garbage by the roadside, some smoldering from fires—obviously the settlement does not yet have garbage collection.

The community has 144 residents, 23 families, 27 preschool children. They are building a pre-school centre, to be finished in January. The work has been undertaken by a cooperative formed by the community; three workers are on the spot, hired from outside.

This community was formed by people from the cities who wanted to farm. They produce a range of agricultural products through both cooperatives and private holdings. The land was formerly owned by a tobacco company, who ceded it to the farmers some 15 years ago..

The community’s first project was a community house, built February 2005, which serves as a meeting place and also as the local school. A bare room with seats, a blackboard, toilets at the end, and two side rooms. Residents meet every month, or every two weeks, as needed. For a weekend meeting, almost everyone comes—about 100. If meetings are during the week, about 40 residents come. Their second project was a school for the children of the community.

Cuban doctors come to the centre on occasion for patient consultations.

d. Professionalizing the police force: Comisaria de Tocuyito, Policia de Carabobo. We meet the team, 10 men. (We see many women in other police services but not here). They are very proud of their new police station, simple but functional. Most police squads have to function without any such facilities. (However, unfortunately the computer equipment promised by the state government has not been delivered.) Construction of the centre followed a lengthy struggle. The facility was an abandoned and devastated mattress factory. Construction of the police station was a local initiative. For six years the project was stalled. Finally the key elements were fitted together: 30 million bolivars in national funding, local donations, municipal help, and community labour.

The policemen tell us that the key challenge they face is to fulfill the hopes that the people have placed in them, to repay their debt to the community. There is nothing like this centre in the entire state of Carabobo. They offer workshops to the community councils on crime prevention, etc. They do courses for young men 8 to 20 who are interested in a police career.

The community has an office inside the police station and can use the station’s inside phone number. They are one of four police commissions in the municipality. “This is a tough neighborhood. It has the highest ratio of shootings in the state,” they tell us. “The main change is that we are closer to the community, and they are more receptive to our needs too,” they say.

The police station is served by 80 municipal and 40 state police; 30 per shift. Some are on foot; some in cars; some doing intelligence work; some in business districts.

Since the Chávez government, police officers have been studying. Before, they often had only primary education; now, most officers have technical college or university training. “Before, the police were more aggressive toward the community; now it’s a process of working with the community to prevent crime.” Clearly, the force is struggling to build pride and professionalism.

Postscript: See also the mayor’s comments on crime prevention below. Elsewhere on our trip, we several times here revolutionary activists speak of the police with some reserve. “They are the same personnel as before Chávez,” a student tells us. “The army is under control, but not the police.”

After the opposition’s mass demonstration, some rightists acted provocatively and get into a brush with Caracas police. We got a taste of tear gas when the police acted against the provocateurs.

e. Rescuing rag-picking children from a rubbish dump: Argenis’s comment on the rubbish dump: There is a huge dump in an urban area receiving 2,000 tons of rubbish daily from many municipalities besides Libertador. This causes major problems of social and environmental contamination. We have programs to rescue children working in the dump, many of whom are on drugs. Now they have a space and an orchestra of their own. The music is very effective as a way of expressing violent feelings through the drums and also of giving them a feeling of solidarity. e also have a group called “underground drums” (tambura clandestina” – young women with pots and pans.

Chamos (“chums”) del Libertador: This is an activities centre for vulnerable children. All the 300 children that come here worked in the dump, which is run by criminal mafias and is very dangerous. The trucks thunder past just outside the centre; the dump is located in the middle of the city. 98% of the kids are now no longer working there and are back in school. In this centre they do karate, in which they win world-level medals, and music: an orchestra and a choir with 20 participants.

Martial arts serve to release violence and strengthen the youth spiritually and physically. The children learn all branches of martial arts and have competed in national and international games. Women lead in taking on some of the most difficult forms of martial arts just as they do the process as a whole.We witness a performance by an orchestra of 20 children playing drums and brass. The music is in the style of a samba band: very dramatic, with highly complex rhythms and sophisticated coordination among the band members. The skill level is high.
About 30 children give us a martial arts demonstration. They are skilled and courageous; but also mutually supportive, appreciative, and affectionate. Their facilities are very elementary: A cement shelter with bare walls, some cast-off mattresses, a few martial-arts weapons, and some scrap construction materials (very hard to come by), which they demolish with great flair

f. Discussion with Mayor Argenis Loreto: This is a dormitory suburb—many people work in Valencia (the nearby industrial city). But there is a good deal of poverty. 60% of the land is agricultural. It has historical importance, because of the battle fought here in 1821, which opened the door to independence here and in other countries. It’s 200 kilometers from Caracas, at the beginning of the plains.
Our municipality is politically important because it has led in the struggle; the experiences we have had here are part of the Reform.

We are one of 375 municipalities in Venezuela. Ours has two parishes within it, Independencia and Tocuyito; the population is 220,000 spread over a vast territory. This makes it hard for citizens to participate in government. We therefore organized the municipality in smaller territorial divisions. Hugo Chávez has proposed that this be replicated across the country.

The new structure will add three more levels of government underneath the present three (national, state, municipal). The new levels are the city, the commune, and the community. The goal is to increase citizens’ direct participation in the state, and our experiences show that this works.

The communities have budgets to carry out projects in their own areas. We now have 74primary-care health centres, up from only nine before. We have built 57 primary schools. This was never possible before. It was made possible through a national commission of investigation, plus proposals from the communities.

The first Barrio Adentro centre was established here, and also the first community councils. There are now 30,000 community councils across the country. The current state structure is a barrier to carrying out revolutionary policies. We need a new structure, and that is the purpose of people’s power and of the constitutional reform.

Many right-wing oppositionists join in the community council activity. They represent the democratic wing of the opposition; there is also a radical wing that does not participate. Many oppositionists feel they cannot stand aside from the social programs and local projects that the councils carry out. They see the councils as a way to help the community on practical issues, including budget management. In fact they control one of the community councils, in a middle-class area. The opposition’s role in local government has helped ease political tensions here.

Each community council chooses ten priority projects. An example: Negra Medea in Juncalito decided on a school; this was discussed with engineers and municipal experts. Funding comes from a portion of the national budget, including special funds from petroleum and the national decentralization fund. Our own taxes contribute to this.

Our municipality had an infinite number of problems, built up through decades of neglect. There was a health crisis; public services were lacking; there was illiteracy; youth and pregnant women were in danger. By tackling these problems, the communities insert themselves in the implementation of national priorities.

Most people did not own the land on which they lived—it belonged to large landowners. A law was passed to fix this, regulating urban land committees that are linked to community councils. And these councils decide on land distribution.

Community councils work with the municipal government, but when the latter is controlled by the oligarchy, the councils work directly with the state.

On delinquent youth: There are violent gangs, and the municipality as a whole is very violent. We have not made much progress here. Violence comes from poverty, hunger, health problems. So we don’t repress the gangs as is done elsewhere. And the gangs are part of the support for the revolution. We are sorry they are violent, but we want to respond in the least traumatic way possible.

We have seven centres of support for youth with drug problems. We have teams of helpers to get them into the work force and train them as leaders of the community.
We now have hardly any kids on the streets. The problem of homelessness is almost solved. Mothers in extreme poverty receive a stipend and education.

We are municipalizing higher education as well, and we now have three university campuses in the municipality. This is a big factor in combating crime. Many formerly delinquent youth are now students in higher education. One formerly homeless person has just graduated with a diploma for hydrotherapy.

Nationally, there is a housing deficit of 2.7 million homes. Another 1.3 million houses are “ranchos,” shacks made of tin, etc. Last year we built 200,000 homes in Venezuela, but this is not enough. That’s why we need a new state structure, where the community councils receive the money and build the homes themselves. Community councils that get money to build seven houses have built 10, 12, even 15, as for example by doing without one of the toilets to save money and build more houses.

But we desperately need raw materials for this. Our economy was destroyed, and now we don’t have the resources to make the cement blocks, the paint, the ceramic toilets. The government is working with Iran, China, and Brazil to meet these needs, and we’re trying to design homes that make better use of raw materials.We are building six centres to produce plastic houses—we have oil, after all!—and one of them is in our state; it’s called PetroCasa. The worker shot by rightists in our state two days ago worked at PetroCasa. Some Canadians are coming to help us with one of the products: a thin ceiling material. The goal is to build 15,000 homes a year.

The shortage of raw materials applies to roads as well. We know the roads are terrible, but we’ve given priority to the human problems. We’re not going to build great avenues while people are dying of hunger. But we’re starting to move on that.

Mayor Loreto gives thanks to the tour: We thank you infinitely for the support you are giving. For us you are the first line of defense internationally. e are up against a huge monster that is trying to destroy us. You can break the wall of silence. We can’t do it; we depend on you. You are like brothers and sisters to us.

Mayor Loreto’s story: When young,I worked with children. I made contact with a guerrilla group, the PRV-FAL (Venezuelan Revolutionary Party—National Liberation Army), and took part in their struggle in 1978-80. My assigned sector of work was in the factories, specifically those in the state of Carabobo producing cars. (55% of Venezuelan industrial production is in this state.) I worked in this industry for 15 years—for all the different companies.Then the PRV-FAL decided to dissolve, leaving us, the activists, in the air. I located an ex-member who had been assigned to the military sector, and he made contact with Hugo Chávez. Chávez had a plan to take power by force, similar to ours. So I took responsibility for the rebellion in Carabobo. Then we had the uprising, on February 4, 1992, which was defeated militarily but won political respect.

The movement, called MBR200, reorganized and prepared for another attempt, on November 27, 1992, which also failed. But we continued our work. We got Chávez out of jail; we built the MVR. We decided not to participate in the 1995 vote, but we did take part in the next one, in 1998, and we won. I was elected an alternate deputy. Until this time I had always worked underground, but now my public activity began. I was elected mayor of Libertador in 2000 and again in 2004.