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.