Cuba and Venezuela building new societies

Cuba Needs to Unleash Creative Energy
Vicente Morin Aguado Interview with Michael A. Lebowitz

HAVANA TMES — Michael A. Lebowitz, Canadian economist and professor at the Simon Frazer University in Vancouver, answered our questions regarding: Socialism and the Party, the New State from the bottom up, cooperatives and self-management, Cuba and its economy.

HT: What does the Cuban economy need as a factor of the first order to succeed?

Michael A. Lebowitz: I don’t think it is appropriate for me, as an outsider, to make specific proposals for the Cuban economy. However, on the basis of my studies of countries which attempted to build socialism in the 20th century and several years as an adviser in Venezuela, I think I can make some general comments.

Unleash creative collective energy

If you wish to build a new society, it is essential to find ways to unleash the creative collective energy of the people. It is important to create conditions in which people through their practice can transform circumstances and themselves.

In the Soviet Union and countries which followed that model, this was sorely lacking. The tendency was to think that all solutions and all movements toward socialism were to be determined at the top and transmitted to the bottom. The result was that people did not develop their capacities, that they were alienated in the workplace and communities and did not and could not defend the gains that were made in those societies. And we know the result: capitalism triumphed. In short, even though some people may think it is more efficient to make the decisions at the top, it should be understood that this is a disinvestment in people.

Chavez agreed with Che

I spent a number of years living and advising in Venezuela during the period when Chavez was president. It was evident there in the communal councils and workers councils that when people have the ability to make the decisions that affect them, they develop strength and dignity. One of the wonderful characteristics of Chavez was that he had confidence in the ability of people to develop and to build socialism and he never hesitated to encourage them. If you want to solve the problem of poverty, he said, you have to give power to the people. Chavez was consistent on this point: he stressed the importance of producing new human beings, and he often cited Che Guevara on the necessity to build new socialist human beings.

HT: Is an economy possible completely based on self-management and the cooperatives?

ML: I think self-management of state-owned enterprises and cooperatives are an important way of unleashing the creative energy of people. They build solidarity within those workplaces and demonstrate essential aspects of a society based on cooperation rather than competition. However, I don’t believe that you can build a just economy limited to these islands of cooperation. Their inherent tendency is the self-interest of the members of these collectives.

For example, in Yugoslavia the orientation of self-managed enterprises was to maximize income per worker. They functioned within the market and, rather than building solidarity within the society, the tendency was to generate inequality in the society. When every group of workers is looking out only for itself, who is there to look out for the interests of the working class as a whole?

It is a myth (a dangerous myth advanced by those who are either ignorant or ill intentioned) to argue that, when everyone acts out of their own self-interest, the interests of all are advanced. That is the mythology of Adam Smith and neoliberal economics. In Yugoslavia: the stress upon self-interest and the market produced the destruction of solidarity within the society and ultimately the destruction of Yugoslavia itself.

Communes and communal councils

I believe that it is essential that there be an organized voice which expresses the needs of people and thus acts as a corrective to the self-orientation of the members of the enterprises. In Venezuela, the stress has been to bring together the communes (composed of a number of communal councils) and the workplaces in those areas to explore the ways in which the workplaces can serve the needs of the local communities.

Obviously, it is not only the needs of local communities have to be taken into account. However, it is very important that the members of these workplaces understand their responsibility to society. Otherwise, you can get the perverse situation which existed in Yugoslavia where state taxation (for the
purpose of equalizing development in the country) was attacked as exploitation by a Stalinist state.

HT: Do the cooperatives need the unique party and the state as institutional rectors of the nation?

ML: I definitely believe that you need the state. How else can you deal with the problem of inequality and problems of national importance like defense? However, I think it is important to begin to build a different kind of state – a new state.

In Venezuela, Chavez described the communal councils as the cells of a new socialist state. They were institutions characterized by protagonistic democracy, a democracy in practice, in which people develop through their own activity. And he saw these as the building blocks to move to communes and from there to the creation of a communal city and from there upward to the new national state – a state from below.

Coexistence of new and old state

Obviously, that new state cannot possibly develop overnight and it necessarily coexists with the old state for a period of time. But the goal should be to build that new state consciously – precisely because it is a state which produces the people required for a socialist economy.

I don’t think that such a new state emerges spontaneously. It requires conscious effort. It requires the battle of ideas. It requires leadership. In short, it requires a party which recognizes the necessity to create the conditions in which new socialist human beings produce themselves. And that means, I think, a party with a different focus – not a focus upon making decisions at the top and enforcing discipline within the party but one which creates the conditions internally for people to develop all their potential and initiative, one which contains within it different tendencies and which respects minorities, a party oriented toward building socialism which can listen and learn.

HT: Do you think cooperatives are the answer to the problems of Cuban agriculture?

ML: Certainly the problems of Cuban agriculture are very serious and much depends upon a solution to these. While these problems have unique characteristics (reflecting particular decisions that were made in the past), it is essential to understand that there are many common characteristics in other countries of the South.

In many places, people have abandoned the rural areas in part because of the inability to compete with the highly subsidized agriculture of the United States and other developed capitalist countries. It is not at all a level playing field – poor and developing countries are pressured not to subsidize rural production but nothing is done about the subsidies (direct and hidden) in the rich countries. The result is that many countries of the South lack food sovereignty despite their fertile land and end up importing substantial amounts of their foodstuffs.

This is the situation in Venezuela, where there was an enormous movement from the countryside to the cities in the period before Chavez’s election; a particular factor there was an overvalued currency (due to oil exports) which meant that rural producers could not compete with imports.

Encouraging food producers

The result was that Venezuela was importing 70% of its food and much of its countryside was empty. How was it possible to reverse that and to develop food sovereignty? In a paper I did for the Venezuelan Ministry of Economic Development in 2008, I stressed that if you want to encourage food production, you have to encourage food producers and, in particular, you have to encourage new entry into agricultural production especially of young people.

And, I argued that this goes far beyond simply increasing food prices for the producers (which does not necessarily mean increasing prices for consumers). It means developing an infrastructure, schools, cultural facilities and access to modern communications. In short, you have to create the conditions in which young people do not see themselves as turning their back on civilization to work in the countryside. This is obviously an investment – an investment for the future which goes far beyond a simple solution of raising prices for agricultural production and leaving things to the market to solve the problem.

Essential that self management to recognize responsibility to society

If a society is prepared to make such an investment (which needs to be widely discussed so people understand its necessity), then the next question is what should be the nature of the relations of production in agriculture. From what I’ve said earlier, it is obvious that I think that forms of self-management (whether under state ownership or cooperative ownership) are essential. It should be obvious, too, that if society is making this investment, then the self-managed enterprises need to recognize their responsibility to society.

If Cuban society is not prepared or is unable to make such investments, I fear that the prospect is one of shortages, high food prices and continued high food imports (especially with the aging of the rural population).

Canadian Government supports Right Wing Coup Attempts in Venezuela

Canadian Parliament Passes Resolution against Bolivarian Government

By Camilo Cahis
March 27, 2014

The Canadian government has become the latest imperialist power to jump to the defence of the far-right protests in Venezuela. Parliament has just passed a unanimous motion that places the responsibility for the current violence in the country on the shoulders of the Venezuelan government rather than the opposition gangs that initiated the unrest. We have become accustomed to both the Conservatives and Liberals attacking the Venezuelan revolution, but what is concerning this time around is the fact that the NDP has sided with the two right-wing parties in condemning the Bolivarian government. As Canada’s labour party, we think that the NDP should be standing against the right-wing at home and in Venezuela, while championing the successes of the revolution as an inspiration for our own struggles against capitalist austerity.

Since 1998, when Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela, the Venezuelan revolution has become a beacon of inspiration for the poor and the working class around the world. Whereas almost every other government has cut and attacked workers’ rights and standards of living, the Bolivarian government has stood up to the bosses’ agenda. Before Chávez’s election, Venezuela was known as one of the poorest and most unequal societies in Latin America. This has radically changed since the beginning of the revolution. Moreover, through the social programs initiated by the revolutionary government, illiteracy has been eradicated and services such as health care, dental care, child care, and post-secondary education have been made free and universal — some of these achievements have not even been accomplished in a country like Canada.

The government has become the mortal enemy of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, which was accustomed to pillaging the wealth of the country. The government also earned the enmity of the major imperialist powers, who are no longer able to exploit Venezuela’s wealth and resources without limit. Moreover, the social achievements accomplished in Venezuela serve as a valuable example to the workers and oppressed of the world who are told that, “There is no alternative,” to capitalist austerity.

Since the revolution began over 15 years ago, the Venezuelan opposition has waged a relentless struggle to overthrow the gains of the revolution. Unfortunately for them, they have never been able to win over the majority of the Venezuelan masses and have repeatedly failed at the ballot box — since 1998, the revolutionary forces have won 18 of 19 elections. Because of this, the opposition has resorted to illegal and terrorist means to accomplish their aims. The most extreme measure they undertook was the military coup d’état in April 2002, which briefly overthrew the government, killed nearly 100 people, and captured Hugo Chávez. However, the spontaneous uprising of millions of ordinary Venezuelans forced the safe return of President Chávez. However, this is not the only attempt the opposition has taken to destroy the revolution. Throughout the years, they have sabotaged the economy and even used links to Colombian paramilitaries to attack and intimidate workers’ leaders and activists.

The recent round of protests in Venezuela is simply the latest attempt by the oligarchy in Venezuela to undermine the revolutionary government. There is nothing peaceful or democratic about the protests currently being waged by the Venezuelan opposition. Contrary to the myth that is being portrayed by the international bourgeois press, or the Venezuelan opposition on social media, the protests have nothing to do with democratic rights, the shortages in basic goods, or the conditions of students in Venezuela. In fact, the protests were sparked by calls made by two of the ultra-right-wing politicians in Venezuela, Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado — both of whom were intimately involved in the 2002 coup attempt and who are pursuing La Salida (“The Exit”) of current president, Nicolás Maduro. López and Machado are hoping to use middle and upper-class students as pawns in their own game against the Bolivarian Revolution.

Although wealthier students have been involved in the protests, particularly at the demonstrations on Feb. 12 that appear to have marked the start of the violence, they are only a tiny minority and hardly represent the general student population of Venezuela. The most generous estimates of the Feb. 12 protests put the number of participating at thirty or forty-thousand; this is a fraction of the estimated 2.6-million students currently enrolled in post-secondary education in Venezuela. Moreover, the largest of the student protests pales in comparison to the majority of the counter-demonstrations organized by the revolution’s supporters; a solidarity rally organized by the oil workers at PDVSA (the state oil company) drew nearly 100,000 versus the 5,000 on the side of the opposition.

Around the world, the media has focused on the deaths that have come as a result of the wave of protests, especially focusing on the deaths occurring on the opposition’s side. As of Mar. 13, there have been 30 deaths connected to the protests. The international media has assigned blame for the majority of the deaths on the supposedly harsh measures taken by the Venezuelan government, but the vast majority have occurred at the hands of other people. According to the website

Seventeen people died in barricade-related deaths, which include people shot while trying to clear a barricade, “accidents” caused by barricades and street traps, and patients dying after being prevented from reaching hospital by a barricade. This number also includes a pro-opposition student who was run over while trying to block a road.

Five of the deaths appear to be due to the actions of state security forces. All these cases are under investigation, and arrests have already been made in several.

The other eight cases are deaths in which either there exist contradictory accounts, it is very unclear who the perpetrator was, the killer was a third party, or where the death was an accident related to the violence.

Based on information from press reports, 12 of those who died were civilians without an open political affiliation, nine were identified as pro-opposition, five as pro-government, three were National Guard officers, and one was a government lawyer.

At least one of those five killed at the hands of the security forces was a Bolivarian militant from the 23 de Enero barrio in Caracas, assassinated by a member of the Venezuelan secret police. In all five cases the perpetrators have been charged with murder — which contrasts sharply with the opposition’s assertion that the government is cracking down with impunity.

Slow motion coup

As the opposition’s protests have intensified, it increasingly appears that the right-wing students are being used as a cover for more nefarious forces who are attempting a “slow-motion” coup. In cities such as San Cristóbal and Mérida, pictures on social media appear to link some of the “student leaders” as members of Colombian neo-Nazi organizations. Many of the so-called “students” are armed with sniper rifles, automatic machine guns, grenades, and body armour — certainly not traditional student garb! The protesters have set up burning barricades and fired incendiary bombs at government institutions recognized as symbols of the revolution, such as the Attorney-General’s office and the public buses and metro in Caracas.

These fascistic elements appear to even be targeting other opposition supporters in an effort to further discredit the government. One of the most prominent opposition deaths so far was the killing of Génesis Carmona, a 22-year-old former beauty queen. However, ballistic evidence and eyewitness accounts seem to suggest that she was actually shot from within the opposition’s ranks during a demonstration. This would not be the first time that the opposition killed its own supporters in order to justify the overthrow of the Bolivarian government; in 2002, opposition snipers were largely responsible for the scores of deaths that were used to justify the military coup, as vividly shown in the famous Irish documentary, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

The opposition has also stepped up its attacks on revolutionary workers and students. At a pro-revolution demonstration in the state of Bolívar, nine trade unionists were shot by a sniper. Just last week, Gisella Rubilar Figueroa, a Chilean mother of four who was pursuing graduate studies in Mérida, was shot dead when trying to clear up one of the opposition’s barricades in the city. However, the international press was completely silent about the killing. The media has not commented, either, on the wire booby traps being set up by oppositionists that have decapitated two innocent motorcyclists, nor the deaths of three members of the National Guard and the death of a public employee. These are not “peaceful” protesters by any definition!

The international press has even used outright lies and manipulation to create a distorted account of the violence in Venezuela. In one of the most egregious examples, CBC News presented an online gallery of pictures that had been tweeted out by the Venezuelan opposition that supposedly showed the brutal “repression” being committed by the Venezuelan government. The CBC did not mention, however, that many of the pictures in their gallery were not even from Venezuela! Two of the pictures, for example, were of police crackdowns against student protesters in Chile last year. One picture, which showed a young woman who had been savagely beaten, was actually taken in Egypt at the height of the Arab Spring three years ago!

Why the distortion?

These are not simply mistakes or examples of incompetence by the international media (including journalists in Canada); the lies and manipulation of the events in Venezuela are part of a general campaign to discredit the Venezuelan government and the gains of the revolution in the eyes of people around the world. As every government on the planet continues to place the burden of the capitalist crisis on the backs of working-class people, the Venezuelan revolution stands against capitalist austerity. The fact that the Venezuelan government has placed the interests of the masses ahead of the profit margins of foreign multinationals is something that cannot be tolerated by imperialism.

Canada has taken a lead role in assisting the opposition to the revolution in Venezuela. The Canadian embassy in Caracas has funnelled tens of thousands of dollars to Venezuelan opposition groups. In February 2010, the former Secretary of State for the Americas, Peter Kent,travelled to Venezuela to accuse the government of the “narrowing” of democratic space in the country; Kent forgot to mention that at the same time, his Conservative government had shut down Parliament during the prorogation scandal.
As this article goes to print, Air Canada has decided to indefinitely suspend all flights to Venezuela, claiming, “Due to ongoing civil unrest in Venezuela, Air Canada can no longer ensure the safety of its operation… Air Canada will continue to monitor the situation and will evaluate the reintroduction of flights with the objective of resuming operations on the route once Air Canada is satisfied that the situation in Venezuela has stabilized.” This is despite the fact that Air Canada sees no jeopardy to its operations by flying into well-known safe havens such as Iraq or Sierra Leone.

Venezuelan oppositionists living in Canada have been encouraged to mobilize and push their agenda here. In January 2013, dozens of right-wing Venezuelans across Canada met virtually with coup-apologist Maria Corina Machado. In these meetings, Machado exhorted the Venezuelan opposition in Canada to paint Venezuela as a “neo-dictatorship… a regime deeply totalitarian with a democratic façade.” Not surprisingly, they have found an eager audience amongst the Conservative and Liberal parties. Members of the opposition met with Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis who has, on several occasions, attempted to pass resolutions in the House of Commons denouncing the Venezuelan government and its supposed crackdown on democratic rights. And elements of the Venezuelan opposition have even brought their terrorist tactics to Canada; as this article is being written, oppositionists are believed to be behind a series of death threats aimed at a left-wing Catholic priest, Father Hernán Astudillo, and the left-wing Toronto Latino radio station his church sponsors.

The most recent motion that ended up being supported by the House of Commons was supposed to be a “softening” of Karygiannis’ latest attempt to defame the Bolivarian government and place responsibility for the violence at the hands of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. After back-room dealings between the three main parties (the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the NDP), a compromise motion was put forward by the NDP’s foreign affairs critic, Paul Dewar, which gained support from all MPs in the House:

“That the House express its deep concern at the escalation of violence in Venezuela; convey its condolences to the families of those killed or injured during the ongoing public protests; ask the Government of Canada to urge Venezuelan authorities to proactively de-escalate the conflict, protect the human rights and democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, release all those detained during the protests, immediately cease all government interference with peaceful protesters, and ensure that those people who perpetrated the violence be brought to justice and bear the full weight of the law; encourage the Government of Canada to play a leading role in supporting a political dialogue in Venezuela that respects legitimate grievances and differences of opinion; and call for an end to divisive rhetoric and actions that only delay and jeopardize the inclusive political solution that the Venezuelan people deserve.” (My emphasis)

The NDP’s parliamentary caucus may believe that in putting forward this “compromise” resolution, they are doing their best to remain “neutral” in the current provocations in Venezuela. However, the resolution appears to place the onus on the Venezuelan government to ending violence when it has been the opposition that has been waging the campaign all along! The Venezuelan government has the duty to defend and protect the majority of its citizens from lethal booby traps, blockades, and armed individuals.

The hypocrisy of the Conservatives and the Liberals is particularly galling to those who have fallen victim to the state violence and clamping down on democratic rights that is occurring in Canada today. The resolution calls for the Venezuelan government to cease all interference with “peaceful protesters”, but where was the federal government’s outrage at the historic mass arrests and crackdown at the G20 summit in Toronto or during the Quebec student strike in 2012? When Mi’kmaq protesters where trying to protest the danger posed to their community by fracking, the government’s response was to send in RCMP snipers. Although Parliament may call for civil dialogue in Venezuela, the Conservative government is in the process of changing Canada’s election laws so that poor and working-class Canadians are denied the right to vote! Where is the Liberal and Conservative grandstanding when these government attacks occur in Canada?

For these reasons, the NDP is greatly mistaken to have supported the Conservatives and Liberals’ resolution. There is no middle ground in the provocations occurring in Venezuela at the present time, and the NDP’s statement on the issue is essentially supporting the line of the Venezuelan opposition — the same opposition that is using fascist tactics in order to attack and murder honest workers and revolutionaries in Venezuela. The NDP has a tradition of international solidarity with those fighting oppression around the world. In fact, it was only a few years ago when NDP MP Peggy Nash was the featured speaker at a Toronto meeting of the Latin American Peace Initiative, a discussion organized to combat the threat of imperialist intervention in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. In 2010, NDP MP Wayne Marston commented on his concerns about potential coups and foreign intervention in Venezuela at a parliamentary committee investigating human rights in Venezuela.

The motives of the NDP’s parliamentary caucus are still unclear. The best-case scenario is that the NDP MPs are not aware of the genuine situation currently taking place in Venezuela and that their position in the House of Commons was based on misinformation. On the other hand, as the NDP gets closer to power, there may be a desire amongst elements of the NDP leadership to cozy up to the Canadian ruling class and demonstrate that they will be “responsible managers” of Canadian capitalism and imperialism. If this is the case, then it must fall upon the NDP rank-and-file to ensure that the party stays true to its working-class roots and stop representing the interests of the bosses both at home and abroad. Instead of tail-ending Canadian imperialism, the NDP should be supporting the revolutionary movements of Latin America and bringing those successes home in our own struggles against capitalist austerity.

Instead of whitewashing the violence of the opposition, the NDP should instead be calling for an investigation of the role being played by the US, Canadian, and other governments which are funding and backing this slow-motion coup. Unlike the cuts and attacks being implemented by the Harper Conservatives, the Venezuelan government has been able to expand social programs that have radically improved the standard of living of the Venezuelan masses. In contrast to the shutting down of factories that has devastated many parts of Canada and put tens of thousands of workers out of a job, the Venezuelan government has encouraged the nationalization of shut-down factories under the democratic control of their workers. Instead of supporting the Conservative demonization of the revolution, the NDP should be working to informing its members and the rest of the labour movement of the revolution’s successes, and using it a source of inspiration for our own struggles here at home.

No support for the fascist reaction!
Support the Venezuelan Revolution!
Hands off Venezuela!


Toronto, Canada Celebrates Venezuela and ALBA

Conference on Venezuela and Latin American Integration a success
March 22, 2014 BY HCPDF - CANADA

TORONTO – A packed room gathered in the Larkin building of the University of Toronto to discuss the process of Latin American integration, the role of social movements and in particular the place of Venezuela.

Under the leadership of former President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela and Cuba initiated the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Treaty of Peoples Commerce (ALBA -TCP), which looked to provide a new paradigm for regional integration and trade based on solidarity and social development. Since its founding in 2004, the ALBA -TCP has grown to include 9 countries as well as numerous socio-economic intiatives with municipalities in the hemisphere.

Dr. Roberta Rice, Professor in the department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, addressed the crowd stating that ALBA “reflects the return of the development agenda, the return of the state, the quest to achieve autonomy away from the market towards an agenda for South-South cooperation on issues such as energy security, financial security, cooperation in infrastructure development, as well as in social and human development”, said Professor Rice.

Importantly, ALBA-TCP is the only multi-lateral agreement that has included space for social movements and civil society to actively participate.

Ruben Pereira, Coordinator of Social Movements of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Treaty of Peoples Commerce (ALBA -TCP) addressed the gathering to speak about the role of social movements in ALBA, which today also includes a continental initiative by social movements themselves independent of but in solidarity with ALBA.

Pereira also took to opportunity to speak about the reality occurring in Venezuela today.

Dr. Roberta Rice, Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto [R]. Ruben Pereira, Coordinator of Social Movements of the ALBA -TCP [C]. Martha Pardo, Consul General of Venezuela in Toronto [L]. Ana Carolina Rodriguez, Chargée d’affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in Canada [L].

“What is happening in Venezuela is similar to what they did in Chile. In Venezuela there is no economic crisis – in Venezuela there is an economic war, which is different. An economic war with shortages and artificial inflation caused by hoarders, speculators, usurers and those looking to starve the the people, all assembled under an agenda for a coup d’etat”, said Pereira referring to the campaign of economic sabotage by sectors of the Venezuelan business class. “The rancid ultra-right, in partnership with the U.S. State Department, oligopolies and monopolies, know that they will never be able to come to power through a vote”.

Since February 12th, violent demonstrations have resulted in hundreds injured and claimed the lives of 31 people, including 6 members of the Bolivarian Guard.

The afternoon session focused on providing participants with some tools and tips to engage in social media in order to counter the misinformation being spread about what is taking place in Venezuela. Co-organizers of the event, the Hugo Chavez Peoples Defense Front, plan on organizing further workshops in order to build a large, participatory ‘media team’ to counter the share factual information about the processes of social transformation happening in Latin America and elsewhere.

Right Wing Venezuela targets priest in Toronto

Death threats issued to Toronto priest for commemorating Hugo Chavez

March 19, 2014
by Steve da Silva

One of Toronto’s inner suburbs has become a focal point in the ongoing struggle in Venezuela between the Bolivarian transition to socialism and the fascist resistance that has been developing over the last month.

With its face to the bustling city moving past it on Dufferin, just a little south of Lawrence, the quaint little church of San Lorenzo appears as a modest sight to unwitting passersby. But the small church, and its Latin American Community Centre to the rear, are more than simple sites of worship.

Since its establishment in 1997, the San Lorenzo parish has become a beacon for many in the Latin American community who have fled fascist dictatorships and military juntas over the decades from places like Chile, El Salvador, and Guatemala. But its message and ministry amount to more than a salve for the restless migrant soul, more than a home away from home. In the words of the Church’s patron saint, San Lorenzo: “The poor are the treasures of the church.”

That this church actually treasures the poor (as opposed to seeing the poor as a source of its treasures) can be seen in the day-to-day activities that drive the vibrant community organization that has built up around San Lorenzo. Its community centre is home to Radio Voces Latinas 1660 AM, Canada’s only 24-hour Latin American radio station and a key alternative to commercial news, views, and music that dominate the spectrum.

Ambulances on the Caravan of Hope decorated for their trip to El Salvador.

San Lorenzo is also the organizer of the annual “Inti Raymi – Festival of the Sun,” which draws thousands into Christie Pits under the summer sun to to mark the celebration of the summer solstice in the tradition of the Andean region’s Indigenous peoples. The festival routinely raises thousands of dollars for the church’s solidarity missions and charity drives.

Among those programs include fundraising drives for disaster relief in Haiti, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Venezuela; as well as the community centre’s “Caravan of Hope,” which drives decommissioned ambulances and wheel-trans buses to El Salvador annually.

However, over the years, San Lorenzo and its priest Hernan Astudillo, have courted more controversy than one may think such acts of humanitarianism would invite. When charity becomes solidarity — when one proceeds from charitable handouts to morally and materially supporting struggles to emancipate people from their class oppression — some hearts simply stop bleeding for the poor.

As the old proverb has it, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” But what if this man is violently dispossessed of his fishing rod? His family chased away from his lake-side community and into the urban slums? What if the rivers are being poisoned by large corporations?

It is the understanding that such social inequalities are the basis for poverty and suffering that drives San Lorenzo’s and Hernan Astudillo’s theology, which is part of the liberation theology tradition in Latin America that has prioritized the poor and their emancipation and which is seen as reflecting historical Jesus’s lived practice.

This past March 9th, San Lorenzo held a mass to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez — a tradition in keeping with past ceremonies held by the church for Latin America’s champions of the poor, with masses marking the deaths of various fighters for freedom, from the assassinated Che Guevera to the murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Romero was the Catholic bishop in El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 in wave of terror that targeted thousands of leftists, including many clerical elements. Romero is also a key figure in Latin America’s liberation theology tradition.

“I did the mass in honour of Hugo Chavez, who I consider with all humility, a very holy man,” priest Hernan Astudillo told BASICS. The result was predictable and sadly not unfamiliar to Astudillo and the church.

“I received a fax saying they would ‘eliminate’ me personally… basically, a death threat, they will kill me. We have received death threats over the phone. We have received two messages: One sent by email from an anti-communist organization insulting our people who work on the radio station, saying that they are going to take out our [radio] antenna.”

On March 6, the church received a letter from an organization calling itself “Contracomunistas” in which the Radio Voces Latinas was cited as a target. On March 12, the fax threatening Father Hernan’s life came in.

But the threats are nothing new for Father Hernan: “This reminds me how when 14 years ago I performed a mass for Monsignor Oscar Romero in this same church, I had also received death threat letters because I was holding a mass for a ‘communist bishop’.”

If only this was all just some verbal aggressiveness from the Latin American community’s right wing, the threats could perhaps be dismissed as posturing from disgruntled elements anxious about their oligarchic families and classes losing their grips on power back home. But a history of these threats actually materializing on the Church gives great cause for concern.

In 2006, the antenna of Radio Voces Latinas was discovered to have been shot after having experienced some unknown technical problems for a period of time.

BASICS asked Father Hernan if the threats have ever translated into bodily harm: “I’ve received death threats more than ten times and on two occasions, a group has stolen money from us during our summer festival at Christie Pits park. In September 2008, they even came to my office, hit me, and dislocated my right shoulder. They were trying to instigate me to react violently, but I refused to.”

Father Hernan drew out the irony and hypocrisy of the attacks on his church’s concern with the poor and their social struggles: “I’ve been meditating over how during this time of Lent [the season of penance and prayer leading into Easter], I might receive even more letters like this [death threats] as I prepare mass for Jesus Christ, because he was really far stronger than Monsignor Oscar Romero and many other martyrs and prophets in the world. His actions, his life, his decisions were always with the poor people.”

BASICS asked Father Hernan if he’s seen any of this opposition or resistance to the church’s pro-poor messaging and its socialist sympathies from within his own parish: “This is from outside. This parish knows what kind of theology we have. We don’t practice the theology of the conquerors. We follow the theology of the historical Jesus Christ, a man who gave his life for equal rights, a man who was fighting the Roman Empire.

“Jesus Christ was not a person who was faking his spirituality in his life. He was a wonderful human being with a pure and transparent identity, to rehumanize the world he was living in at the time in Nazareth and Galilee.”
Juan Montoya

BASICS correspondent and San Lorenzo parishioner Pablo Vivanco was also in attendance at the March 9 mass for Chávez, which brought out a single anti-Chávez protestor.

“One individual brought out a placard in the mass that stated something to the effect of honoring the ‘student martyrs’ in Venezuela,” Vivanco commented.

“Of course, the names he had on there (some of them incorrectly spelled) were of Chavistas and others killed by the violent opposition in Venezuela. One of the names this individual was hailing as a ‘martyr’ was Juan Montoya [killed in mid February], who was actually a prominent member the Tupamaros.”

The Tupamaros is a decades-old leftist guerrilla organization with a strong base in some of Caracas’ poor neighbourhoods that has been supportive but independent of the Venezuelan government.

“So it’s entirely disingenuous to claim Montoya’s death for the opposition cause, and equally dishonest to not acknowledge that the vast majority of people who have been killed in the last month are the result of the opposition and their actions,” a fact of the reality in Venezuela that is being assiduously documented by independent researchers.

“But the right wing sectors in the community unfortunately do not have this sort of tolerance,” Vivanco elaborated. “This isn’t the first time that threats have been issued against Father Hernan for his principled stances. What’s more concerning is that the violent right wing opposition in Venezuela is killing people and has also attacked media and journalists, so who knows if those allied with the opposition in Venezuela will try something like that here.”

In 2010, Father Hernan Astudillo visited Venezuela to learn about the vast expansion of popular media projects in the country and to deliver the community-generated funds to victims of landslides.

From his own experiences in the country, Father Hernan shared with BASICS his view that: “The opposition in Venezuela is fighting not because they want to help the poor people, but because they want Venezuela’s oil wealth to themselves. They are not fighting because they want to help the poor people, like President Hugo Chavez did. That finally poor people have hope is beautiful.“

The evidence of the threats against San Lorenzo and Hernan Astudillo are now in the hands of Toronto Police Services. BASICS contacted 13 Division’s Criminal Investigations Bureau on the morning of March 19, but the assigned detectives were not available at the time of publication for comment.

The Jesus represented here in a mural at the front of San Lorenzo reflects liberation theology’s view of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, a stark contrast with the Jesus brought by the “the conquerors” Jesus. Photo Credit: Steve da Silva / BASICS

With the legitimacy that the Canadian government has given to the violent opposition and the blame for violence that is has misattributed to the Venezuelan government, we shall see if the threats against San Lorenzo will be treated with the same severity that such threats would be met with if they threatened a corporate leader or a Canadian politician. Updates on this investigation will be made here.
The Jesus represented here is seen by liberation theology as reflecting the historical Jesus of Nazareth more closely than "the conquerors" Jesus.

Chavismo, the revolutionary process, and the redemption of women

Women and Chavismo: An Interview with Yanahir Reyes
by Michael Fox

The passing of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez on March 5 (2013) was a great blow to Venezuelans in the Bolivarian Process, but particularly to women, who have been some of the major beneficiaries of Venezuela’s social programs and legislation over the last 14 years.

Article 88 of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution recognizes work in the home as a contribution to the economy, making housewives available for social security benefits. As a result, by 2010, over 200,000 women had benefited from the government Mothers From the Barrio Mission, which provides financial support, job training, and sexual education to poor women living in the slums of Venezuela.1

Through the government Robinson and Sucre Missions, hundreds of thousands of low-income Venezuelans have learned to read and write, graduated high school, and studied at the university. Under the Housing Mission, over 370,000 homes have been constructed and distributed to low-income families over the last two years.2 The Baby Jesus Mission has helped to reduce infant mortality to a rate of 13 per 1,000 live births by improving hospital infrastructure and increasing the availability of medicine.3 The Children of Venezuela Mission now provides monthly stipends to low-income pregnant mothers, adolescents, and families with handicapped children.

In recent years, several laws have been promoted by women’s movements and passed by the Venezuelan National Assembly. The 2007 Law on the Women’s Right to a Life Free from Violence describes violence against women as a human rights crime, and outlines the government’s responsibility to guarantee women’s rights. The responsible paternity law, passed the same year, recognizes fathers’ rights, particularly paternity leave. Venezuela’s new Labor Law went into effect on May 7, guaranteeing the right to work for both women and people with disabilities, and pensions for all Venezuelans, including full time mothers. It also increased maternity leave to six months and gave the same right to parents who adopt a child under three years of age.4

All of these steps, as well as the government’s creation of a National Women’s Institute and a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, have been particularly important for Venezuelan women who are disproportionately affected by poverty. According to Alba Carosio, Co-Founder of the Center for Women’s Studies at the Central University of Venezuela, 70% of those in poverty are women, and the majority of poor households have women at the head of the family.5

Perhaps this is part of the reason that women have played such a substantial role in the Bolivarian process. Seventy percent of the people participating in the Venezuela government missions are women.6 And they are at the heart of the communal councils, the committees, various grassroots movements, and feminist collectives working across the country. Despite all of this, machismo, patriarchy, and individualism maintain a powerful grip over the country.

Yanahir Reyes is a young Venezuelan feminist and activist from the Caracas barrio of Caricuao. She is a founder of the feminist radio program Millennium Women’s Word on the Caracas community radio station Radio Perola and she worked for many years with Women’s First Steps, a community group in the low-income Caracas barrio of la Pedrera that focused on empowering women through education and action. She currently works as a community educator for children and families for the National Institute for Nutrition, but, as she says, “always with a gender vision.” This interview took place on April 17.

MF: In terms of violence against women, what is the situation like in Venezuela? Did it improve under Chávez? And what is the role of women’s organizations in combating it?

YR: This is definitely one of the legacies that our comandante left. Women from the feminist struggle have effectively brought to light the importance of dismantling a patriarchal system. One of the greatest achievements of this legacy is the passage of the new Labor Law, in which, above all, the woman worker, the mother, was defended. But, effectively, in this [revolutionary] process is where women have been able to win back their native place, being respected in language and in practice. The violence has lessened over time. I have felt that there is a new sensibility. Violence against women is talked about a little more, promoting a new masculinity, one that helps maintain better relations of equality among men and women. But at the same time, we still have problems of violence, of sexism maintained by the mainstream media. Even though we have won laws that protect women workers, students, mothers, it is culturally still a structural problem, and change comes much more slowly.

This can be seen in elections, because nothing is isolated. You can see this now in our defeat in the elections — I call it a defeat, because although we have a president and we won, the revolution is in danger because of a structural cultural problem. This is a sign that there is still a cultural rejection of a profound transformation. So there is still much to do so that we can really see more equal relations between men and women in daily life. And above all for the women who are mothers, who are responsible for their children. Although they are successful, it’s not fair that they have to bear all the responsibility. Transformation is occurring, but the comandante was also the space that made the feminists’ struggles even more visible.

MF: What does Chávez’s death mean for women in the Bolivarian process?

YR: For us women, we lost a great brother who listened to us, who had humane sensitivity, so humane that he had the capacity to heed the needs of women. Women have been crying, now, over the loss of a brother, son, husband, a comrade. As I read it, Chávez redeemed the father that many never had, as well as the human relation among men. Chávez broke with a paradigm and built a beautiful relationship with his brothers of Latin America, with Correa, his affection for Fidel, and a relationship that was so close with Evo Morales. He reclaimed that necessary masculinity, which in its turn demonstrated our comandate’s feminine side. I would have liked to have seen it in the 2013–19 National Plan, which Chávez wrote before he passed, that this is an anti-imperialist and anti-patriarchal country, but it does not appear. However, in practice, in his sensitivity, he was strengthening another point of view, another relationship between men and with masculinity, and he left a great void. Many women cried as if they had lost their life partner, as if he had been the father we never had, because this is a country of single mothers, of abandoned sons and daughters. This is the feeling, that we had been left orphans by this compañero. And of course all the victories that our comandante bore were a great burden and we now feel we must take on this responsibility, but with him we felt there was a guarantee of continuity. So it’s been very difficult for women and very significant for children.

MF: He also called himself a feminist.

YR: I think it was very brave of him to call himself a feminist, and on top of that, all of the social policy that was focused on liberating women. From Mothers From the Barrio to the Children of Venezuela, the most recent mission. The literacy campaign through Robinson Mission, which has also helped people graduate from high school, and Sucre Mission, which is made up of almost 90% women, who are studying in the university. And although we haven’t had 50% representation in politics, women are participating in different political spaces. As I told you, he left us a wide, ready-made path, to continue constructing and consolidating equal relations. You’re there every day working to create a new consciousness. Clearly Chávez benefitted women more than anyone else.

MF: What has been women’s role in transforming the country?

YR: I think the construction of communal councils has been an effort on the part of women. Apart from the communal councils, women have been at the heart of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela itself. The different laws’ humanist vision has been another gigantic contribution of women. The woman who is working every day in the community for the good of her family, this is fundamental for the transformation of the country. These are the people I call the silent heroines, who at one time were made invisible but can now be seen. In fact, in the most recent elections the majority of the people involved in the campaign were women, defending the political process and you saw them on TV and they spoke with such clarity and passion that characterizes women, of defending their dreams, of defending their rights as women, which they are not going to lose. Each day, women are creating a very important transformative process. In the area of nutrition, which I am now involved in and which has to do with people assuming political responsibility for their diet, women take leadership. The issues of nutrition, education, and grassroots work all have a woman’s face; the transformation and revolution have a woman’s face.

MF: Has the participation of women changed the family structure in one way or another?

YR: Well, that is difficult to say. It’s difficult to tell you mathematically that this has changed substantially. I believe it has, speaking from my own experience. I think one of the advances is that there is an important self-esteem. That is one of the first steps, recognizing the visibility of women. This has helped women develop a different attitude. The majority didn’t feel this self-esteem, and their oppression had become normal. But I feel that women today have more self-esteem, more strength. They are familiar with this topic of rights, and this helps them change their relationships, to reconfigure the traditional role of woman, even reclaiming, more than the traditional role, the role that is imposed. They have reclaimed it. Cooking, child rearing, have been some spaces that have been dignified. They are no longer spaces of oppression, but of liberation. This is important to recognize. Thanks to the advances that we have won, women have a new way of doing things and a new way of thinking.

MF: What kinds of movements have come about with the Bolivarian process, and how have they been organized?

YR: There are new collectives. I come from a very interesting one called First Steps, which was born in a community with many difficulties. Even President Chávez himself was in the community calling on people to protect their lives, giving them refuge from the rains and floodwaters that threatened families. This is a community that the president himself dignified by providing them with housing though Misión Vivienda, and the group of women from the collective, which I belonged to, have all gone through a transformation. They now have a different way of thinking, they have prospered, and they have their apartments. It is also important to highlight that from the moment Chávez came to power, he worked to provide housing for people living in precarious situations. Chávez worked even harder in the last years on housing, particularly through the Housing Mission. So this collective of women is also evidence that through organization and women’s solidarity, you can achieve many things. One of the most important things is confidence, confidence among us as women. This helps break machismo and establishes another mindset of relating among women.

There is also a great women’s movement under way. One of the most well-known is the Feminist Spider, which is one of the movements that brings together diverse women’s collectives and a diversity of genders at the national level. Of course, in these last months, the movement has shown its support for the Bolivarian process, before the historical and political situation that we find ourselves in. And new movements are emerging all of the time. A little while ago, I found out about a movement called Rebellious Skirts, which is also a group of young people who are struggling for an anti-patriarchal society and putting the decriminalization of abortion on the table and the political agenda. The grassroots collectives are working toward this and other taboo issues.

MF: And what has been these grassroots collectives’ style of organizing? How spontaneous has their political and cultural vision been?

YR: There is spontaneity everywhere, in the different forms and trenches of struggle. For example, I am now taking a course on humanizing pregnancy, labor, and birth, where there are different compañeras who work in different areas: one works in media, one is a dancer, another is a physical therapist, another is a mother. Together, we are trying to learn in order to unite, and we are forming a collective to fight to put birth in debate: How should labor be? How should it be newly empowering for woman and not for the technocracy of medicine? And we are working to see what we can do. This is going on all over Venezuela in different forms and in different trenches, in the cultural realm, in education, liberated education, of course. And this is going to continue, for sure. I see it and live it every day.

MF: In general, did the collectives feel supported by the Chávez government, and can you speak to the specific ways that Chávez helped women in Venezuela?

YR: It’s a complex relationship. Yes, there has been support and great victories. The most concrete for the grassroots collectives was the recognition of lengthening the time that women workers could spend with their newborns. This has been one of the concrete policies that have been generated by the feminist grassroots movements. As well as the Law on the Women’s Right to a Life Free from Violence, the law of responsible paternity, and the promotion of breastfeeding. But, nevertheless, the relationship between the state, power, and feminist struggles is still very tense. Some things have been accomplished and others have not, because a deep, structural, and cultural clash is still affecting relations. Yes, there have been concrete government policies that have come from above that have benefited women, like the one I mentioned to you, Children of Venezuela, which is to support the children of single mothers, not just Mothers From the Barrio, which directs money at women but also at the children. Also, mothers with disabled children have been given priority, so that now there is a new term, “functional diversity,” which is used to refer to children with some physical or mental difficulty. And Children of Venezuela has responded to this.

There is also the Baby Jesus Mission, which is for newborns and women who have recently given birth. These are profound missions, but which advance slowly, because there are other priorities on the political agenda — and above all in the last months. We had the electoral campaign, the comandante died, and the situation we find ourselves in now. But I definitely think that as soon as we have the strength, we will continue advancing. The government continues to work, the collectives continue working, there is stability, but now the state is alert, in a tense and very important moment. We are even trying to comprehend the possibility of the loss of our political power, of control of the state and the central government.

But all the same, I think the struggle is there, on the table, and it is as important as other issues, like that of gender diversity which is also still on the agenda, and for which much work needs to be done. That is why it is important to ensure this process continues. To be able to materialize this whole group of necessities of equality and justice in relations and consciousness of our Venezuelan people and our Latin American people too.

MF: Speaking of feminist activists, did they feel at any time constricted by the necessity to follow the Chavista line?

YR: There are always tensions and differences of opinion, but right now I think that it’s more about unity. Right now I think we feminists are more focused on being efficient in what we have, in what we are achieving. For women to feel protected, to feel recognized we have to keep fighting. It is a very hard internal fight, but always recognizing that this is the space where we can achieve it, not in a different form of government. In another form of government it would be impossible; it would not exist. That is why we defend the process with our lives.

MF: For women, what has been the weakness or the need that has not been achieved yet during the process?

YR: One that is very important is the legalization of abortion. Under Venezuelan law, abortion is still a crime, it is still not seen as a matter of public health or of protecting women. This is one of the issues. There is a wing of the government that is very Catholic and has stalled the creation of spaces where we could discuss this openly and come to some concrete legal decisions. This is one of the priorities on feminist agendas, among other important ones, for example the need to increase and further develop public education, in culture, the need to speak of gender and gender equality. Among other important things we need to take Madres de Barrio to the next level, so that it is not just a financial grant. And we need to continue to develop people’s consciousness. And here you have the latest electoral results. With all of the benefits that have been given and that have benefited women, a house, the economic support, the redemption of women, and yet many people have voted against Chavismo and the revolutionary process. This means they didn’t understand the message. This, I think, is one of the fundamental things that the feminist movement has not been able to achieve. The demands have largely been material.