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The Story of the Barefoot Priest and the Venezuelan Revolution

A Cowboy in Caracas

by DANIEL KOVALIK

I met Charlie Hardy, a former Mary Knoll priest and missionary, in Caracas, Venezuela when I was there as an international accompanier of the Venezuelan elections in April.   When I told my colleague Alex Main that I was going to go with Charlie to see the new socialist city of Ciudad Caribia, Alex said, “oh yes, ‘the barefoot priest,’ you’ll like him.”   And of course, I did.   Indeed, I must say that Catholic priests, as well as former Catholic priests, dedicated to social justice are probably my favorite people in the world – there is something very pure about their dedication.

On the the way to our destination, Charlie explained, as he does very well in his book, that he lived for eight years as a Maryknoll missionary in cardboard hut in Terrace B of the barrio Nueva Tacagua, beginning in 1985.   As Charlie explained to us, and as he explains in his book, Cowboy in Caracas, his first introduction to barrio life was stepping into “a mountain of fecal matter.”   As Charlie relates in his book, “I don’t think there was a square inch of Terrace B that had not been tainted by human or animal excrement at some time.  The problem was threefold:  lack of running water, lack of toilets, and lack of enclosed sewers.   In front of my door, a stream of black water carried the sewage from my neighbors’ dwelling to the miniature black river behind my house.  Soon I would cease to notice the stench.  That day I did.”

As Charlie, a native of Wyoming (thus the cowboy part), explains, life in the barrio was hard and inevitably ground people down – even driving some to the point of insanity.   Basic necessities, like water, were hard to come by, and were expensive.   As Charlie explains in his book, “[w]ater arrived on Terrace B in tank trucks with the words ‘DRINKING WATER’ painted on their sides.  They were old and dirty and the hoses that carried the water to our barrels were equally disgusting.  The price was much, much higher than what the wealthy in other parts of town paid for the same quantity, which they received through their faucets.   . . .  We never knew when the trucks would return.  Sometimes more than a month passed without water.”

Charlie explains how the grinding poverty in the barrios, combined with the rising price of basic foodstuffs and gasoline – which resulted in the jump in the cost of transportation – led to the spontaneous barrio uprisings, known as the Caracazo, shortly after President Carlos Andres Perez assumed office in February of 1989.   As Charlie writes, during this uprising, which was marked by looting, the police “became assassins, firing indiscriminately into crowds running away from them.  . . .  The situation became worse when the president ordered the army into the streets.”   According to Charlie:

No one knows the number of deaths that occurred in Venezuela during the tumultuous days of February and March, 1989. (1) I would not be surprised if the number surpassed that of the massacre in Tianamen Square in China three months later.   The China event received extensive press coverage, and the date is still remembered every year.  But what happened in Caracas received little coverage and was quickly forgotten.   . . .

Thousands of people had lost family members.   Every barrio of Caracas had felt the repression of the police and the armed forces.  Many of those living in the wealthier parts of the city had their business establishments destroyed, but the deaths they witnessed were mostly on television, and they cheered the police who were chasing the barrio dwellers.

Alluding to the ahistorical coverage given to Venezuela and to Hugo Chavez, Charlie writes that “[t]he economic injustices and racial divisions that had existed for years in Caracas and in Venezuela as a hardy_smallwhole had surfaced.  Ten years later, political opponents of President Hugo Chavez would accuse him of dividing the country.  But in 1989 Chavez was just another soldier.  Like many Venezuelans, he probably wondered why soldiers should kill hungry people for stealing spaghetti.”

Charlie witnessed the massive military incursion into and repression of his own barrio during the Caracazo, seeing soldiers shoot a man and then throw him down the mountainside.  As Charlie explains, “[i]t was like a war movie, a horror show.”   Charlie himself confronted a soldier posted in the barrio, telling him,

‘My name is Charlie.   I am the priest here.  The people here are good people.’  I asked him if he was from a barrio, and he replied that he was from the countryside and had been called into action the day before.

I could see tears in his eyes as he looked at us.  My neighbors began to gather behind me.   . . .   Here he was, faced with men, women, and children who probably looked like his own family.   But I also knew that if someone threw a rock, he had the power to kill us all.

A lay missionary later wrote to a priest in the United States that she didn’t think I was ever more a priest than that day when I stood between the automatic weapons and the people of the barrio.

I love this scene, and there are many more like it in the book, for it illustrates not only the repression and suffering of the poor of the barrio which would give rise to the revolution led by Hugo Chavez, but it also shows the importance and efficacy of people of good will, like Charlie, standing up for them.   I would submit that there is probably no greater service that one can perform than to accompany the poor in places like Venezuela who are being beset by both their own oligarchies and by the U.S. Colossus.

My favorite vignette from the book, the one Charlie had me read on the bus up to Ciudad Caribia, is entitled “Angels and Shepherds.”   As Charlie writes,

One Christmas Eve, before I had ever heard the name of Hugo Chavez, I was visiting families.  I stopped for a moment at the home of Angelica.  She told me she was taking care of a little baby who was sick and wondered if I could do her a favor.  That afternoon she had gone with the baby’s mother to see a doctor who had given them a prescription for medicine.  The doctor’s advice was free.  The medicine was not, and they didn’t have enough money to buy it.  Her question was:  could I get it for her?

It was probably about 9 p.m. and I asked her if she needed it right away.  No, in the morning would be ok.

I assisted at midnight Mass in the neighboring barrio and then shared a meal with the local priest and the religious sisters.  When I returned to my neighborhood at about 2 a.m., some young people stopped me.  ‘Charlie, a baby just died.’  ‘Where,’ I asked.  ‘In Angelica’s house.’

* * *

When I returned to my shack, I couldn’t help but reflect on the incident.  Two thousand years ago, it is reported that angels announced to shepherds and to the world the birth of a child.  After two centuries of ‘civilization,’ a woman with the name of an angel had to announce to the world the death of a child.

Flash forward to today, and we arrive at Ciudad Caribia, the socialist city that Chavez had dreamed of years before and which, as most other public housing projects, bears Chavez’s giant signature.    There, we met Charlie’s former neighbor from the barrio, Luz, a name which means “light” in Spanish.   Luz had lived in the barrio for 40 years without sewage and running water.    Her 16-year old son had been murdered by the police in 1990 (eight years before Chavez was elected President), and she just received some justice with the policeman responsible for the killing recently receiving a sentence of 12 years in prison for the crime.

The barrio which was Luz’s home for 4 decades was recently condemned because, as many of the hill-side barrios lining Caracas, it was built on a land fill and is now sliding down the hill.  However, she and her family received four (4) fully furnished apartments in the spanking brand new Ciudad Caribia — they had all shared one tiny dwelling in the barrio.  They now have running water, sewage and electricity.  The city has its own health clinic and day care.   She doesn’t have to pay for the new apartment because she already paid the government for the old house.  Her other family members have to pay 50 to 100 Bolivars a month (or $8 to $16) for 30 years.

She says thanks to the President for all of this.  Luz explains that President Chavez now provides food in all the schools.   Now children in Bolivarian schools receive breakfast and lunch, but “they call our President a terrorist in other countries.”  Ciudad Caribia, which already houses thousands of Venezuela’s poor, is still under construction and will ultimately house a total of 88,000 people.

As the Guardian recently reported, Chavez’s mission to build housing for the poor has been a huge success.  (2) As the Guardian explains, “[l]ast month marked the second anniversary of Venezuela’s great housing mission, started by the late Hugo Chavez, to tackle the country’s massive housing deficit.  The mission was to start by building 350,000 houses in 2011 and 2012 combined – a target exceeded by nearly 25,000 . . .   From now on the annual targets are much tougher – over 300,000 a year.”

As the same article notes, Venezuela “has had three years of steady growth and a longer period of growth in real incomes. Poverty has been halved and the gap between rich and poor is now one of the lowest in Latin America. At 50% of GDP, government debt is high but less than half the level in the UK. Public spending doubled under Chávez, but is still only just over 20% of GDP.   In addition, Venezuela was just one of 18 countries in the world (Cuba, Nicaragua and Vietnam were amongst these as well) which won an award from the UN for dramatically decreasing malnutrition. (3)

While the problems Charlie saw and lived through in the barrio have not been completely eradicated by Venezuela’s democratic revolution, much progress has been made, and this despite the coup against Chavez in 2002, and the crippling oil strikes of 2002-2003 which the oligarchy sponsored to try to fatally undermine Chavez.   This progress is rarely spoken of in the mainstream press but it is very real.   Charlie, the former priest from Cheyenne, Wyoming, knows this as much as anyone.   His story, and the story of Venezuela’s peaceful revolution which he describes, is well-worth reading.

Daniel Kovalik is a human and labor rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh.  He teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Notes. 

(1)   According to the BBC, up to as many as 3,000 were killed in the Caracazo.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12593085

(2)   See, http://www.guardian.co.uk/housing-network/2013/jun/06/public-investment-housing-venezuela?INTCMP=SRCH      

(3)   See,  http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/9716