Democracy and Venezuela

With so many missions, Bolivarian circles, and grassroots community and governmental organizations on the ground carried out by the people, it is hard to imagine how anyone could get away with calling Venezuela communist, and further, people believing it. But alas, this is the power of the fascist media who control the ideas that circulate among the people and within our societies. This is particularly true in the United States, my home country. Before I came to Venezuela, I had of course read in the mainstream media of Hugo Chavez’s dictatorial tendencies, and of course had seen the ways in which the people of Venezuela were painted as agents of populace uprisings, rebellion, and instability. And, of course, I had sought and found information in the alternative press that exposed a more accurate setting of the threads of Venezuelan society; one of hope, redistribution of wealth, and ‘participatory democracy’, which at the time remained a vague idea in my head.

But it was not until I arrived here and began to interact with the people that I began to understand and develop my own ideas about what democracy is, what democracy looks like, and more, what democracy means to the Venezuelan people. The alternative media spends so much time cleaning up the dirty diapers of the mainstream press and setting the record straight that rarely is there room for the real details of the revolution to seep through, the news of the community. There is a curtain that draws itself over one’s eyes simply when one lives in the culture of the US; when immersed in another culture, different realities are revealed. There is a starved mass public in the United States who is craving truth and access to another reality and understanding, and there is a huge gap to fill. However, we can start and have started by filtering the word person to person to bridge this gap; this is my intention in writing this essay.

I have been here in Venezuela for about six weeks now, out of an approximate six month stay. I am a university student from California who is doing a thesis project to graduate, but even more, have begun to see my stay here as a very unique opportunity to develop my own political understanding through the eyes of a Bolivarian lens, and to be able to bring back this information and point of view to my own community as an act of solidarity with the process here. What I have encountered here thus far is nothing shy of a miracle. I continue to be uplifted each and every day by what I see and by how others interact with me- these interactions contest much of what I had come to believe about the way in which my presence as a US-American would be received. We are told that these are dangerous times to travel and announce yourself as a gringo or a person of the United States. And of course, this is very true in many, if not most, parts of the world. However, my experience here has been completely opposite. Instead, I am cloaked in the joy of the process by others, who exclaim how thrilled they are that I am here to see for myself the beauty and the strength of the revolution, and are even more delighted that there are people here to bring back the information. Moreover, my immersion in the Bolivarian revolution continues to shape the way in which I view the state of the world, shifting from a state of sadness, despair, bleakness, and frustration to a vision of hope, possibility, resistance, and community, and above all, success and long-term perseverance.

The stitching of the fabric of the revolution is unmatched in its strength and breadth of anything I have ever seen. Throughout the country, not just in the urban barrios, social programs called ‘misiones’- a social development strategy borrowed from the Cuban revolution- are being implemented by the people with the support of government resources. What takes place behind the scenes of each mission is simply incredible and inspiring beyond words. These campaigns include education- from literacy to the university level, health, employment, citizenship, support for indigenous groups and their reincorporation into society, economic justice and resistance to neoliberalism through development of grassroots and community cooperatives and businesses, to name a few. I have had the blessed opportunity to work with several groups of these folks who have begun to organize in their communities around these missions. I first began working with two muchachas who are facilitators of the missions Robinson 1 and 2, 1 which is the basic literacy campaign, and 2 which builds upon the skills learned in 1- it serves as a basic educational foundation from which participants can grow. What I witnessed in this ‘classroom’, which was what would be a living room in their home but has been converted into a classroom space, with a chalkboard and desks, was beyond explanation. Everyday, students arrive hours early, eagerly waiting for class to begin. One of the facilitators, a beautiful and energetic muchacha named Illiana, relayed an illuminating story of the passion of her participants, that on the first day of Robinson 2, when all the returning students of Robinson 1 reunited, many of the students began to cry out of happiness for the mission itself and for the joy of the opportunities and empowerment it has given them. And when you watch the mission itself in action, you know that this is true. I have experienced many conversations with people here, when talking about the process, get teary eyed out of pure happiness. People are thrilled to be there in the classroom, compared to my educational experience in the US, where many times we schemed of how to get out of class. Bright eyes, lasting attention, and energetic participation fill the room as I watch the mission in session. It is truly inspiring.

Robinson 2 is followed by Ribas, the equivalent to high school, and then by Sucre, the university level class. Each mission is equally impressive in terms of the strength and spirit of the participants and their eagerness to continue in their education and in their efforts to further social change in their homes and communities. Their breadth of political analysis is way beyond the general knowledge and passion of folks in the US, and they are adamant in defending their revolutionary process and their right to self-determination. The missions are facilitated with an emphasis on democratic participation, and the facilitators are just that- they facilitate, which is a very different model from the more top-down teacher-student dynamic. Anyone can sign up to become a facilitator, a process that involves a one-day workshop. This is another way in which democracy spreads itself through the community and encourages the participation of each person in the revolutionary process. These folks continue to shine the light on the revolutionary example from which we as foreigners can learn so much and begin to organize our own communities from a place of love, hope, positivity, and hard work.

Another equally important and extremely significant program being carried out is mission Barrio Adentro, the health program bridged by Cuban doctors, the Cuban and Venezuelan governments, and community organizers here who form ‘comites de salud’ (health committees) to support the efforts of the Cuban doctors working in the community. The mission once again is not a stranger to the more rural parts of Venezuela, although their presence is more strongly realized in the urban zones. This mission is an incredible example of the solidarity between the two countries, on the national level as well as the individual, as thousands of Cubans have sacrificed living with their families and in their land to come and support the revolutionary process here in the community. These clinics practice preventative medicine, along of course with whatever immediate care is needed, and have many programs of alternative healing, relaxation, and integrative care, and in turn, help to produce a healthier community that can continue to organize and develop itself knowing that they are not alone in their efforts. Celebrations of the mission itself and of the efforts of the community are often held with the barrios as an affirmation of the process and a celebration of life.

Yet another essential part of the process is the mission called Vuelvan Caras, which is a mission that prepares people for employment by training them in a particular sector that is specific to their location of residence (for example, in the city folks are trained in areas such as construction; in the countryside, in agriculture to enter cooperative work). After completing the mission, they are eligible for a job in their community, and because of their particular skill, are basically guaranteed a job. Many folks simultaneously undergo Misíon Vuelvan Caras while attending the educational missions, and so are basically saturated in the process all day. This is one of the most powerful tools in the community that destroys the myth of the dictatorship of Chavez and that he is responsible for the unemployment in Venezuela. Just the opposite- he is channeling government funds to a mission that supports the growth of employment within the community and giving people the opportunity to create channels of their own empowerment. As many people involved in the missions have pointed out, the Bolivarian Constitution says that each citizen is responsible for the building of a participatory and democratic society, but it doesn’t say how to do it. This is the incredible system the people have come up with and begun to implement in their communities.

Perhaps one of the most impressionable missions underway is Misíon Identidad, which is a mission involving the National Guard and groups of people organized via grassroots clusters to register all folks in Venezuela as Venezuelan citizens. This mission is particularly pertinent in the countryside, where people and families have been living for generations without citizenship, and thus, without access to government programs and benefits. The process of this mission is a beautiful one, and one very grounded in basic need, as people begin to realize their capacity as Venezuelan citizens and that there is a process of empowerment and development in which they can participate through exercising their rights as citizens.

As the August 15 referendum nears, the energy is growing and the momentum harnessing itself in the streets and in the mountains. It is beautiful, vibrant, positive, and carries a strength and a force that cannot be extinguished by the opposition, here locally or internationally. “No Volverán!”, they cry in the streets, in the metro, out of the windows of their cars. People here are experiencing a process of political empowerment that is changing the lives of each person, each family, each community, and is bringing hope and the realization that another way is possible. August 8th was a powerful example of the livelihood of the revolution, and one that reveals a sharp contrast in the avenues of political expression between here and the United States. Everyone took to the streets, in an event that was described not as a demonstration, but as a beginning of the celebration of the victory of August 15th. It was a party that reached for miles on end, filled with the vibrancy and spirit of the people, unlike the marches in the US, which generally serve as an avenue for people to spill their anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction with a fascist and imperialist government that really provides no outlet for political participation. Here, it is common understanding that democracy cannot exist unless everyone participates. Ultimately, this is the mission of the missions; to build a public with a solid foundation and capacity to participate in their own democracy, in the creation of their reality, and in the manifestation of their vision. What I saw in the march in the interactions between Chavistas and escualidos (the name here for the opposition) is that everyone is encouraged, at least by the Chavistas, to express their opinion, regardless of which side they support. I was prepared for tense interactions between the two parties, a conclusion logically developed from the painted image of violence, hatred, and tension. What I encountered instead was one of laughter, light-hearted commrodary, and teasing, again, at least on the part of the Chavistas. As almost every single Chavista I have spoken with here says, they have nothing against the opposition; they do not hate them nor do they wish them harm. But they do understand, very profoundly, that they must defend their country against fascist and elite infiltration, and that Venezuela is for and of ALL Venezuelans, and that the revolutionary process must be carried out. They are not against the escualidos; on the contrary, they are for a democratic Venezuela that serves each and every citizen. And they are prepared to defend this vision against whomever or whatever stands in the way.

Even channel 8, the state channel, airs commercials supporting the “Sí” campaign (to recall Chavez). At first I was bewildered, why on Earth would the state channel air ads soliciting its viewers to vote for the dismantling of the governmentthen I remembered the slogan of the channel- “el canal de todos”. This is an enlightening example once again of the strength and faith of a democratic government, and also an example that shatters the myth of dictatorship and censorship. Every perspective is given a space to express itself, because in a democratic society, no viewpoint can be censored, no matter how outside of mass public support it lies. This respect for all parties is also what gathered more support for the process itself, because people have faith that they will be represented. And of course, values are learned through example. On a micro level, the government is breathing life, respect, fairness, and representation into the fire of the revolution, even if some of those to whom it gives space are too blind to see it.

It is very obvious that if Chavez loses the election this Sunday, it is because of fraud. Living here, it is plain to see that the overwhelming majority is Chavista. But of course that does not secure a win for the “No” campaign- there does exist a very real and grave threat against a fair election, something as we as US citizens can understand from the coup of 2000, and which of course almost every Latin American nation knows all too well. For me as someone from the US trying to organize in my own community and trying to raise awareness on a more mainstream level, what is most tragic about US-Venezuelan relations is that the point is entirely missed. At this time in history, we ALL, not just those of us in the activist community, have a tremendous opportunity to study and learn from the Bolivarian revolution and process and the democratic example it upholds, and to bring the process to our own communities. Instead, people continue to believe the lies that Venezuela poses a threat to our “democracy”, and continue to support policies that in reality attempt to undermine a very democratic process. But the Bolivarian example will never be buried, because even in the possibility that the opposition succeeds in its fraudulent attempts to oust Chavez, the people will not give an inch. Because they know that with or without Chavez, the revolution continues with the people, because the revolution is of the people, it is not the transient dream of one person. However, the chance for a peaceful process is more likely if the government and military are on your side, and so the people continue to sing: Uh! Ah! Chávez No Se Va!

KATHERINE LAHEY is a student at the University of California. She is spending six months in Venezuela studying the revolutionary process. She can be reached at: