Boston Globe: How working-class committees defend revolution

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Thu Dec 26 02:57:25 MST 2002

Subject: [R-G] Working Class Defense of Venezuelan Revolution

Watchdog groups stay loyal to Chavez
Effort presses on amid turmoil

By Marion Lloyd, Boston Globe Correspondent, 12/25/2002

CARACAS - Dressed in a yellow crocheted sweater and seated behind a cracked
Formica table trimmed with Christmas tinsel, Maria Gisela Blanco looks more
like a schoolteacher than a foot soldier in a political revolution.

But as the leader of a Bolivarian Circle, she has played a vital role in
keeping President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in power. The neighborhood-based
circles form a national network of watchdog groups that has supported
Chavez's government through months of turmoil.

Opponents of Chavez, mostly middle-class and upper-class Caracas residents,
launched a general strike Dec. 2 in an attempt to force the leftist leader
to resign or call new elections. The strike has hobbled the economy and cut
off gas supplies from the world's largest oil exporter, while exacerbating
class tensions in a country whose income disparities are among Latin
America's widest.

''This is a social movement from the ground up. We've never seen anything
like it,'' Blanco said of the mass mobilization of working-class Venezuelans
on behalf of Chavez. The former army paratrooper, who won the presidency in
the 1998 election, has won the hearts of many of Venezuela's 24 million
people through his fiery speeches railing against the excesses of the
country's elite.

In part to cement support among his working-class constituents, Chavez
created the watchdog groups and named them after the country's most beloved
native son, Latin American independence leader Simon Bolivar. The Bolivarian
Circles are modeled after Cuba's Committee for the Defense of the Revolution
and serve as liaisons between the neighborhoods and the government as well
as fomenting key support for Chavez.

When a coalition of business leaders and dissident army generals organized
an abortive coup against Chavez in April, Blanco, 40, described how the
Bolivarian Circles sprang into action. Within minutes, members began banging
out warnings on hollow electricity poles, she said, rallying supporters
across the city's working-class neighborhoods in a modern-day version of
Paul Revere's ride.

Chavez's opponents charge that the groups also function as armed gangs whose
job is to intimidate opposition protesters. They blame the groups for the
shooting deaths of 19 opposition supporters in April, during a protest rally
on the eve of the failed coup. But Blanco denied the groups were responsible
for that and subsequent violence, which has also claimed the lives of
Chavez's supporters.

''You ask if we have guns? Of course, who in Caracas doesn't,'' she said of
the city known as one of Latin America's most violent. ''But we are a
peaceful organization.'' She said one of her favorite activities was
painting murals of Bolivar on the walls of public schools and parks. ''It's
very good for boosting morale,'' she said, gesturing to a portrait of
Bolivar in a soldier's uniform that steers would- be group members to her
modest office alongside a freeway.

There, Blanco, a seamstress with a sixth-grade education, hosts weekly
discussion groups on political issues with residents. Typically, 30 people,
mostly housewives, cram into the dim concrete room that Blanco's husband
built alongside their house in the working-class First of May neighborhood.
This week's discussion topic was articles 70 to 72 of the Venezuelan
Constitution, which specify that elected officials must complete half their
term before calling new elections.

''We discuss these points so that people understand why Chavez could not
call for a vote even if he wanted to,'' she said. Chavez has resisted
opposition demands for new elections, noting that without a constitutional
amendment, he cannot call a vote before August, when he will have completed
half of his six-year term.

Like many Chavez supporters, Blanco said her loyalty was to the president,
not his Movement of the Fifth Republic party, which she called ''a bunch of
useless opportunists.'' In contrast, she said the Bolivarian Circles were
fomenting change through poverty reduction, such as coordinating microloans
for women, rather than pushing party loyalties.

Blanco said she became involved in politics through her husband, a
construction worker who was active in the urban guerrilla movement of the
1970s and 1980s. By the late 1980s, the couple was printing antigovernment
propaganda against then-President Carlos Andres Perez on a secret printing
press and distributing them under cover of night.

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