In the barrios, Venezuela's poor are taking control of their lives

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Aug 10 12:58:57 MDT 2003


Since internationalist Cuban doctors and teachers are now direct
participants in the Venezuelan process, I think its appropriate to
keep the CubaNews list abreast of the main developments in the
liberations struggle of that country.



In the crowded barrios, the poor who helped Chávez back to power are
seizing
control of their own lives

Reed Lindsay in Caracas
Sunday August 10, 2003
The Observer

The economy is in a shambles, the country is torn by social strife.
The
government is paralysed by factional conflicts, and the virulent
media denounce a new public scandal nearly every day.

But in the sprawling hillside slums of Caracas, there is optimism. A
startling buzz of activity from the very bottom of society's ladder
is beginning to affect an embattled Venezuela. Since weathering a coup
in April 2002 and a debilitating strike early this year, President
Hugo Chávez has pushed through measures aimed at promoting civic
participation among the poor.

And the result may well prove to be the turning point of Venezuela's
fortunes.

In the teeming barrios of the capital, a quiet revolution is under
way.
Meeting in dilapidated school houses and potholed alleyways,
Venezuelans have
formed neighbourhood groups to fix deficient water supply systems, to
organise
volunteer efforts at local schools and to launch recycling campaigns.

Committees are conducting censuses and writing neighbourhood histories
as
part of a government plan to grant land titles to hundreds of
thousands of
slum-dwelling families who squatted decades ago but were long ignored
by the
authorities.

Others are attending self-convoked 'citizen assemblies' to talk about
everything from neighbourhood problems to national politics, and to
create local planning councils where municipal authorities will be
required to share decision-making with community representatives.

Community radio and television stations, banned by previous
governments, are
thriving. 'What is new is not so much what the government is doing,
but what
is happening outside it,' said Arlene Espinal, 49, a social worker
and resident of the 23 de Enero barrio, which looms above downtown
Caracas. 'There's been a powerful awakening in the barrios.'

For Elka Oropeza, everything changed with last year's coup. A
30-year-old
single mother and lifelong resident of 23 de Enero, Oropeza was one of
tens of
thousands who descended from Caracas's poor neighbourhoods in
protest after Chávez was forced from office and a fleeting
dictatorship was installed under business leader Pedro Carmona. The
largely spontaneous demonstrations were a crucial factor in Chávez's
unexpected return to power in less than 48 hours.

Oropeza had not voted for Chávez, and before the coup merely observed
the
nation's political turmoil. Since then, she has become an assiduous
community
leader and a fierce defender of the government. 'Before Chávez, the
only thing I had ever done was vote,' said Oropeza, who attends weekly
'citizen assemblies' in her barrio and is helping with a
government-sponsored literacy campaign.  'Now, we feel that he's
giving us the power to choose what we want in our communities.'

The grassroots initiatives provide the first examples of Chávez's
pledge to
promote sweeping social change through the active participation of the
citizenry.

The new community activism, however, has gone largely unnoticed in
middle and
upper-class neighbourhoods of Caracas, where Chávez is hugely
unpopular.

Media coverage, meanwhile, has been largely limited to the
controversies
surrounding the so-called Bolívarian Circles, government-promoted
neighbourhood organisations that mainly serve as political action
groups in support of the President, and a government programme that
has brought several hundred Cuban doctors to provide free healthcare
in the barrios.

But analysts say that the local initiatives, and especially the
efforts to
grant land titles to long-time squatters, could reap untold political
dividends
in the barrios, traditionally a bastion of support for Chávez.

'Chávez is consolidating his strength among the poor,' said Eleazar
Díaz
Rangel, director and columnist of Ultimas Noticias, the only major
newspaper in
Caracas that is not stridently anti-Chávez.

Many barrio residents are taking action with little heed for official
directives or government sanctions. When teachers at the Juan Bautista
Alberdi
elementary school in the suburb of Manicomio walked out on classes
during the
opposition-led strike in January, the students, along with their
parents, took the
school back by force. They have since changed the locks, painted the
walls and
started classes under the tutelage of six strike-breaking teachers and
14
volunteers, including some parents.

'We don't want a government, we want to govern,' said Carlos Carles,
co-founder of Radio Perola, a community station that has become an
axis of local activism in the barrio of Caricuao. 'We want to decide
what is done, when it's done and how it's done in our communities.'




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