[Marxism] Chavez's leadership has brought millions into political life

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sat Aug 14 06:04:43 MDT 2004

An Antidote for Apathy

Venezuela's President has Achieved a Level of Grassroots
Participation Our Politicians Can Only Dream Of

By Selma James

August 13, 2004, the Guardian / United Kingdom

Increasing numbers of people, especially the young, seem
disconnected from an electoral process which, they feel, does
not represent them. This is part of a general cynicism about
every aspect of public life.

Venezuela has many problems, but this is not one of them. Its
big trouble - but also its great possibility - is that it has
oil; it is the fifth largest exporter. The US depends on it
and thus wants control over it. But the Venezuelan government
needs the oil revenue, which US multinationals (among others)
siphoned off for decades, for its efforts to abolish poverty.
Hugo Chávez was elected to do just that in 1998, despite
almost all of the media campaigning against him.

Participation in politics especially at the grassroots has
skyrocketed. A new constitution was passed with more than 70%
of the vote, and there have been several elections to ratify
various aspects of the government's program. Even government
opponents who had organized a coup in 2002 (it failed) have
now resorted to the ballot, collecting 2.4 million signatures
- many of them suspect - to trigger a referendum against
President Chávez, which will be held on Sunday.

For Venezuela's participatory democracy, which works from the
bottom up, the ballot is only a first step. People represent
themselves rather than wait to be represented by others,
traditionally of a higher class and lighter skin. Working-
class sectors, usually the least active, are now centrally

Chávez has based himself on this pueblo protagónico - the
grassroots as protagonists. He knows that the changes he was
elected to make can only be achieved with, and protected by,
popular participation.

Chávez has understood the potential power of women as primary
carers. Four months of continuous lobbying got women the
constitution they wanted. Among its anti-sexist, anti-racist
provisions, it recognizes women's unwaged caring work as
economically productive, entitling housewives to social
security. No surprise then that in 2002 women of African and
indigenous descent led the millions who descended from the
hills to reverse the coup (by a mainly white elite and the
CIA), thereby saving their constitution, their president,
their democracy, their revolution.

In a country where 65% of households are headed by women, it
is they who are the majority in government education and
health campaigns: who are users as well as those who nurse,
train and educate. Again, women are the majority in the land,
water and health committees which sort out how the millions
of people who built homes on squatted land can be given
ownership, how water supplies are to be improved, and what
health care is needed.

Despite oil, 80% of Venezuelan people are poor, and the
Women's Development Bank (Banmujer) is needed to move the
bottom up. Unlike other micro-credit banks, such as the
Grameen in Bangladesh, its interest rates are government-
subsidized. Banmujer, "the different bank", is based on
developing cooperation among women. Credits can only be
obtained if women get together to work out a project which is
both viable and what the local community wants and needs.

As Banmujer president Nora Castañeda explains: "We are
building an economy at the service of human beings, not human
beings at the service of the economy. And since 70% of the
world's poor are women, women must be central to economic
change to eliminate poverty."

In this oil-producing country 65% of basic food is imported.
President Chávez has placed much emphasis on regenerating
agriculture and repopulating the countryside, so that
Venezuelans can feed themselves and are no longer dependent
on imports or vulnerable to blockades which could starve them
out. After all, you can't drink oil.

Most importantly, the oil revenue is increasingly used for
social programs as well as agriculture: to enable change in
the lives of the most who have least. People feel that the
oil industry, nationalized decades ago, is finally theirs.
The oil workers have created committees to work out how the
industry is to be run and for whose benefit, even what to do
about the pollution their product causes. The government has
turned the referendum, regarded by Venezuelans as an
imperialist attempt to oust Chávez, into an even wider
expression of the popular will. The small electoral squads,
again mainly women who know the community and whom the
community knows, are checking identity cards to weed out the
names of those who have died or are under age, and register
all who are entitled to vote, so that this time there will be
little opportunity for electoral fraud. The turnout is
expected to be 85%. Some, especially the well-off, see the
political engagement of the whole population as a threat to
the status quo. Exactly. But since, increasingly, people find
representative government doesn't represent them, it may be
the wave of the present.

Selma James coordinates the Global Women's Strike; she will
be one of the international observers at Sunday's Venezuelan

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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