Monthly Archives: December 2014

Self Governance and Urban Agriculture

In other countries, when we build apartments, most or all the times, the developers or the government do not create spaces for community democracy or self-sustaining agriculture. Some apartments and flats do have some form of committees with varying level of participation. However, in Venezuela, things are done differently here.

First, we need to understand that Venezuela has a severe housing crisis. Due to the oil boom and subsequent dominance of the economy, the rural (agricultural sector) was abandoned. Rural masses came in droves to urban areas in search for better prospects. However, majority could not get a decent job that would allow them to live in proper housing. Hence, shanty towns like around in Caracas appeared where the poor was pretty much excluded from the society. With the advent of oil economy, agriculture has declined in its importance as it was cheaper to import food products from overseas

With the revolution in 1999, the government had inconsistent plans in resolving the housing backlog and crisis. Then, big floods of 2010-11 which created many Venezuelans homeless. It finally drove a big point to Venezuelan government: You need a concerted effort to resolve the housing crisis soon. Secondly, with rising purchasing power among Venezuelans during the revolution, the consumption has began to outstrip the domestic agriculture production. Yes, Venezuela is self-sufficient in some products for first time in a long time. However, there are many mouths to feed and current food shortages highlight the importance of decentralizing agriculture. Under the revolution, the government actively encourage of devolving power to the citizens as they believe representative democracy has failed the society historically. The concept of communal councils (group of few hundred families) and communes (group of communal councils) were introduced half-way through during Chavez’s presidency. As for the moment, these two self-governance mechanisms (mentioned above) are parallel system with municipal (city council) system (relationship has been uneasy).

Some Reading Materials (before we proceed):

http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/9787

(* Bear in mind, Venezuela is very decentralized state, it has been in the process of devolution since late 80s, way before Chavez)

Grand Housing Mission (GMV) next to Tiuna El Fuerte, Caracas

Grand Housing Mission (GMV) next to Tiuna El Fuerte, Caracas

Towards end of the brigade, we got the chance to see self-governance and urban agriculture at play in one community. We went to La Fuente housing complex in a middle class suburb of El Paraiso, Caracas. It is a home to 9 tower blocks, 153 families and in total, has over 500 people. The people residing in well designed homes are from the shanty towns of Caracas. La Fuente is a good example of Venezuelan Grand Housing Mission (GMV) which is meant to tackle housing crisis.

As the residents are coming from very low-income brackets, the payments of house purchase is based on your financial capacity. Hence, a socio-economic study is done to assess the financial capacity. Residents pay the purchase in installments (depending on their social status) WITHOUT INTEREST. The apartments are sold at 1/5 of the MARKET RATE and the installments are about 10-15 times lower than market rate (the installments are not affected by Inflation). In extreme cases, those who have no financial resources are given fully free equipped houses. For those who struggle to pay the installments, PDVSA (state oil company) Black Gold Foundation actively assist those residents to find productive works to pay off the installments.

In La Fuente alone, they have 30 social enterprises. Below each apartment tower block, they have created spaces for businesses to be set up (though ones we saw were empty). However, there is one big challenge in regards to businesses operating here. Residents treat them as though it is their family business and the challenge is to change their mindset that they live in the community (more like how to contribute community).

As mentioned previously, residents living here are from different shanty towns and hence, different cultures and mentalities are brought in. This created problems in the early days as the integration of the residents were hard. Over time, people overcame the differences through participating many communal projects. To ensure peace in La Fuente, there are restrictions when you can play music and drink. In future, the community in La Fuente are looking to create communal justice to resolve inter-family disputes. As La Fuente is a small community, there were no schools within its perimeter. To overcome, the government social missions (like on education) cover some of the educational gaps of the community.

On top of apartment blocks (currently 7 out 9 blocks), the community devoted empty spaces to urban (& organic) agriculture. Most of the produce are community consumption. Any excess would be sold at the market a discounted rate (1/3 of capitalist price). The profits are reinvested in purchasing discounted seeds from public foundation. Under the Cuba-Venezuela Bilateral Agreement, Cuban agricultural specialists are brought in to train the community at La Fuente on how to grow and maintain the organic plots (Cuba is leader in organic agriculture)

Urban Agriculture at La Fuente apartment complex in Caracas

Urban Agriculture at La Fuente apartment complex in Caracas

Communal Councils

It is self-governance in action but works hand-in-hand with representative structures of the country (relationship between these systems are not easy). For example, PDVSA works with communal councils to develop projects that are needed by the community. The community draw their own maps where their council should cover. For example, La Fuente communal council (El Gigante) covers the 9 tower blocks. It has a collective leadership with a number of spokesperson (vocero or vocera)

In each tower block, families pay maintenance fees and elect two people to manage the bank accounts. All the problems faced in communal councils are resolved through consensus. Communal council also propose projects that would benefit the area. In every communal council, you need to have two mandatory vocero (a) – one on financing and another auditing. This is to ensure the money spent on the communal projects are well spent. At the beginning, the state pumps a lot of money to finance many communal councils. However, now, the state encourage communal councils to build productive works for the community to self-sustain. People have the right to formulate the communal budget but participatory budgeting remains limited.

When a communal council is created, an assembly of people (over 15 years) must be convened. Two commissions (Promoting and Election Commission) are elected by the community. Promoting Commission promotes and education the concept of communal council to the community. The Election Commission organizes elections within the communal council and does receive help from Venezuela Electoral Commission (CNE). Later, minimum of two to a maximum of 5 spokespersons are elected (including two compulsory ones – finance and auditing)

The spokesperson are elected to represent the needs of community and they are elected for 2 years. They are expected to work in their own communities. Spokesperson can make their own decisions but they need to get the consent and approval of the community When important decisions are made, the citizen Assembly is convened to vote and debate on this matter. Most importantly, if the spokesperson fails to carry his or her duties, he or she can be RECALLED anytime. In La Fuente, the spokespersons in every 3 -4 months detail out the financing that are going on in the community. Moreover, an increasing people in La Fuente are actively participating in popular auditing. When the projects are materialized in front of the eyes of the community, this create a new impetus for greater participation in community councils.

Having said that, let’s us acknowledge there are problems with community councils:

i) I personally believe it is every right of Venezuela (left, right or centre) to organize themselves to create community councils. Hence, it is possible to middle class communal councils that are not supportive of the government. Some times, opposition infiltrates the communal councils to sabotage the process from within.

ii) Clash with existing bureaucracy (i.e. with mayoralty office). For example, communal councils in Merida (Andean city) issue permits (for street sellers) and determines how many should be issued. The opposition mayor office of Merida issues another round permits in the same streets of communal councils. This creates confusion among the people

Having said, we have to understand the revolution is a massive school and everyone is learning as they go. Hence problems and success are part of the process of deepening democracy.

 

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Public Transportation: At the Service of the People

When we were travelling in Venezuela, we received the full experience like a Venezuelan commuting to work in Caracas. This involved using taxis, going on foot, taking the metro, cable car and buses. Under this revolution, government has invested massively to improve the public transportation network in major cities. As for today’s discussion, the article focusing on Greater Caracas.

First, let’s talk about metro. Caracas, being on a valley, grows east-west direction and only to be restricted by the towering mountains of North. It was opened in 1980s and it gets jam packed during busy period. Since the concept of time is not valued, hardly there any timetables of any departing trains. Despite everyone rushing to work, Venezuelans do form an irregular queue before entering the train. Once the train doors open, everyone rushes in. It is very possible the whole platform is full of people during peak times. Most of the Metro lines are underground with some exceptions here and there.  Let’s examine the routes. Currently, they have 4 lines operating on east-west direction and towards southerly direction. Under the government of Chavez and Maduro, they have successfully extended the railway line to nearby capital of Miranda, Los Teques. In the coming years, Los Teques would have a fully fledged functioning metro linked with Caracas metro. In every train we boarded, we have seen posters of two new railway lines and other associated service linkages. I have attached the map of existing and under construction of railway network here. Truly, on the trains, we have seen how committed the government in extending the rail service for the needs of the people.

One of the lasting legacies of Chavez is completion of passenger train service connecting southern end of Caracas to town of Cua (Miranda) – 30 minute ride.  As we traveled from Caracas to Ocumare (in Aragua state), we have seen the progress of interstate railway network that would start from Caracas and connect major cities in West of the Country. It was stated the Venezuelan government in the last 2 decades has built MORE railway network than 4 decades of pacted democracy of 1958-1998.

Part of bigger railway network project, near Maracay (Aragua)

Part of bigger railway network project, near Maracay (Aragua)

 

Having said that, metro only gives access to major suburbs of Caracas. Historically, barrios (shanty towns) of Caracas on perched on many hills around the city do not have good access to centre of Caracas. Private buses do serve these communities but the journeys are very long – let’s say around 2-3 hours. As we headed to ELAM (Medicine School) in far eastern Mariches suburb, there was MetroCable Service. MetroCable is a gondola lift system which is very effective and environmentally and urban friendly public transport link.

MetroCable connectin Petare to Mariches

If you oberve the photo, notice that MetroCable do not require wholescale of eviction of residents as towers occupy less space. A journey from Palo Verde to Mariches used to take 2 hours if you use the ground transportation as there are so many stops and winding roads on the hills. MetroCable cuts down the time to 20 minutes! The turnover of the gondola unit is high. A journey on MetroCable gives everyone true appreciation of the vastness of Caracas and people living in the barrios.

Barrios occupying on the hills

Barrios occupying on the hills

What we have seen is one example of MetroCable. There is one more line connecting San Agustin which is located towards centre of city. Essentially, we have seen the government closing the gap for the poor to access the city. More importantly, I was informed for the construction and subsequently the maintenance of these links involved knowledge transfer. It is very important as country must have technological know how to maintain the system without depending on outsiders.

In terms of buses, it gets bit complicated. There are so many buses and they operate in supposed cooperatives (Well, the owners tend to subcontract the buses to everyone). Government finds it difficult to control and regulate private buses as any harsh moves would leave people in Caracas stranded. Government has bought new and modern bus and provide free transportation in selected routes.

All in all, I am impressed with the level of effort the government has invested in public transportation. They have a grand plan of connecting every part of the country with railways. This is to lessen dependence of private trucking companies and buses. When I saw the MetroCable, I truly understood why this project is revolutionary in its own sense. Bringing poor to formerly exclusive rich areas and breaking down barriers between rich and poor

What did we learn here?

  • Government is fully committed to invest in public transportation
  • In less than 2 decades, the revolutionary government has built more railway networks than 40 years between 1958 and 1998
  • MetroCable is innovative, urban and environmentally friendly network connecting previously off-grid communities with Caracas
  • Having said that, railway expansion has bit delays and are with problems.
  • Metro Caracas seems to having an issue of overcapacity as it was designed for much smaller population
  • Management of bus networks has been fraught due to strong powers of private buses.

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Integral Holistic Medicine & Palestinian Students

On 10/12/2014, our highlight of the trip was visiting ELAM- Latin America School of Medicine ( Venezuela). It is the sister campus of ELAM in Cuba. Built on former grounds of Military Cadet School at Mariches, ELAM is on a mission of transforming general medicine course. Students from 43 countries including Palestine and Venezuelan indigenous communities are trained to be TRANSFORMATIVE doctors.

Perched in a hill in Mariches, this is a centre of transformative medicine

Perched in a hill in Mariches, this is a centre of transformative medicine

The project came out as pact signed by Chavez and Castro many years ago. The aim is to create doctors who are medically trained and have socio political consciousness. Moreover, another aim of ELAM to break the logic of capital over medicine and getting students to think about the community. The course is for 7 years with one year of pre medical study. Students are thought beyond standard technical knowledge. They learn concepts of political thought, multiculturalism and integration and developing human values. Students receive 10500 practical hours of medical training and immersed with various public health networks of Barrio Adentro and CDIs. Since it is multicultural area, students are thought to derive strengths from cultural diversity. Since all the training are done in Spanish, newly arriving  non-Spanish speaking students are given very INTENSIVE Spanish courses. Within few weeks, their Spanish would be top and ready for real studies and communication. We have met three graduates of ELAM (The Gambia, Haiti and Bolivia) and noticed a difference in them – not money orientated but focused on community. All of them have the mindset to serve the community.

When the campus first opened, most of the students were from Latin America. Subsequently, the students from Africa were brought in. Now, there is strong emphasis to enlarge the presence of Palestinian students studying in ELAM

As students come far away countries like Africa, the need of loving atmosphere is important to combat home sickness. After all, throughout the 7 years, the students may go back once or twice. ELAM has its own ‘nanny’ which becomes mother of students. All students, staff and workers reside in the campus.

ELAM demonstrates concrete solidarity with Palestine. We witnessed the recent arrival of more than 100 Palestinian students for their studies. They are super enthusiastic of studying the course. Some Palestinian students are very pro Chavez and very much appreciate Venezuela’s effort of sending oil to their country. All the Palestinian students we have met are VERY enthusiastic of their studies.

Intensive course in Spanish would definite an external Spanish beginner in the same period of time

Intensive course in Spanish would definite an external Spanish beginner in the same period of time

All students are responsible of cleanliness of their dormitories. Moreover, students are required to participate actively to cultural activities. All students receive free three meals.

A very heavy meal for lunch. The composition of the meal reflects the multicultural aspect of ELAM

A very heavy meal for lunch. The composition of the meal reflects the multicultural aspect of ELAM

All Students come under scholarships are also given monthly stipend. Usually, the students comes under a government-to-government agreement with Venezuela. One of the requirements is the graduating students to return to their home countries and serve their local communities. There are some instances where the social movements (e.g. MST in Brazil -movement of landless peasants) can make an agreement with Venezuelan Foreign Ministry to train members of community in medicine.

We met the Director of ELAM and we found she has maternal approach towards students. For example, she had sleepless nights when Palestinian students were stranded during their transit in Germany. She was mobilizing every foreign resources to resolve the student matters.

All in all, it is fantastic training program. The fruit is yielding. We were told how graduates in Peru are actively in the local communities. Not only providing medical know how, introducing preventative medicine to the communities. They actively educate the communities on social causes of illness and how to remedy them. Some even embarked even further. Some doctors want to sow socialist consciousness in areas where they are one.

White soldiers serving the communities and sparking greater change in future!

What do we Learn here?

  • ELAM focuses on preventative medical training and holistic view on medicine.
  • Outcome of ELAM studies is a generation of socio conscious doctors who are ready to serve the community
  • Students come on full scholarships which are done through government-to-government agreement.
  • Most, if not or all students come from Developing World like Latin America, Africa and now Palestine
  • ELAM demonstrates concrete solidarity with Palestine. ELAM will host bigger numbers of Palestinian students in future
  • The selected staff we have met have demonstrated to us the full efforts they made to make sure the students are happy during their studies.

Video of earlier Palestinian students studying in ELAM : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOYWOX7qQWw

go

 

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Venezuela – Otra Malasia & Quick History

As I was landing to Caracas airport at Maiquieta, I was fortunate to see a glimpse of neighboring city of Catia. I saw the green mountains, barrios next door to well developed buildings. Indeed, Venezuela was land of contrast.

As the oil boom exploded, rural side was neglected. As a result, thousands moved to the city to find better prospects. However, they found none and poor built homes are lasting legacy of failed prospects.

As the oil boom exploded, rural side was neglected. As a result, thousands moved to the city to find better prospects. However, they found none and poor built homes are lasting legacy of failed prospects.

Upon my arrival, I was greeted by my tour guide and we waited for our last Australian delegate. We waited at a coffee shop and I got a rough idea of multiculturalism in Venezuela. We have the mestizos, Afro Venezuelans, fair looking, Chinese Venezuelans and Jewish people. Caracas airport, in my opinion, a combination of 2000s and 1970s architecture.

As we traveled to Caracas, we went through modern tunnels and viaducts (massive engineering feats in the world back in 50s). We also had more glimpses of the barrios shantytowns on the hills separating the airport and Caracas.

Caracas is separated from the coast by mountains that soar nearly 3000 metres. The highway from airport to Caracas was the mostly costliest project in World in 1950s

Caracas is separated from the coast by mountains that soar nearly 3000 metres. The highway from airport to Caracas was the mostly costliest project in World in 1950s

Part of the engineering feat of building the highway in 1950s

Part of the engineering feat of building the highway in 1950s

The moment we arrive in Caracas, I realized another version of Kuala Lumpur appeared. Tall buildings, clogged roads and even design of buildings and overpass reminded in Malaysia. There is one key difference, Venezuelans drive on left – we need some adjusting.

After quickly settling down at our house, we were briefed on our itinerary for the brigade. Our itinerary constantly changed or modified as this is a norm in Venezuela.

The brigade kickstarted with short history lesson. A university Preventative Medicine Director grounded us the background context of Venezuela. Ever since Venezuela was colon used by Spain, it was deemed as peripheral territory. This is because unlike colonies like Argentina, Bolivia etc, Venezuela did not have much to offer. This meant the church had less control on Venezuelan society. Hence, Venezuela from various migrant backgrounds were inter married easily. This was critical for the fight of Independence by Latin American Hero No 1, Venezuelan Simon Bolivar. Venezuela has three days of independences-1810,1811 and 1836. Venezuela, the most closest Spain colony to Spain, was threatened and attacked by Spain. Simon Bolivar had three dreams:

  • Independence
  • Continental Unity & Integration
  • Anti-Imperialism as he foresaw threat of rising United StatesAfter Simon Bolivar dream to unite South America failed, Venezuela experienced years of chaos.

Then came the oil. It changed everything and Venezuela became very strategic. In the Early 1900s to WW2, Venezuela was dominated by dictatorships. Early era of dictatorships pretty much gave up most of the oil reserves to hands of foreign interests.A brief social democrat revolution in 1945 opened a chance of democracy and dignified living. It was quickly ended by another pro American coup.

Venezuelan people rose up and dictatorship was replaced by pacted democracy ( a rotation of power between two parties). Venezuela was having good times though not many benefited. All came to an end when neoliberalism was introduced in 1989. 3000 people killed in 4 days when they resisted neoliberalism.

This led Chavez stage a failed coup in 1992. Though he failed, he became hero as he assumed responsibility of the coup and stating the his objectives momentarily failed. Pacted democracy crumbled in 1998 when Chavez elected. Immediately, he and many people worked on a new Constitution to build a new state. Once approved, Chavez government introduced reforms to bring about healthier, educated and dignified people. However, he was confronting many oligarchic powers.

Two coups against Chavez in 2002 were attempts to finish off the social democratic experiences. They failed due to massive popular support Chavez had.
Subsequently, the revolution deepened with increased popular welfare missions, changing economic and political structure s and recapturing the essence of Venezuelan culture.

The revolution was not without problems and Chavez was leading the show big time. This became problem when Chavez succumbed to cancer in 2013. Perceiving weaknesses in new Maduro government, Venezuelan opposition groups, business class and international allies have stepped up political and economic war.

Venezuela is at critical time with regular shortages, fast inflation and economy at a terminal crisis. With this understanding, we were ready to go more in depth in coming days.

What did we learn here?

  • Venezuela is the centre of fight between haves and have nots
  • Historical neglect of the countryside brought up the huge slums (barrios) in Caracas
  • Venezuela today is recapturing the dream of Simon Bolivar of reuniting the continent in one banner
  • Venezuela is working to reverse the centuries of inequality and dispossession
  • While it made significant inroads to reversing inequality and bringing more inclusive politics, the revolution has stepped on many toes of big business, oligarchs and old political elite
  • At present, Venezuela is facing an economic crisis with high inflation, shortages, hoarding and other matters. They needs to be fixed soon, if not, the revolution could be terminated after 2016.

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