Story of Ocumare : Democracy and Development

While the purpose going to Ocumare was for relaxation, the visit to the city served another purpose – to understand politics of the city.

Ocumare, rural town, is not as developed to any major cities in Venezuela (i.e. Maracay, Caracas). They pretty much retain the feel of Spanish colonial era and roads are only paved in the inner city areas. Go slightly out of the city centre, roads become unpaved (like dirt road) connecting houses at the fringe. In Ocumare, there are no street names nor house numbers and the only possible way to navigate is based on landmarks.

Ocumare is Chavista territory and the ruling PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela)  in the municipality supported by UBCH (Units of Battle of Hugo Chavez). It consists of many representatives within the municipality and though they are nominated above, ultimately, it is the grassroots determines whether they are chosen. UBCH has many roles in their areas of operation:

  • To focus on the ideologies. Revolution in Venezuel is mixture of Christian Philosophy, ideas of Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez and Ezequiel Zamora (a leader who fought during the wars between liberals and conservatives)
  • Transferring power of key roles in municipality to the communal councils
  • Managing the technical side of the elections. UBCH and PSUV collaborate in military style organizing to bring voters during elections. They organize the transport and identify who needs transport assistance for party elections.
  • Managing logistics. Set up social productive business which can finance party activities to reduce dependency on central financing (i.e. from Caracas)
  • Identify issues related youth (e.g. school absenteeism and youth employment)
  • Focusing on socio-economic development of the area. For example, working hand-in-hand with the government to bring school and university level of education to the municipality. They are working with government to set up tourism and agricultural institutions in the municipality.

Ocumare Issues:

1) Housing – Ocumare has houses that are cramped with people (of multiple generations). UBCH (through community census) and 6 institutions (Housing Ministry, Commune Ministry, Army, PDVSA and the municipality) identified who needs the houses. For example, 800 housed have been recently approved in Ocumare (which are built in stages)

2) Food supply – UBCH works with federal government food missions to ensure food flows to the city are steady. Cities outside of Caracas are bearing the brunt of food shortages.

The 'port' of Ocumare is an inlet filled with a boat. With collaboration with Belarus, Ocumare will receive a proper pier to organize the boats that are docked

The ‘port’ of Ocumare is an inlet filled with a boat. With collaboration with Belarus, Ocumare will receive a proper pier to organize the boats that are docked

The photo is courtesy of one of our brigadistas

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Story of Ocumare: AfroVenezuelan and Chocolate Story

While the brigade was intense in meetings and running around,  we were fortunate to have a break in between the hectic two weeks. Every year, the vacation in these types of brigade are different. This year, it happens to be in Ocumare de la Costa (Ocumare), Aragua.

We set off early in the morning from Caracas on two cramped taxis on our 4 hour journey to Ocumare. Ocumare,  being on the Caribbean Coast,  is separated from rest of country by mountainous Henri Pittier National park.  On our journey,  we have seen first hand price speculation. Arepa,  the main dish in Venezuela, should cost less than 50 bolivars,  is being charged three to four times of correct price. Even the military,  who are supposed to report or enforce against price speculation, we’re happily eating away in the rest area ( the one selling overpriced Arepa. We have passed the city of Maracay, the capital of Aragua. This city was one of the sites actively participated in 1992 Chavez coup. It was here on our return journey,  we saw with our own eyes,  the world’s cheapest oil.  It was practically free and 32 litres fuel is way cheaper than 50 ml coffee shot.

As we entered the Henri Pittier National park,  we witnessed something unique in Venezuela – military checkpoints on the road.  We are not entering military zone,  but they exist anywhere.

Our place at Ocumare was a decent place and you get the tropical feel in this part of the world. Ants everywhere,  tropical fruit trees,  humidity etc.

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Scene at a bay near Ocumare de la Costa

 

One of the key aspects to this trip to the Caribbean is to examine the role of cacao in the region.  The cacao was first planted in Bahia de Cata (which is next to Ocumare) – in a valley- by the Spanish. Subsequently, these beans were transplanted to Ocumare and Chuao (nearby town , famous for coast and the chocolates). Initially, the African slaves from one tribe were brought into the plantation. However, many ran away from the plantation due to the roughness of the working conditions. To counter this, Spanish brought warring African tribes who have different cultures and segregated them to different cities in the municipality (Costa de La Oro). This created historical division that exists among the AfroVenezuelan society where they clique to their own groups.

Cacao plantations are grown in the valley, surrounded by 3 mountain ranges (east,west and south) and Caribbean to the north.  These lands used to belong to ex-Presidents and dictators which exploited the production of cacao plantations. President Romulo Betancourt in the 1970s made an attempt to break the latifundistas. This included giving land to cacao’s federation. However, the past governments did not follow through on monitoring the progress of land reform. The government did not give any form of training  in plantation and land administration. Back in the day, all the cacao beans were exported via Puerto Cabello (main port, in neighbouring state of Carabobo) to multinationals (i.e. Nestle) and there was no in-house of processing of the beans. Situation began to changes in 1990s and subsequently in the revolution. Revolutionary government began to introduce training  and education to cacao farmers. Land titles were issued to cacao farmers

Since Ocumare is famous tourist site in Venezuela (like Chuao), it brought economic pressure to the cacao farmers. It is more lucrative to work in the tourism industry and the current younger generation opting to work as a taxi driver or anything else but cacao plantation.

Venezuelan Socialist Corporation of Cacao

Venezuelan Socialist Corporation of Cacao

Let’s examine in bit detail on cacao production sovereignty. As mentioned previously, the Venezuelan government gearing the country to produce food materials in house for domestic consumption. We visited a cacao seed bank in Ocumare  (UPC Monasteria – a former monastery converted to a research centre). The seedlings are given to farmers for free (with conditions applied) and cacao seedlings are planted in the farms (the beans would be sent to a centre for processing).

UPC Monasteria

UPC Monasteria

Venezuelan Socialist Corporation of Cacao was set up in 2010 to oversee the production and distribution of cacao products. We visited one of the centres in Ocumare, which happens the receiving end of cacao beans. This centre is where the fermentation and drying of cacao beans is done. The products of this centre are sent to a processing centre (like mini factories)

We visited Bahia de Cata, Afro Venezuelan village in a valley. In this village,there one shop lot row which is collapsed in the middle and two slots is the centre of chocolate products. Afro-Venezuelans working in this mini factory are processing the chocolates in traditional methods (nothing is high-tech here).  It is here we, the brigadistas made a lot of purchases of raw chocolates (one cannot miss opportunities like this). They sold raw chocolate, chocolate liquour, chocolate soap and other. From this factory, they sell their products to the open market or to government owned chocolate entities.

Chocolate factory in Bahia de Cata

Chocolate factory in Bahia de Cata

After visiting chocolate factory, we were given the opportunity to experience Afro-Venezuelan music just outside the factory. They retain much of their African heritage as they have resided the same place for 500 years or so. We met a community leader, Sebastiana, which plays an active role in preserving the oral history of Bahia de Cata. She may have an oral history dating back 200 years and currently teaching (though advanced in age) cultural history  through school theaters. She is currently documenting her stories in a book.

All in all, we have immersed ourselves the importance of food sovereignty and bit of cultural insight on this area.

What did we learn here:

  • Venezuela is investing to ensure cacao is produced from start to end within the country
  • Afro-Venezuelan is culture remains largely preserved.

Credits to one of my brigadistas for providing top quality photos.

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Venezuela got Problems!

Artwork at National Experimental University of Arts in Caracas

Artwork at National Experimental University of Arts (UNEARTE) in Caracas

While our brigade is always focusing on the achievements of the revolution (and fed on positivity of the revolution), I realized from the start, the tour seems to glossing over the problems in the revolution. The only way to find the problems is you have to ask the questions on difficulties they face and how they overcame. Bear in mind, we are not rubbishing or writing off the revolution based on problems

I personally find the meeting with the students  (UNEARTE)was the best in terms of exposing problems in the country. Every leftist and supporter are well versed with the fact that Venezuela achieved 100% literacy, free education , very high enrollment at tertiary level. But this is quantitative strengths, not qualitative improvements. Have you heard any Venezuelan university reaching at top ranks in global university rank? None! In Australia, whatever you think about the problems of education, universities still hold very high repute.

The students we interacted are SUPPORTIVE of the government (Revolutionaries) . However, they are critical to the issues faced in the education. First, there is quality of education at middle school. The government of Venezuela succeeded in popularising education (means access is very high!) but the quality of middle school remains compromised.  For example, middle schools lack specialized teachers to teach key subjects. Moreover, the students also has weak basis of understanding of history. Teaching methods at school do not connect  with the social reality and students are left with knowledge gaps (it is a problem when students reach university level). Teachers at middle school may possess the knowledge but lack the  pedagogical training to convey the message. One of the the proposals to go around the issue is extending middle/high school to 6 years. This is to ensure students are prepared for the particular courses. Secondly, nature of teaching and attitudes of teachers must change too. Recently, national Educational consultation granted space for student movements to raise these matters. This consultation involved students, teachers and workers at education system to identify the issues.

The second problem is the current focus of education systems does not the match the economic reality. This means universities are producing students and skills may not fit the requirements of country’s economic shift. For example, UBV (Bolivarian University) faced a problem of over subscription and under subscription of students in selected courses. At one point, up to 50% of course of UBV were considered to be closed off due to low turnout. University education currently does not focus on specialized science courses which hampers the industrialization process of the country.

The third problem is the entrance exams of university systems. Autonomous Universities though publicly free, have entrance exams to filter student entry. For you to pass the difficult entrance exams, you need to attend pre-entrance courses and pay huge amount money to buy materials.  Sons and daughters of the upper class and the bourgeois are able to pay the necessary means to pass the exams. This creates exclusion for the poorer students as they are denied the resources and capability to enter the autonomous universities. The alternative is to enter public university which is essentially and has good quality service. However, these universities suffer good educational quality. Students proposed to the government of creating a fair entrance exam system for university. This would usher the mafia-style control of entrance exams at autonomous universities.

The fourth problem is the politicization of universities and depoliticization of student movements. Venezuela generally has three types of universities: Public, Autonomous and Private Universities. The government of Venezuela has invested a lot of money to expand the access of public universities to the citizens (free education). Autonomous universities are public institutions but exert a lot of autonomous control on the direction of universities. This creates a big issue as these universities become financial black holes (lack of financial transparency). Money is pumped into the university but there is no transparency how much goes to university services. Hence, their service quality varies.For example, University of Los Andes in Merida has a budget far bigger than GDP of Haiti but complains it lacks funding. When UCV (Central University of Venezuela) received half-yearly financing (instead yearly allocation), the teachers went on strike. The autonomous universities have become bastions of opposition and the autonomous nature of the campus shelters them from government responses. It is noted that these universities do host illegal stuff (i.e. weapons).

Despite the revolutionary nature of the government, the government of Venezuela is pretty much retaining a law 40+ years ago that effectively repress student movements. Many decades ago, back in 4th republic, an upsurge of revolutionary students in Venezuela prompted the government to storm the UCV in the 70s. Hence, university schedules were changed and the repressive university law was introduced. All of these contributed to fragmentation of the student movement in the country and depoliticization of students. The government’s attempt to create unifying left-wing student movement did not go well due to fragmentation. Participation of students in university elections remains low.

During the guarimba (opposition riot back in February 2014), opposition supporters inflitrated Chavista student movement to turn Chavistas against Maduro.  Opposition aligned students joined the guarimba for three reasons: fun, paid to do or defend their class interests. The reaction of revolutionary students to guarimba and violence was to respond in peace (for example, put up cultural shows in midst of troubles).

In conclusion, we need to acknowledge and support the massification of education. However, we need to be aware about the problems of the education system and how Venezuelan overcome them.

What did we learn here:

  • Education access is very high in the country. Free education and massive government programs have ensured access is high for all citizens
  • However, the increased access did not match with qualitative improvements.
  • Students entering university have knowledge gaps due to poor learning at school
  • Tertiary education system (sometimes, primary and secondary) does not match the needs of the country
  • Entrance exams have created an exclusion for poorer sectors of society
  • Universities are very politicized environment and have issues on transparency. However, repressive student laws have fragmented student movements and depoliticized the students
  • Solutions: Extend secondary school education, create fair entrance exams, removal of repressive student laws and to consult with the public to improve the education system.

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Chavez Phenomenon

In Venezuela, Concept of Chavez permeates all sections of society – to be clear for Chavistas. For those who don’t know, Chavez was the former president of Venezuela from 1999-2013. More than president, he had an impact on Venezuela far greater than any president exception of his hero, Simon Bolivar- South America Independence Hero

Chavez has touched everyone’s lives, whether you support Chavez (Chavistas) or hate Chavez (opposition). The country is obsessed with this leader. Let’s examine why?

First Perspective: Chavistas

Artwork at National Experimental University of Arts in Caracas

Artwork at National Experimental University of Arts in Caracas

If you visit Venezuela and talk to any Chavistas, Chavez is not just president nor dead- he passed away due to cancer in 2013. No Chavista can accept the fact he is dead, they say Chavez is not physically present. Every Chavistas believe they are embodiment of Chavez spirit. Hence, Chavez is not dead. Plus, a new thing in Venezuela is paintings of Chavez’s eyes which means He is watching you. Buildings, shirts and posters carry Chavez Eyes. No one simply call Chavez the President. He is the Commandante Eterno – Eternal Commander or Commandante Supreme – Supreme Commander. Chavez’s successor – Nicolas Maduro is the political Commander of Revolution. All in all, Venezuela’s deity is Chavez and every Chavista intents to follow the values of Chavez. Personality Cult of Chavez, not necessarily created (but fostered) by government, dominates the society.

But why Venezuela is obsessed with Chavez? Simon Bolivar had a great dream of having a unified South America which is fair to its people. Unfortunately, his goal failed to be achieved. 300 years of Spanish exploitation, pillaging and dispossession continued with the new oligarchies in South American republics like Venezuela. Afro Venezuelans, peasants, workers and the poor was excluded from reaping benefits of the country’s resources from cacao to oil. This also brought high level of crimes in Venezuela.

Representative Democracy legitimacy was broken during Caracazo of 1989, an uprising against neoliberalism. Chavez, a young soldier, grouped himself with loyalists, staged a coup in 1992 to terminate the national decline. Despite it failed, it made him hero of the poor. For the excluded, Chavez represented a person who understands the exclusion of the poor.

Fast forward to 1999, Chavez and his government began to initiate more social services like health and education to the poor with military help. It is critical here that the lives of the excluded are changing. He reasserted state control on oil industry which allowed money to flow in various social services. From 2003 onwards I believe, government reorganized social services under social missions which provided comprehensive welfare, employment and cultural services. Chavez encouraged participatory democracy and workers control. Chavez’s massive influential weight has huge impact on workers when siding against bureaucracy.

Chavez also had a personal connection with the people. Government propagates the importance of Chavez. Chavez was genuine in changing people’s lives. Hence, all of this led to massive unquestionable personality cult of Chavez. It is consider sacrilegious to break from Chavez’s model or criticize him ( i.e.  “for Maduro to have blamed the late and much-venerated Chávez for allowing the exchange rate to spiral out of control would have been considered virtually sacrilegious.”) This could be unhealthy as Chavez’s words sometimes used to silence criticisms in Chavista movements nowadays and his charismatic persona is manipulated (sometimes) by opposition supporters to confuse Chavista ranks.

Second Perspective : Opposition 

Venezuela, whether you like it or not, is very much dominated by opposition aligned private media. When Chavez was alive, the government and the private media had severe hostile relations. Especially this is true when 2002 coup was dubbed as a media coup, where 4 private television networks actively assisted the overthrow of Chavez briefly. The private media has till now huge fetish on Chavez, more like obsession of hate (Example: Comparing Chavez to Italian Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini)

The middle and upper class citizens of the country, in my opinion, have been left out from the changes of the country. Previously and still now, Venezuela has two economic worlds (one for the poor and one for the rich). These two worlds also highlight hidden racism that exist in Venezuela (historical economic division is intertwined with racial class hierarchy). Chavez, from mix ethnicity background (not a white descent), has been targeted with racist cartoons (as a monkey) as some sections of the society find difficult to grapple the new change. The president was deemed outsider and Chavez ,who proudly boast of his African and Indigenous heritage, constitutes a threat to established order.As the excluded people in society receive their place and voice through the revolution, dynamic of relationship between poor and rich are changing.

The conservative class despise Chavez due to various nationalization of businesses, close alliance with Cuba (which is despised by the right-wing populace in Latin America) and social programs. Chavez’s anti-business discourse have created ‘a climate of fear‘ in businessmen and shopkeepers. One author also argued the revolution social welfare programs tend to benefit the poor more than middle class (read more here). Chavez’s initiative to collect income tax first time in Venezuelan history created resentment in upper middle class (according to Chavez, upper class resents paying taxes). Worse still, there are constant allegations that opposition supporters who work in the state are fired or lost their jobs due to their political leanings. To fuel the further resentment, opposition aligned media harp every possible negativity on Chavez’s government (it was very sensational during Chavez’s time, now due to economic crisis, the editorial lines have become less strident). Opposition supporters have a tendency to believe in wild or baseless claims on how Chavez control the society. Failure to tackle rising crime in Venezuela has created a climate of insecurity to those who owns and access greater wealth. This creates another level resentment against Chavez.

Back to the first point, Venezuelan upper class societies have condescending and negative view of the those who reside in the shantytowns. They have a tendency that people in the barrios are easily fooled by Chavez’s rhetoric. Upper class (we should say some) perceive the poor are lazy drunks and some people in society are entitled with wealth and others should have their lives defined by poverty and submission. Some of them have a deep fear of the poor (you can sense when you travel in the upper class suburbs in Caracas – where they live in virtual prisons). However, we cannot generalize all middle or upper class as rabid opposition supporters. Even among the poor, there are opposition to Chavez. As mentioned, the revolution is changing the dynamic between these worlds and a section of society

In conclusion, obsession of Chavez is not just about his gigantic charisma and personality. It is very much rooted on the actions he undertook to restructure the society. Unfortunately, the revolution created winners and losers and the stakeholders have owed to a big degree of changes they received to Chavez’s policies. If you talk to Chavista camp, he is venerated like a saint (or God) and he is an unquestionable figure. If you talk to Opposition camp, he is the devil and the person who created disruptions and chaos that Venezuela is going through now. We need to understand one more thing about the obsession of Chavez : historical conditions that created two opposing economic classes in the society. Chavez and the revolution have exposed the divisions far greater in the public. Love or hate him, Venezuela is obsessed with Chavez.

What do we learn here:

  • Chavez is a figure that made unprecedented changes in societal hierarchies and wealth.
  • This meant the revolution has created winners and losers. Peoples’ lives on both divides are dramatically changed
  • To Chavistas, the transformation has been very personal and positive. They are willing to defend Chavez’s legacy
  • To opposition, the transformation has created climate of insecurity and fear. Fueling into the fear, opposition aligned media continually presented a distorted and sensationalist view of Chavez
  • Revolution has exposed deep divisions in the society. Rather focusing Chavez being the root of the divisions, one must understand historical context of the divided Venezuelan Society.

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Venezuelan Election Commission

Upon my arrival in Caracas, I did mention brigade leader that I am very much focused on elections. He told me there is a surprise which he reveal later. Something beyond I thought of: to meet CNE President Tibisay Lucena.

The night before we met her, we received a quick briefing on her role and personal life. She could be considered to be the most powerful woman in Venezuela as she is presiding an institution that determines the fate of the country. Despite a powerful role, she is very easy going and down to earth

The day came and we headed to CNE headquarters. It was housed in 1970s building and underneath it, a mini shopping center that reminded me of Komtar in Penang. Due to controversies associated with CNE and physical attacks on Dr Tibisay (yes Venezuela is quite violent on politics), CNE HQ had tight security with airport scanners deployed.

CNE HQ

As we were an international delegation, Dr Tibisay wanted to meet us personally rather sending a representative. While we were waiting, we were served with drinks in modern meeting room by professional kitchen staff. We were introduced to some contacts in CNE meanwhile.

Finally, Dr Tibisay came to her office as traffic delayed her big time. What I was surprised was she was wearing casual clothes to meet an international delegation like us. Unlike other countries, Election Commission (CNE) is an INDEPENDENT branch of government (Venezuela has 5 branches of government). It was created in 1999 when the new constitution was approved and replacing fraudulent and corrupt CSE , the older commission. CNE is composed by 5 to people including Dr Tibisay – the President. The candidates were nominated by civil society groups, university and Citizen branch (e.g. Attorney General) Subsequently, they must be approved by the National Assembly- the Parliament of Venezuela. Strictly independent, I heard 2 out 5 have an opposition slant and remaining have government slant. The fact that Venezuela has totally separate branch for Election Commission has prompted other Latin America to do likewise.

When the new Constitution (1999), a lot of Venezuelans were out of electoral roll and hence excluded from the democracy. CNE made huge strides in voter inclusion where they made every possible attempt to connect with voters. To ensure equality of voting accessibility, each polling district would not have more than 600 voters. Each voting center should be at max of 1 km from residences (this became a massive logistic issue when it came to areas of wetlands, mountains and forests). Previously, it was possible to have a voting centre 46 kilometres from the voters. They have stepped the number of polling tables across the country.

Secondly, CNE made voting system super Secure- I really mean Super Secure. I was informed that Venezuela has 17-18 audit or security checks for elections. Political parties from both spectrums and international observers have full rights and access to implementation of security checks. Venezuela, may as well has the highest random auditing system for ballot check. Since all Venezuelan Elections is DIGITAL, 40 to 50% of votes are randomly checked to match the proper outcomes. CNE and political parties audit the electoral machines.  If one political party wants to modify the auditing system, it must sought cooperation and agreement of EACH political party in Venezuela.  As mentioned previously, voting in Venezuela is done digitally. Hence, biometric scanning is used to unlock the voting machines during voting. However, this becomes an issue for people who have their fingerprints not easily deciphered (i.e. fishermen) or do not have fingers. The biometric scanning is modified to verify based on lower number of points on fingerprints. For those who do not have fingers, the President of Polling table is authorized to unlock the machines. (On a side note, if the President made three errors to unlock the machine, the alarm would ring and CNE would be notified on this matter)

In terms of logistics, handling Venezuela elections is a mammoth task. CNE have to spend a lot of resources in developing and designing software solutions for political candidates. Secondly, prior to elections, they have constant outreach to voters. During my stay in Caracas, I have seen two registration booths in train station and the square (Plaza).
Plus, they have software to count minutes of political ads on television. During election time, they have to deploy Electronic machines to all parts of the country (including the Amazon) . I heard that the voting machines were sent on DONKEYS, boats, helicopters and planes. (On a side note, since they head to remote areas, they work with government agencies to provide government services like vaccinations). In terms of voting results, transmission is done through secure lines such as internet and satellites. Considering around 80% voter participation, they have fast release of results in few hours time.

Beyond constitutional elections, CNE provide services to trade unions, political parties (including opposition ones) and communal councils ( participatory democracy at local levels). CNE provide the technical knowhow and other logistical advice needed for election. The day we visited Dr Tibisay, CNE workers were having their own trade union elections.

I asked her why Venezuela has so many elections in the past 19 years. I think they have around 18 elections- I need to check. This is because the presidential, governor, legislature and mayor terms are all different. Bear in mind, Venezuela experienced an electoral decentralization since 1989. Dr Tibisay gives her personal phone numbers to political parties rep to handle issues directly. She had to organize a way to rescue a candidate in bathroom lockout in rural state of Guarico, hundreds of miles away!

We were informed of the nature of international observation  group. The composition must include people from all spectrums and religions. Candidates for this group must be nominated by institution.

I am keen to sign up, there is one coming up next year. All in all, if there is one thing I fully trust in Venezuela, it would be CNE. I am inspired by the efforts made by CNE to uphold the constitutional voting rights of all Venezuelans

Additional Information:

International Delegation Report on 2009 referendum

Carter Centre Report on CNE and Venezuelan Election System

Summary of Election process and auditing

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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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