By Natasha Mayers

Just back from a two-week study tour in Venezuela with Global Exchange, I am inspired by what we heard and saw.

Many Venezuelans urged us to let people here know that “Democracy is alive and well in Venezuela”, “there’s no dictator here”, “for the first time we have hope”, and “we don’t need any lessons in democracy from the United States”.

In fact, region-wide polling by Latinobarometro shows Venezuelans nearly tied with Uruguay for first place in considering their country to be democratic, and again second only to Uruguay in their satisfaction with their democracy, as well as the most politically active of any Latin American country. These results, plus Chávez’ landslide victory in December with 63 percent of the vote (the highest of nine elections in Latin America last year), indicate that the government is delivering at least some of what its citizens voted for. Chávez, elected in 1999, has helped redistribute wealth and increased social services, including greater investment in education and health care and housing.

Nineteen of us, ages 24-75 (three social workers, two teachers, a law-yer, a union leader from Great Britain, a minister, and others), attended two to four meetings a day with the human rights commission, the major opposition party, the state-owned oil company, the women’s bank, three cooperatives, an adult education class, a health clinic, political scientists, a former Maryknoll missionary, the Afro-Venezuelan network, a community TV station, and more, in an attempt to see for ourselves how Hugo Chávez’ “Bolivarian Revolution” is working.

Images of Simon Bolivar, in all sizes, greeted us from many walls around Caracas as we crisscrossed the city: the great Liberator on his white horse, Simon with his girlfriend, Manuela, Bolivar with other Latin American heroes, José Marti and Miranda, and sometimes with inspiring quotations like “help me to speak truth to the strong and not to say lies to win applause from the weak” or another, “Be audacious when you plant, be prudent when you implement the plan.”

Some 47 percent of Venezuelans, mostly poor, buy subsidized food (40 percent off) at more than 15,000 “Mercal” centers established by the government. Much of the packaging has articles of the recently rewritten Constitution printed on it, to teach people their rights. On the soybean oil bottle: “The State guarantees to the elderly the full exercise of their rights, respects their human dignity, their autonomy, and guarantees them social security to assure their quality of life…” On the white flour: “Education is a human right and a fundamental social duty, democratic, free, obligatory… nourished with values of national identity and with a Latin American and universal vision…” Imagine our Bill of Rights feeling comfortable on the kitchen table! Imagine that we would all know our rights! “The Venezuelan people are now armed with ideas and the Constitution,” the former missionary told us. And indeed, at three different times, people on the street pulled out their copies of the Constitution to show us that they are participating in this Bolivarian process that is underway.

Organize yourselves into cooperatives and we will hire you, said the government. There were 800 cooperatives before Chávez, and now there are 200,000. We visited with some of the women making shoes at a co-op in Caracas and 70 others (former housewives) sewing shirts at a co-op in Barlovento. “We used to sit around watching our children grow up, then we took care of the grandchildren, and then it was time to die,” one woman with a gold-tooth smile related, and another woman chimed in, “We thought our future was set. We were hopeless.” A third quickly added, “But now we get to go out everyday, be with our friends, and bring money home. Now we are very happy here.” One woman got the others to laugh when she reported that her husband even has dinner ready for her when she gets home. (Minimum wage is $250/month.)

We also visited a cacao plant nursery coop, which grows replacement trees. The co-op members took classes in “cooperatism” (the common pursuit of the same goal) and work skills for 3-9 months and were responsible for the planning before the funding from the government came through. They will be responsible for the success or failure of their business, but the government buys most of what they are making, so there is some guarantee of success. The agricultural co-ops also sell most of their produce to the government, which distributes it to the “Mercals”.

Venezuela imports 80 percent of food needs. The government has distributed more than 4 million acres of state land to 200,000 families, along with credits and assistance and tractors and training, to try and increase the agricultural production of the country (which is only 6 percent of GNP). This is only half of the planned transfer of lands and people. Oil production since the 1920’s killed off other sectors of development, with 88 percent of the population now living in cities. Two thousand health centers have been created, staffed with doctors, mostly Cuban, who are available 24 hours a day. New houses and housing developments are everywhere and in every stage of construction.

We had an inspiring meeting with the directors of Bankmujer, the women’s bank, set up in 200l, modeled on the Bangladesh micro-credit model. The five women took turns telling us enthusiastically about their work: “This bank wasn’t created to make more capital, but to organize women and make them more productive. We are not interested in an increase of capital, but in social investment. The loan is like the hook to attract women. We are interested in the general development of women in this country. Our main interest is to promote solidarity among women so they can help each other. We help the most impoverished and oppressed and empower them to make the community grow. We provide education, self-esteem, and gender workshops. We have given 70,000 low-interest loans, created 292,000 jobs, and have helped 1,400,000 people. The bank is giving priority to agriculture and food security loans. Loans range from $1,000 for an individual to $83,000 for a cooperative.”

When I asked them to share their favorite stories, they positively beamed with pride as they told us of women who had never been in a bank before, of people who had been in debt forever and now had a thriving market business, and of women who received loans, who now have become Bankmujer representatives.

We had a very full and balanced report from the head of PROVEA, the human rights organization, who told us, “We have a democratic government with some authoritarian features. It is not a dictatorship, and it is not like Cuba. There is no surveillance here, and no intimidation of people by the government. No freedoms are restricted by this government.”

The annual report issued by PROVEA lists the positive changes which he recited to us: “The government’s policies are addressed to help the poorest people, levels of poverty have decreased, education levels are increasing, illiteracy is down, agrarian reform is underway, with lots of financial credit for small businesses. The government is promoting cooperatives, there’s a lot of political participation by the public, lots of freedom of expression. Chávez has not tried to limit speech. The Constitution is advanced on human rights.”

Then he went over the report’s negative findings: “The greatest threat to human rights is the concentration of power. The other public powers that could control Chávez are just doing what he says, which could lead to an abuse of power. There’s a strong presence of military around; police harassment has increased. It is hard to get a job in public administration if you are anti-Chávez. Violence in jails is terrible (but has always been).”

While we were there, the Enabling Laws were passed to accelerate what papers in the U.S. referred to as “Rule by Decree” and Chávez’ “Superpowers”. Venezuelans weren’t concerned. They explained that 4 or 5 presidents before Chávez had used this power, and that Chávez had also used it twice before to “deepen democracy” and to accelerate the social and economic development. He is still bound by the Constitution and 10 percent of registered voters can petition to rescind any laws.

Some of the colorful murals we passed on city walls had oil wells. ” Now it belongs to everybody” or “Now it is ours” was painted on each one in big letters. And indeed, when we spent four hours at PDVSA (“company of the people of the world”), the state-owned company with the largest proven oil reserves outside the Middle East and the most natural gas in South America (and the second largest corporation in South America), we discovered that oil revenues are being used as an instrument of development for the Venezuelan people. And it seemed that profit was not the motive. PDVSA’s goal for the next five years is to reduce poverty in Venezuela from 65 to 30 percent. (We spent a day visiting one of their 3400 social and economic projects, which included a large health clinic, employment training center, childcare center, shoemaking cooperative, and vegetable gardens.)

We were told, “It is also the responsibility of Venezuela to help poor countries afford energy and use oil to foster initiatives for regional cooperation.” Venezuela is building natural gas pipelines through Colombia and Panama, also to Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, and the Caribbean islands, to provide energy for South American development at discounted rates. Citgo, its subsidiary in the US, provides cheap fuel to some of our country’s poor communities.

Lots of people I talked with, mostly from the middle and upper class, were anti-Chavez, complaining about the police corruption (which has always been a problem because they are underpaid and under the control of the local mayors), poor quality of food and shortages in the state-subsidized markets, the lowering of educational standards now that there is a new community college system available to all, and the political polarization of the country.

“Venezuelans don’t like to work; they like to party. It’s a capitalist, consumer society, and socialism doesn’t have a chance here,” a computer-programmer told me. “People are hypnotized by Chávez and act like clapping seals,” confided the meticulous doctor I visited for a chest cold. The head of the opposition party, Primero Justicia, told us: “We are concerned that the international view is that we are allied with Cuba and that Chávez is buying political support internationally, instead of investing in Venezuela.” Several people who don’t like Chávez personally did readily admit that things were better for most Venezuelans.

With everybody talking politics, with people coming up to us on the streets asking our opinions and telling us theirs, I’ll share some of what troubles me. There is no strong women’s movement. No abortion is allowed, even in case of rape or incest. The air is filled with diesel fumes. Even with a fast clean subway, there’s always a traffic jam. There’s garbage in the ravines in the barrios. The toilets don’t always have enough water to flush. They speak Spanish too fast. The women are too beautiful. There are too many Simon Bolivar murals. But what troubles me most is that Venezuela is a thriving work in progress, a model of a participatory democracy, which deserves to have a chance, instead of having to fend off U.S. attempts to bring it down.

(Natasha Mayers is an artist and political activist who lives in Whitefield.)