By Geoff Bottoms


Charlie Hardy is a former US Catholic priest who spent eight years living among the poor of Caracas in a house of compressed cardboard without sanitation during the dying days of Venezuela’s ancien regime that were triggered by the Caracazo or social explosion of February 27th 1989 following a hike in the price of petrol.

His unpublished tales of the barrio entitled The God of Shit are a hard-hitting critique of both Church and State in a country that is the fifth largest oil producer in the world yet the top 10% of the population of 23 million receives half the national income while the bottom 40% lives in critical poverty.

Small wonder he celebrates the significant if precarious achievements of the Bolivarian revolutionary process that is transforming the lives of the poor since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998.

Yet as Luis Ojeda, a teacher with a Bolivarian High School in the mountains of the Yacambu National Park in Lara State, puts it, “Chavez is the feather that woke up the sleeping giant”. Popular movements, base Christian communities and local co-operatives have been a part of Venezuela’s social fabric for decades long before the idea of “endogenous” development gained ground promoting the economic stimulation of everything that is internal and indigenous.

The genius of Chavez lies in his ability to harness the collective will and energy of the poor that make up 80% of the country’s population and enable them to find solutions to their own problems with state support while building an alternative society based on justice, equality and sovereignty.

From building new homes and establishing integrated communities to the social programmes eradicating illiteracy, disease and poverty and creating sustainable enterprises meeting real needs the people are in the driving seat. And it is women who are at the heart of change both as users and participants in the promotion of these campaigns.

Where else would you find a Women’s Development Bank providing micro-credits for establishing small businesses or co-operatives or a constitutional right to a minimum salary for house-wives in recognition of their work as an economic activity that generates wealth and social well-being?

In forging a new future where Venezuela throws off its quasi-colonial status and reclaims its sovereignty in order to redirect its natural and human resources towards the interests of its own people and those of an integrated Latin America rather than voracious transnational corporations the Constitution of 1999 towers above everything.

Inspired by the ideas of Simon Bolivar, the nineteenth-century Liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and the theological vision of the Latin American Catholic bishops who expressed a “preferential option for the poor” at historic meetings in Medellin, Colombia in 1968 and Puebla, Mexico in 1979, this document claims to be the most enlightened of its kind in the world. It calls for “reshaping the Republic to establish a democratic, participatory, and self-reliant, multi-ethnic, and multicultural society in a just, federal, and decentralized State that embodies the values of freedom, independence, peace, solidarity, and the common good”.

Capitalising on a tradition of forming alliances between the military and civilians in national struggles stretching back to the days of Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez and Ezequiel Zamora, Chavez believes in integrating the armed forces into the life of civil society. Soldiers now have a vote, engage in social work and participate in government so that they contribute to the development of the country both as citizens and as an institution.

Having survived the coup d’etat of April 2002 and an economic coup or oil strike in December of the same year at the hands of discredited politicians and trade unionists from the ancien regime, business tycoons, media magnates and the upper echelons of the Catholic Church, Chavez understands the historical importance of a people’s army that not only defends and supports the economic, social and political struggles of the people but is also prepared to confront the subversive and destabilizing activities of hostile external forces based in Washington.

According to Venezuelan-American writer Eva Gollinger the US was not only involved in both the coup attempts of 2002, a referendum called by the opposition in 2004 to oust Chavez, and an electoral boycott in 2005, but also continues to fund opposition groups in Venezuela to the tune of $1 million annually through the National Endowment for Democracy. This is on top of an additional $5 million for 2005 from the US Agency for International Development. Interestingly presidential elections take place in December of this year.

In many ways “the process” as it is called in Venezuela does not follow the classic definition of a socialist revolution in the making. With political parties and pliant trade unions totally discredited over the past forty years of corruption and repression, support for Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution has come from the majority of the people who were of black, indigenous or mestizo descent, disorganized and out of reach of traditional politics.

As a result it is the poor and disenfranchised, the peasants and the shantytown dwellers, who have been mobilized through ad hoc Bolivarian Circles, electoral patrols and educational missions rather than an organized working class in alliance with a wide range of progressive forces under the leadership of a vanguard party.

If the future is to be socialism with Venezuelan characteristics following an emerging national debate then the role of organised labour is crucial. The recently-formed National Union of Workers (UNT) will need substantial support as a rival to the reactionary Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) in organizing both the informal and formal sectors. Again while the social programmes or missions are producing incredible results a lack of national co-ordination leaves an uneven development across the country that could eventually prove divisive and self-defeating. And with 70% of the media in the hands of the 20% comprising the rich white former elite who are intent on undermining “the process” there is a danger that this imbalance threatens the very existence of a fragile experiment in a democratic revolution for the twenty-first century.

As Cuba’s national liberation struggle flowered into a socialist revolution a similar process appears to be taking place in Venezuela under completely different circumstances with two parallel worlds existing alongside one another in the hope that the new society that is now being painfully built amid the smoldering embers of the old will ultimately prove superior. In the face of considerable opposition Chavez is reaching out to all sectors in the interests of national unity while carefully crafting an alternative to the annexationist US-inspired Free Trade Area of the Americas together with Cuba and Bolivia based on solidarity, justice and a shared nationalism.

Meanwhile as the protest songs of Ali Primera continue to be sung at Mass, and the defeat of the April Coup four years ago is celebrated with religious fervour during Holy Week, the election posters read “Democracy, Participation, Christianity is Socialism”. For Carmen Jimenez, a mother of three children, from the barrio Libertad Simon Bolivar in Barquisimeto, this is no mere propaganda having mobilized fifty families to reclaim an expanse of waste land to create a warm and human community out of nothing. New houses will soon replace the tin shacks and a local church will have pride of place. It is just one more example of people power now that the sleeping giant has been roused from its sleep.

With or without Chavez Venezuela can never be the same again although the aim is 10 million votes in December’s presidential elections for the feather that is now tickling US imperialism to death. With a third electoral victory to celebrate Charlie Hardy would have plenty of material for his new book but with a less controversial title!

Geoff Bottoms joined the Venezuela: Democracy, Development and Regional Integration Global Reality Tour organized by Global Exchange in San Francisco, USA from 8 — 19 April 2006.Contact: