world social forum 2006 Venezuela: Problems and progress in Caracas’ suburbs

Participants in the Venezuela Social Forum who registered with the media centre were invited to take part in a "ruta social".

They would be shown the social and infrastructural improvements that have been implemented under the Chavez government in Caracas’ suburbs.

Caracas has a population of four million but it seems to cover an area smaller than Dublin which has a population more than one third that size. People in the city centre tend to live in high rise blocks, some as high as thirty storeys. Like other big cities in Latin America you have both the very modern and the very basic side by side. You get a sense that the city saw better days with many of the skyscrapers, motorways and pavements built in the sixties and seventies appearing decrepit. A bit of colour is provided by giant pro-Chavez murals that can be seen regularly around the city.

The streets are populated by thousands of vendors who make up a vast proportion of the "informal sector". They compete with the usual chains of fast food joints laid out exactly as you would find them in Dublin. Petrol is cheap and the noise and smell of traffic is ceaseless day and night.

Caracas is surrounded by mountains, the sides of which you can see from the ‘barrios’ (neighbourhoods). The barrios began as shanty towns populated by people who migrated from the countryside from the 1960s onwards. At first shacks were improvised using such things as corrugated iron, wood pallets and held together by wire. With no legal status, past governments felt no real obligation to provide for these areas in terms of services and infrastructure such as running water, sewers, rubbish collection etc. The church and foreign NGOs partially stepped into the breach with schools and some infrastructure programmes.

We were brought to ‘Barrio Kennedy’, named after the former US president from whose foundation some donation was seemingly made in the late sixties. The first outward sign of changes that have taken place is the upgrading of the accommodation. People have been given titles of tenure for the bits of mountain side upon which they, their parents or grandparents first set up home. The old ramshackle huts have been replaced by sounder structures made from red concrete blocks. From our vantage point we could see similar work in progress on the other mountain sides surrounding Caracas.

Water pipes have been laid over-ground and street lighting has been added, though it seems to remain on during the day. Local employment in construction has been created by various improvements being carried out against the destructive effects of torrential rain. Concrete chutes help direct the flow of water and retention walls are being built to prevent mudslides.

Informal paths that wind their way between the houses were being replaced by concrete steps. The absence of roads off the main thoroughfares going through the barrios means that the men we met who were constructing the steps had to carry bags of cement and gravel on their backs up the mountain sides. Our guide, Larry Hardy, claimed that architects lacked the imagination of the local people in terms of how to graft an infrastructure onto the old barrio. Larry came from the US twenty years ago as a Catholic priest, then married and has since been active in the community and is obviously an enthusiastic ‘Chavista’.

The other aspect of investment that has gone into the barrios is in the form of the "missiones". They come in different categories. The ones that have received the most publicity have been the health centres which are staffed by Cuban doctors and specialists. There are Venezuelans currently being put through medical training and the aim is that no Cubans will need to remain in five years’ time when there will be enough trained Venezuelans.

We were told that the Cuban doctors do not give interviews to foreign journalists. Instead we were brought to a "casa de alimentacion" which literally means a ‘meal house’. But this would not accurately describe all that takes place here. Essentially, the ‘casa’ combines the role of school, kitchen and family centre. We were received by the staff and children and talked through the various stages of education people are receiving.

A pro-active approach is taken in going out into the community and getting children to attend, particularly street children. Classes are given by television and the classroom is staffed by facilitators who work with the children individually. The children get three meals a day and their health and family life are monitored. Parents are involved in what in Ireland would be referred to as "family development work" like the teaching of parenting skills.

The ‘casa’ is staffed and maintained by the community and therefore an important source of local employment. I spoke to Maracellena, a woman in her mid fifties who makes the meals. She previously worked as a seamstress but was laid off in 2001. She receives 180,000 Bs (Bolivars) – about €75 – per month.

Jose Salcedo is 42 and serves as a community co-ordinator. This is a voluntary position and seems to entail being a liaison between the community and the government in terms of securing resources. He negotiated Bs6 billion for the various public works in the area. He also serves on the health committee and the land committee which gives out the titles referred to earlier.

Jose told me that only a small minority of people would engage in the type of voluntary committee work he does. His own activity spans 20 years but clearly most progress has been made in the last few under Chavez. He earns his living through a grocery store he runs in the community. He started it up through a Bs1 million (about €400) interest-free loan he received from the government that he is halfway through paying back.

It is therefore clear that there is a significant section of society – the poorest – who are materially benefiting from the reforms that have been funded through the profits of the state oil company. Socialists often quote how the application of some finite resources can transform living standards and what we saw was an example of this. But it has to be said that, even with the resources that have been spent, the standard of living still comes nowhere near that of the advanced capitalist world.

When you pose the question to the ‘Chavistas’ about how investment is to be maintained if oil prices decline, you are met with confidence that this is an unlikely scenario. The view is that in the longer term, through the raising of the educational level of the population overall, Venezuela can become a knowledge- and service-based economy and less reliant on oil sales.

This is a naive view, especially when you consider the current fortunes of economies in the advanced capitalist world. It is a picture deliberately conjured up to avoid the question of the role of the capitalist class – both native and transnational – in Venezuela.

An interesting question was posed by one journalist about the current role of the Bolivarian Circles. These were the community discussion groups, which in the early stages of the revolutionary process were key in building support for Chavez. They have been instrumental in mobilising the population at various referendums and elections as well as in defeating the coup in April 2002.

Yet the low turnout in last month’s elections is an indication that the circles are not functioning the way they were. We were told by our guide that they have essentially been relegated and their functions are now carried out by a new layer of paid activists who, through the ‘missiones’, are delivering services. This may be a retrospective rationalisation of a receding level of active participation by workers and poor people.

If, however, it is a conscious policy it is a dangerous course to follow, given the certainty of future attempts by the right wing opposition to destabilise and ultimately overthrow the regime. Chavez and his allies talk of creating a socialist society, but the mass voluntary participation of workers and poor in the running of their lives is one of the prerequisites for this. If anything, the Bolivarian Circles should be promoted and their role expanded to this end. Instead the course that is being followed contains the seeds of bureaucratism in the regime and fosters passivity on the part of the workers and poor.

The low turnout for the election is a clear warning. There is the advantage at present for the Chavez regime of having an opposition in disarray. But it will recover, particularly if the reforms are stalled due to changes in the local and world economic situation.

The economic power wielded by the capitalists – both national and transnational – needs to be decisively dealt with through their expropriation and the implementation of a democratically run socialist plan. Given all the recent political developments in the continent, the Venezulean workers and poor people can be confident of active solidarity and support from their brothers and sisters throughout Latin America if they follow this course.

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January 2006