By Paul Dobson, brigade leader, Caracas
January 12, 2015 -- Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Following months of organisation and planning, the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network’s 15th solidarity brigade touched down in Maiquetía International Airport in Caracas on December 1, 2014, at a highly important time for the Bolivarian revolution.
With imperialism increasing its efforts to
undermine the revolution and exacerbate internal weaknesses, and with
the Venezuelan people still reeling from the blow of the premature death
of former president Hugo Chavez, international solidarity is needed
like never before to maintain the revolutionary advances made by and for
the Venezuelan people.
The 2014 brigade, which was made up of activists of Australian, New Zealand and Malaysian nationalities, spent two weeks in Venezuela, during which time it fulfilled all three of its objectives. These were:
Learn about the truth of the Bolivarian revolution and the state of the country not reported in the capitalist press. Observe with our own eyes the impressive and numerous social advances since the electoral victory of Hugo Chavez in 1998. Speak with and listen to the people of Venezuela about how their lives have changed thanks to the revolution, but also about what problems they are currently confronting and attempting to solve.
Express international solidarity with the Venezuelan people and through the visit of the brigade, show them that across the globe movements that struggle to create an alternative, progressive world are focused on Venezuela, taking inspiration and hope out of its victories, and thereby impart to Venezuelans the importance of defending their advances for the benefit of not just the people of Venezuelans, but the peoples of the world.
Create concrete solidarity links to facilitate flows of information, exchanges and joint projects in the future, giving real meaning to the term ‘international solidarity’ through actions.
Following the arrival of all brigade members, an introductory meeting was convened by the brigade leader, Paul Dobson, a British revolutionary resident in Venezuela. Both practicalities and the political context in which the brigade was visiting the country were explained to the brigadistas.
That evening, Dr Marcelo Alfonzo, a local academic and revolutionary, provided the brigade with a brief history of Venezuela to help us understand the historical context of the people’s struggles and the origins of many of the problems manifesting in today’s society.
Leaving early from the Ateneo Popular, the wonderful hostel the brigade stayed at in Caracas, the brigade spent the entire day on a political-historical city walking tour led by George Azariah-Moreno, a Venezuelan anthropologist and revolutionary.
We visited: the birth house of Simon Bolivar, the residency of Jose Marti in Caracas, the Plaza Bolivar, the National Assembly building, the Presidential Palace, the House of First Education (where Bolivar received schooling from Simon Rodriguez), the “hot corner”, some of the recuperated public spaces, Puente Llaguno (scene of the 2002 coup d’état massacre), and the San Carlos Fortress (where political prisoners were tortured under previous governments). We also observed a lively demonstration by oil workers in front of the National Assembly to mark 10 years since the defeat of the counter-revolutionary oil lockout, and were able to talk to a worker from the social mission Negra Hipólita (which works with Venezuelans living on the streets).
We also visited the Mountain Fortress 4F where the remains of Hugo Chavez have been laid to rest. The brigadistas were able to pay their respects to the great Venezuelan leader, and observe some of the photos and personal effects on display to help visitors better understand who Hugo Chavez really was. We also observed the changing of the guard and the traditional cannon shot at 4.25pm to mark the time when Chavez died. During the tour, brigadistas repeatedly heard Venezuelans referring to Chavez as not being with us “physically”, meaning that his ideas and motivation live on in today’s struggles. The day culminated with cocktails in Bellas Artes and the Museums Square.
On this day one of the most important meetings of the brigade was held. We were received by Tibisay Lucena, president of the National Electoral Council (CNE) and a leading feminist campaigner. Lucena is one of the most important women leaders in Venezuela and is a victim of daily attacks from the right wing. We were received in her personal office, where she spoke to us about Venezuela’s voting system, its history, its advances in modern society, and its safeguards. The brigadistas were free to ask any question and all left with the certain knowledge that electoral fraud is impossible in Venezuela.
The afternoon included meetings with the Vice Foreign Minister, Xoan Noya, and the Director of Culture and International Solidarity, Sr Jabour. After hearing about how Venezuela’s Foreign Office is committed to assisting international solidarity movements, and about the importance of visits like ours, the brigade moved on to attend the Sounds of Caracas international music festival. Two hours of the foot-tapping Afro-Venezuelan Symphonic Orchestra (a product of El Sistema) seemed hardly enough!
In the morning we paid a visit to the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of Our Peoples) offices, where we were received by Ruben Pereira, member of the Directorate of ALBA in Venezuela responsible for social movements. Ruben explained the history of ALBA and some of its projects for the near future. ALBA celebrated its 10th anniversary during the brigade’s visit.
Later, we were accompanied by Patricia Abdelnour from the International Department of El Sistema of Youth Orchestras to one of their community centers in the Los Chorros sector of Caracas. We saw musical groupings of all shapes and sizes playing at an exceptional level, with preschool children up to adolescents, as well as special needs groups and full-sized symphonic orchestras. Despite being located in an upper-class sector of the city, 90% of the kids who benefited from this center were from neighboring Petare, one of Latin Americas biggest shantytowns. We heard how the director of the center had been involved in drug gangs before finding his musical skills, and how El Sistema had helped him transform his life – so much so that he is now the director of one of the model centers of the orchestras in Caracas.
In the morning we were shown around Caracas by representatives of the Caracas Mayor’s office and Fundapatrimonio, the organisations in charge of recuperating public spaces in Caracasand using urban planning to promote social change in the highly divided Caracas society. We visited the Municipal Theatre, which the Bolivarian government transformed from an abandoned warehouse into a restored classical theatre, and the El Carvario Park, previously a hide-out for criminals and now a beautiful family recreation spot with excellent security, lighting and infrastructure. Finally we visited the Lima Chapel, where the first independence declaration of Venezuela was signed. Fundapatrimonio emphasized the role of the organised communities in the recuperation process and the subsequent running of public spaces, as well as the social impact of opening up previously exclusive spaces to the poor sectors of the city, involving them on an equal level as never before.
Following this, we accepted the invitation of the organised workforce of the Caracas Corporation of Services (street cleaners, gardeners, council workers) to observe proceedings of their Amplified Workers Assembly, where the workers are taking an increasingly active role in the administration of the state company. After the council meeting, we met with trade unionists, representatives from the Bolivarian Workers University and of the Socialist Council of Workers to learn about workers ‘control and the state of consciousness in the organised working class of Venezuela.
During our time with the labour leaders we had the opportunity to observe a geography class of the social mission Ribas Obrero, which is designed to allow workers to finish their basic education. After talking to the teacher, we heard from five students in the class about how and why they were taking advantage of the opportunity to finish their secondary level education.
Leaving Caracas early, we travelled four hours through the bamboo plantations and cloud forest of the Henry Pittier National Park to reach the coastal town of Ocumare de la Costa in neighboring Aragua State. Ocumare is a fishing village with historic afro-Venezuelan roots dating from the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the slave trade. It also has some of the best quality cacao plantations in the world, making it the center of a hard-fought battle between Nestle and the Venezuelan government. The town also boasts a beautiful coastline and has a growing tourism industry.
After trying some of the local fish-based dishes, we made a quick trip to the beach before meeting some of the cacao producers close to the neighboring town of Cata, who told us about the history of the cacao industry in the region. Following that, we visited a small scientific cacao research center set up by the government to maintain the genetic qualities of the highly valued Venezuelan cacao seed, and were shown around the whole production process from start to finish. The day ended in a cacao factory, a small community cooperative run by four women from Cata in their house, where they explained the range of cacao-based products for sale. After testing the cacao liquor, cacao cream and pure cacao, and seeing the cacao soap, we joined the community leaders for a cultural show of traditional drum music and storytelling by members of the Afro-Venezuelan community.
Day 7 was our relaxing day and the brigadistas took the chance to recharge their batteries at the beaches of the Ciénagas de Ocumare and amongst the mangroves on this Caribbean coastline. We even saw star fish and sea horses!
However, even the ‘relax day’ was coloured by political activity: on our arrival we observed queuesat the local offices of the governing Socialist Unified Party (PSUV), which had internal elections that day! Taking advantage of the opportunity, we met with the local coordinator of the PSUV in Bolivar Square where he explained to the brigadistas some of the internal structure and policies of the PSUV, shouting above the noise of pre-Christmas festivities kicking off in the small community.
Leaving Ocumare early, we rushed back to Caracas to participate in one of the highlights of the brigade: the closing session of the First National Congress of the Great Patriotic Pole, the wide alliance of political parties, social movements, pressure groups, community groups and workers’ organisations that has been and remains the backbone of the governments of Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro.
After receiving special invitations and security authorisations, we returned to the Mountain Fortress 4F, where leading members of the more than 32,000 groups that form the alliance held a symbolic hand-over to President Maduro of the proposals decided by the Congress. In the surrounds of the resting place of Hugo Chavez and Barrio 23rd January, one of the strongest Chavista shanty towns in Caracas and a hugely symbolic place to all Venezuelan revolutionaries, the brigadistas listened to Maduro make some important announcements then mingled with some of the movement representatives in attendance and learned about their struggles.
Day 9 bought meetings with representatives of three different movements of Venezuelan society. First was a meeting with the Bolivar-Zamora Revolutionary Current, an organised tendency of the PSUV most famous for its work with rural workers. Secondly we met with representatives from the Livia Gouvenour Student Movement at the Experimental Arts University, and finally we met with Juana Garcia, member of the Central Committee of the Venezuelan Communist Party and coordinator of the Clara Zetkin women’s movement.
In all three meetings, the activists talked about the great advances made since 1998, but also some of the great challenges still facing the Bolivarian revolution. They spoke with much heart, passion, clarity, conscience and, most of all, honesty.
Building on the increasing contact the brigade had with Venezuelan communities, on day 10 we headed to Latin America’s second largest shanty town, Petare, where we were met by Ruben Pereira at acommunity radio station. After hearing about the station and how it was made possible by Chavez’s communications policy, each member of the brigade participated in a live radio interview. We then returned to the metro (train service) and continued on to Palo Verde, a suburb of Petare.
In Palo Verde we joined many residents of this densely populated working-class sector in riding the recently completed Cable Car of Mariches. The 20-minute journey over the roofs of the shantytowns gave the brigade a taste of the eco-friendly, mass public transport policies of the revolutionary government. We heard from a pregnant passenger about how previously it had taken her up to two hours in a bus to travel from her house to the Caracas metro network, which had created great problems for her family and other, especially elderly, residents.
On arriving in Mariches we were taken to the Latin American Medical School ‘Salvador Allende’ (ELAM). The school – the second of its type in the world – receives students from some of the poorest countries of the world, as well as from Indigenous Venezuela communities, and trains them in holistic medicine for free before they return to their often devastated communities to practice medicine for the benefit of their people. We met with 119 recently arrived Palestinians, who were taking their first classes in Spanish before starting the medicine course. The director of the school, Sandra Moreno, answered the brigadistas’ questions about the school and encouraged Australia to investigate sending students to be trained there.
In the morning we met with representatives of the Ministry of Popular Power for Indigenous People, a ministry created in revolution to represent the numerous original peoples of Venezuela. We heard about the land demarcation policies and some of the political moves to bring Indigenous peoples into the decision-making structures of the state, such as the recently created Presidential Council for Indigenous People. The ministry was very interested in hearing from the brigadistas about Indigenous issues in Australia.
We then travelled to shantytowns in the south of Caracas to visit the Tiuna El Fuerte Cultural Centre, where they use culture, dance, rap, music and art to help the young people of the poorest sectors organise themselves and their communities. The coordinators of these projects told us about how the right wing have attacked their projects and tried to sabotage their work.
To finish the day, we met with Carolus Wimmer, International Secretary for the Venezuelan Communist Party and President of the Latin-American Parliament. Wimmer explained some of the trends in foreign policy since the 1998 revolution and told us about his solidarity visits to Australia.
We spent day 12 sharing and learning from two different organised communities in Caracas. In the company of David Toma from the Black Gold Foundation, we visited the housing mission Vivienda in El Paraiso, where we were shown their productiveurban gardens, learned about Communal Councils andCommunes, and spoke with the Cuban ecological advisor on the roof of the tower blocks.
We then headed to West Caracas where we visited the Nucleo Endogeno Fabricio Ojeada, a socially productive community center in the shantytown of Catia. We talked to workers from the agricultural projects, who explained that they were working to increase the production of basic crops as part of the struggle to defeat the “economic war” that the anti-revolutionary forces have launched against the government. We also visited a site of the medical caresocial mission Barrio Adentro and saw some of the other social missions that are continuing to improve the quality of life of the community.
On the last day of the brigade we paid a quick visit to the recently created Mission Nevado, which extends the benefits of the Bolivarian revolution to Venezuela’s canines and felines, rescuing abandoned animals from the streets of Venezuela. We then visited and spoke to people in Nuevo Circo, in the five tower blocks of the housing Mission Vivienda. We were shown around by members of the local Communal Council, including the insides and outsides of the state-built apartments, and where the government is constructing PDVAL outlets (subsidized supermarkets), El Sistema Orchestra centers, community cinemas, hospitals and more.
After eating a typical Venezuelan Christmas lunch, we held our last political meeting of the tour with Carlos Ortiz from the Correo Del Orinoco newspaper. He who gave us a very important talk about media freedoms and manipulation, and freedom of expression in Venezuela, comparing the situations before and after 1998. He explained how the local spokespeople for United States imperialism manipulate affairs and information to turn Venezuelan and international opinion against the revolution, and how newspaper readership is increasing in Venezuela.
On the final evening, to close the brigade, Paul Dobson facilitated a group evaluation and summary.
All involved in the brigade considered it to be a huge success, with the brigadistas vowing to increase their solidarity work in their home cities in support of all that they had seen in Venezuela. Many mentioned concrete ways in which they plan to support the revolution, including writing articles, activating their political contacts to support Venezuela, and organising international observers for the next elections in Venezuela. All brigadistas promised to use the links made with Venezuelans they met during the brigade to counter the corporate media’s near monopoly on the information about Venezuela that is distributed in Australia. All agreed that the brigade had opened their eyes much more than they had hoped for, and that they will encourage others to participate in future brigades.
[If you would like to take part in an AVSN solidarity brigade, visit http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org/?page_id=14, email email@example.com, or phone Jim on 0423 741 734, Roberto on 0425 182 994 or Lisa on 0413 031 108.]