Young Venezuelan revolutionary and environmentalist: `Tomorrow is too late’

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August 23, 2009 -- Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network national co-convenor Frederico Fuentes spoke to Heryck Rangel (pictured), an environmental activist and leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela Youth (JPSUV), about the challenges that the global environment crisis poses for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, and the planet. He also discussed the role of young people in Venezuela's revolution.

“More than just an economic crisis, what humanity faces today is a systemic crisis”, Rangel said. “We can see this if we look at the energy crisis, and the social crisis that is generating a lot of poverty and misery. But above all, we can see this in the ecological crisis. There is a grand ecological crisis in the world today and I believe we are at a pivotal point, a moment when we need to make tough decisions. The current mode of development is incompatible with life.”

Rangel explained that this is why, “in Venezuela, we believe in a model for life and sustainable development where we can generate the greatest possible sum of happiness, not only for this generation, but for future generations”.

As well as being part of the national leadership of the JPSUV, Rangel is one of the founders of the Movement of Venezuelan Eco-citizens, Ecoven, which was set up in 2005 by students at the Central University of Venezuela. Since then, Ecoven has been “giving talks in high schools, where we have begun to involve more young people”, he said. Ecoven now organised in various states in Venezuela, he added.

Before President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, successive Venezuelan governments allowed the multinational companies operating there to massively contaminate Venezuela’s lakes and rivers, and carry out rampant deforestation that resulted in its ranking by the United nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation as one of the most deforested countries in the world.

Today, Venezuela, one of the world’s largest oil producers, is leading the way in providing an ecosocialist alternative for the world. But one of the most common questions about the Venezuelan revolution is how a process that proclaims itself to be progressive be based on an oil-dependent economy. Rangel explained: “For many years we have lived from oil, and oil is one of the biggest contaminants in the world today. But at the same time, Venezuela is one of the few countries where the government has a policy of reforestation: Mision Arbol (Mission Tree).”

Chavez launched Mission Tree in June 2006 with the aim of planting 1,000,000 trees in five years to combat deforestation and of creating community-based model of sustainable development.

Essential to the project is the development of an ecological consciousness through the self-organisation of local communities to carry out the environmental program and extend ecological education. This includes local conservation committees running “productive conservation” projects, meaning agriculture that does not require deforestation.

“We have chosen the path of life and we are wagering on that, despite our great oil wealth’’, Rangel said. ``We understood that we needed to reforest in order to provide oxygen for this planet, in order to save the world. So, at the same time as we extract oil and sell it, we are reforesting and developing new technologies at the same pace.

Chavez summed up this approach when he told the Venezuelan people in February 2007: ``We are an oil producing country and that obligates us to take even more care of the environment—on an extreme level—and to avoid contamination, and to reduce contamination in all areas: earth, water and air.’’

“In our country, over the next few years, the public transport system will be shifted to function on gas”, Rangel said. ``Natural gas is less polluting than diesel and petrol. As well, the metro [underground railways] of Caracas, Valencia and Maracaibo run on electricity generated by hydro-electricity, which provides 70% of Venezuela’s electricity.”

As well, major efforts are underway through the ministry of the environment to decontaminate Venezuela’s rivers and lakes, in both urban and rural areas, and the state-owned oil company PDVSA has, since 2006, been implementing a plan to recuperate green areas, decontaminate rivers, lakes and land, and reduce emissions. Mision Energia (Mission Energy), a social program aimed at energy conservation, has funded young activists to carry out a nationwide campaign to replace common heat-burning light bulbs with the more environmentally friendly cold-energy bulbs.

Asked whether it was possible to think of a post-oil Venezuela, Rangel answered: “I dream of, and know that we are advancing towards, a Venezuela that is self-sufficient and not dependent on oil.

“We are only just beginning to raise consciousness regarding the environment, because in the big cities people are seeing how their own actions can affect their living conditions. We are not dealing here with the concept that capitalism created, the idea of `quality of life’. What we are dealing with, as [Bolivia's president] Evo Morales says and our Indigenous people know, is the knowledge that the Earth is our mother and what we have to generate is `good living’ because everything we do affects the Earth.

“The planet has been sending us signals at a global level, for example the number of hurricanes, droughts and floods. The Earth is telling us that the only planet we have can no longer support the capitalist model of production.”

Rangel argued, “Our actions cannot be limited to simply chaining ourselves to trees because it is not the trees that are generating the problem, it is people who generate the problem. We must understand that we need a new, different society, with new values.

“That is where we brought together our socialist ideas with our ecologist ideas and said that Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution has to be profoundly ecological, and that the new man and new woman have to be eco-citizens. They have rights and responsibilities, they cannot think only about the present, but have to think about future generations.”

Rangel concluded, “The crisis we are facing should propel us all into action, but it is not enough to just protest against what is happening; we have to change it, and do that now. Tomorrow is too late.”

[This article is from the Australian-Venezuela Solidarity Network broadsheet, published as a supplement in Green Left Weekly issue #808.]

‘The revolution is profoundly young’

By Federico Fuentes, Caracas

August 15, 2009 -- Recalling the words of Les Miserables author Victor Hugo, United Socialist Party of Venezuela Youth (JPSUV) leader Heryck Rangel said “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, and today in Venezuela, the time of socialism has arrived”.

Rangel, who is now heading up the Youth Institute of Greater Caracas, a de facto youth ministry for Venezuela’s capital, spoke to Green Left Weekly shortly before leaving for a tour of universities in Australia to speak about the powerful example of hope that Venezuela’s socialist revolution, led by President Hugo Chavez, represents for the world.

Explaining the important role youth are playing in the revolution, Rangel said youth are fundamental to ensuring that the PSUV “is constantly mobilising the people, driving forward the process and acting as a watchdog over the government. Venezuela is a country of young people and the revolution is profoundly young and full of hope. Statistics show that the Venezuelan population is predominately made up of people under the age of 40.”

More than 60% of Venezuela’s population is under the age of 29.

Rangel told GLW that, during the recent campaign to sign up new PSUV members, close to 1.2 million young people joined up for the first time. This demonstrated “that the support base for Chavez has been growing over the last few years, and that the revolution that Chavez leads is profoundly young”.

Rangel said: “We are going to construct a society of equals, the different society that we need, so that Venezuelans can live in better conditions than those which they previously lived in.

“Unfortunately, capitalism condemned us to be a rentist country”. Although rich in natural resources such as oil, it was a country where wealth redistribution was weighted toward the wealthy elite.  The result was a country “full of poverty, misery and exclusion”.

“We have to remember that everything was privatised here and that the country was dismembered.”

But since Chavez was first elected in 1998, when most of the population lived in poverty, the government has been “able to weave a new social fabric in order to build that new economic structure that can liberate and take us towards that new society — socialism”.

“That is why we are committed to building socialism. We have to construct an inclusive society, with a new productive model, where every man and woman can live with dignity — which the revolution has again returned to the people.”

Crucial to this has been the creation of “social missions”, which ensure people have access to free education from primary school to university, free health care and housing, as well as promoting environmental programs, among many other things. There are now more than 30 different social missions.

Changing the logic of education

Rangel said one of the biggest issues for the revolution was that “we have still not touched the superstructure in respect to Venezuela’s public universities”. However, on August 13, a new education law was passed. It ends state funding for private schools, involves the grassroots communal councils in running public schools, ensure spending accountability in public universities, and allow students and staff to elect university authorities. Opposition-aligned students have protested violently against the law.

Rangel said this response is because he public university system remains a bastion of the old elite. Rangel said it had taken “refuge under the guise of defending university ‘autonomy’, using it as a mechanism to avoid having to accommodate themselves to the changes taking place”.

“These universities have turned their backs on the people. The country continues to advance, to grow and construct [a new society], while the universities remains closed off in their own shells.”

But Rangel said the government is moving towards creating a revolutionary education system that “guarantees free education for all ... and the transformation of the education model. The education system we have today reproduces and justifies the [capitalist] system. “What we need is a system based on education for liberation.”

Ten years ago, there existed “only five public autonomous universities, a small group of experimental universities and the rest were private universities”. Since that time, the Chavez government has created the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), which provides free university education to more than 260,000 students across the country, focusing on students from the poor previously excluded from higher education. It has also expanded student numbers for the experimental universities, such as the Polytechnical Experimental National University of the Armed Forces.

A larger number of students are also studying as part of Mission Sucre, which was set up with the aim of taking the university education directly to the communities. More than 5000 spaces have been set up nationally where people of all ages can access higher education. Rangel also said that through Mission Alma Mater, technical colleges and schools have been upgraded and transformed into polytechnic universities.

“The majority of the student population today study in the UBV, in UNEFA and the polytechnic and experimental universities.”

Paraphrasing the former left-wing Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a US-backed coup that established the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Rangel said, “the universities have to mould themselves to society, where those that go to university don’t go just to enrich themselves but to serve society”.

He pointed to the example of the recent graduation of 800 medicine students from the Romulo Gallegos University. They would have previously gone into the privatised health sector, but are instead working in the social missions dedicated to health and the public hospitals.

Similarly with the university professors who have graduated from the UBV in new degrees such as social and environmental management, “issues that for capitalism do not exist because they do not generate profit but instead help society”.

“I think that the generation of this consciousness is the priority, and this is what we are doing with the UBV, and the education missions. We are changing the logic of education.”

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #807, August 18, 2009.]