Friday, September 28, 2007

An excursion with the Mayor, Alfredo Orozco…. and a revolutionary plan

The mountains around here rise over 7,000 feet high, often shrouded in mist

The mayor suggested we go for a little ride in “el campo,” the countryside. Eleven hours later, at least six of them spent bouncing around the muddy mountain roads in a big Toyota Land Cruiser, I had some appreciation for imposing geography of this municipality, Andres Eloy Blanco. Sanare, the capital of the municipality, is a pretty mountain town of about 25,000, sitting at 4,500 feet above sea level. Our little village, Monte Carmelo, is about 500 feet higher and overlooks Sanare and the valley below, with the high peaks of the Venezuelan Andes forming a shadowy backdrop far to the west.

The rest of the municipality, which lies over the mountain behind us, is just as beautiful as Sanare and Monte Carmelo, but much more rugged. Most of the area consists of steep mountain slopes and deep valleys that are accessible by gravel and mud roads that only jeeps and four-wheel-drive trucks can negotiate. Another 20,000 people live in this area, most of them inhabiting more than 150 caseríos (hamlets) that are scattered throughout the rich green landscape.

On a rainy day, waterfalls flow over the higher roads, and the lower tracks fill up with mud.

These campesinos live in the midst of two magnificent resources: water and coffee.
The municipality of Andres Eloy Blanco receives abundant rainfall, is crisscrossed by two rivers and countless streams, and manages to produce 30% of all the coffee grown in Venezuela. In spite of this, most small farmers, who rely on coffee as their cash crop, are living in poverty. The local government estimates that out of 8,500 rural families, 6,000 should be classified as poor.

The Plan for Local Sustainable Development “Argimiro Gabaldón”

Adding to the potential misery of the rural population is the newly completed Yacambú Dam, which is going to displace 1,500 families two years from now, when an artificial lake fills up a section of the Yacambú River valley. Decades ago, when the project was started, the dam and lake were designed to provide water to dry land and millions of people in the arid parts of Lara and other states. But, as in many developing countries, previous governments in Venezuela had no plans to insure the well-being of local residents who were going to be displaced by ambitious hydro projects.

Today, the local administration of Mayor Orozco, backed by generous funding from the national government and the state of Lara, is making amends for this policy of neglect. The municipality is implementing an ambitious plan for sustainable development named after Argimiro Gabaldón, a local revolutionary hero and guerrilla leader. Gabaldón and his followers staged an armed rebellion against government repression and maltreatment of the campesinos during the early 1960s, and he was killed in 1964.

Mayor Alfredo Orozco (right) talks with a campesino group in the village of Guapa

The first step in the Sustainable Development Plan is to create new communities and work opportunities for the 1,500 families that will soon be displaced. Among these families, many of whom are forming new cooperatives, are a number of older men and women who were fighting against the dam construction project many years ago. For this reason, one group likes to call itself the Indigenous Resistance Cooperative, “La Cooperativa de Resistencia Indigena,” a name which celebrates their own Indian heritage and also echoes the centuries of resistance to the oppression imposed by the Spanish and the local landowning elites.

[Perhaps some readers do not know that Venezuela no longer celebrates Columbus Day. A few years ago, the Chavez government decided that October 12th should be celebrated as “Él Dia de Resistencia” (Day of Resistance). I believe the same day is celebrated in Bolivia now that Evo Morales is President.)]

We met this cooperative group and its lively leaders outside the little village of Guapa, where the mayor signed an agreement acknowledging the cooperative’s title to agricultural land and a pledge of municipal support. One co-op leader, who likes to call himself “el cacique” (the chief), remarked, “This is what socialism is all about. Being treated with respect, as equals.”

El Cacique, one of the leader s of the Indigenous Resistance Cooperative

Admiring the NUDES

Nearby the Mayor pointed to parcels of land that the municipality is buying in order to construct one of the first Núcleos de Desarrollos Endógenos Sustentables, or NUDES (Centers of Local Sustainable Development), which will serve the families displaced by the dam. There will be considerable new construction around this particular NUDES (called Guapa-La Cruz) during the coming year: a new clinic, sports facilities, schools, and other public buildings that can serve as the community hub for several small villages of new residences that will replace those that will be submerged by the nearby artificial lake.

The Nucleo at Guapa-La Cruz will be the first sustainable development community built in Venezuela. The national government has also approved financing for the much larger expansion of Plan Argimiro Gabaldón, which will serve 28 other caseríos or villages within the municipality, including Monte Carmelo.

By consensus, all the co-op members (including the woman on the left) voted to sign the land agreement with the municipality.

The Plan Argimiro Gabladon is very bold, and the mayor, the governor, and the president all see it as “revolutionary,” that is, as the practical embodiment of the Bolivarian Revolution and as a model for development in other rural parts of the nation. It combines several very worthy goals: 1) the ecologically sound development and conservation of agricultural land and forests; 2) the establishment of a coffee production center that serves all the small producers and farm laborers through a network of cooperatives that guarantee just prices and decent living conditions for all; 3) the expansion of tourism throughout the municipality in a way that allows guests to share in the local culture, stay in the homes of area residents, and take advantage of agro-tourism, nature education, and hiking opportunities; 4) the renovation of the town of Sanare itself, including the restoration of colonial buildings, the rerouting of major roads, and the addition of new cultural, sports, and artisan centers.

Since Mayor Orozco grew up on a small coffee farm in “el campo,” he enjoys every Thursday, the day of the week he devotes to visiting his constituents in the countryside. Since he’s invited me to ride along any time I like, you can expect to read more reports on campesino life in remote parts of the municipality, some of which lie more than three hours away from Sanare. (In contrast, the campesino hamlet of Monte Carmelo, where we live, is only a 10 minute ride from the central plaza in Sanare.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monte Carmelo makes the national news

Governor Luis Reyes Reyes talks with Gaudy y Omar (on the right) about new initiatives in cooperative education and development

Our friends, Gaudy Garcia and her husband, Omar, have been organizing and working in cooperatives for more than thirty years. Among other things, they helped start La Alianza Cooperative farm, a cooperative grocery shop, and the MonCar Cooperative, a women’s co-op that produces and bottles vegetables, sauces, fruits, jellies, and jams. On September 17th, the governor of Lara, Luis Reyes came to celebrate the success of cooperative and sustainable development in Monte Carmelo and the neighboring villages around Sanare.

Gaudy is one of the friendliest (and most tenacious) political organizers in the region and has traveled abroad to meet with women’s groups and organic food organizations. Through her interest in promoting proper alimentation and fair labor practices, she has also joined the international “Slow Food” alliance.

This was a big day in Monte Carmelo as political dignitaries and television reporters descended upon this little village of about 700 people. One of Chavez’s cabinet ministers joined the governor, and they both spoke with President Chavez, who was conducting his Sunday afternoon TV show, Alo Presidente. This week the show emphasized various efforts throughout Venezuela that are promoting sustainable development. Chavez praised several local efforts in the state of Lara, including Monte Carmelo and Sanare, and also presented information about a wide range of new environmental initiatives.

The Minister of Popular Power for Land and Agriculture congratulated the various local cooperatives, and especially La Alianza, for being pioneers in sustainable development and organic farming. And he came bearing gifts, in particular a valuable donation from the Tierra Fertil (“Fertile Earth”) foundation: a brand-new, three-ton Ford truck for La Alianza.

Polilla and a fellow co-op member with their new truck (see the other posting about La Alianza

President Chavez’s television presentations can be very informative. Besides talking about Desarrollo Endogeno Sustenible (“sustainable development within the community”), he also outlined a number of ways that Venezuela is promoting the use of energy-saving and pollution-reducing appliances and vehicles. The chart above shows how a combination of new kinds of household appliances (many of them powered by natural gas and hydroelectric power) will enable an average family to reduce its monthly utility bill from over 100,000 bolivares (about $50) to 13,800 bolivares (about $7 dollars.)

The widescreen TV is broadcasting ¨Alo Presidente¨ by satellite to the meeting outside of Monte Carmelo

Luis Reyes Reyes, Governor of Lara

The governor seems like a thoughtful and responsive man, generally liked around here, although two people told me they wished he was more dynamic and forceful in his speaking style. What they mean, I think, is “more like Chavez,” but I don’t think anyone can entertain and motivate people like the President does. The governor and I spoke briefly, and he was very supportive of the idea that students from the United States might come here for classes in organic farming and sustainable development (which was, after all, the theme of the day’s event in Monte Carmelo.)

By pure coincidence, the night before the governor came to Monte Carmelo, I was reading an interview with him that appears in the appendix of a fascinating book by the English writer Tarik Ali, Pirates of the Caribbean: the Axis of Hope (Verso, 2006 -- if you haven’t read any of his books, or the periodical he has edited for decades, The New Left Review, you should take a look some time; he’s one of the most incisive and independent left-wing essayists in the world, and a good historical novelist, too.) The interview was recorded in 2004 by Rose Elizalde and Luis Baez).

In this interview, Governor Luis Reyes Reyes speaks about being a fellow student of Hugo Chavez at the National Military Academy, graduating the same year but going into the Air Force instead of the Army. Like Chavez, Reyes Reyes came from Barinas, a poor rural area far from metropolitan Caracas, and worked his way to the top levels of the class at the academy. After rising through the ranks, he, like hundreds of other disgruntled officers, was willing to join Chavez in the failed military/civilian rebellion of 1992.

In the interview, the governor described the kind of corruption and undemocratic behavior engaged in by high-ranking officers and their government cronies. “As lieutenant, they gave me the job of picking up a ballot box in a mountain town… a colonel told me not to bother delivering it … ‘But what about those voters?’ [I asked]… ‘Pick up the ballot boxes and throw them off the plane!’”

“These were crimes that the Armed Forces participated in every day,” Reyes Reyes explained, “not to mention the overt affluence that the officers who served that political system flaunted.”

After the attempted coup, the governor was imprisoned nearly as long as Chavez, but he was released a little earlier in 1994 because his young son was dying of cancer. Following his son’s death, he decided not to follow Chavez into the political arena, but instead devoted himself to the social plight of street kids. He and his wife set up a home for homeless children on a small farm in his home state of Barinas. He did not enter politics until 1999, when Chavez asked him to head one of the government ministries. In 2000, after the constitution was rewritten, he ran for and won the governorship of Lara.

Los Mangos

(Remembering a visit to Los Mangos in 2004)

Some of the poorest people in metropolitan Caracas live in the richest parts of the city. And a few of them live on the land of the richest man in South America.

Thousands of acres of mountains and valleys belonging to Gustavo Cisneros are about ten miles from downtown Caracas, if you’re traveling by helicopter.

I ran into Nikari, a sociology student at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, while visiting Antímano, one of the many large “barrios” which house the millions of poor people living on the steep hillsides that surround the central city. She and three other students were working with more than 60 neighborhood health committees and helping them correlate their medical statistics on computers.

In one neighborhood we were served a very tasty meal at the “community kitchen,” a government-funded effort that enabled five women to serve free meals to over 100 of their most impoverished neighbors. Antímano, just like the four other Caracas barrios I have visited, is exceptionally well-organized. Its citizens take advantage of all the new government-supported programs – Barrio Adentro medical care, community food distribution, and the various education missions, to name a few.

“It’s true, people here are poor,” said Nikari, “but on Sunday I can show you some places that are much poorer. In Baruta and El Hatillo. You feel like you’re walking back into time. You take these paths through the jungle, one to Los Mangos, another to a more wretched place, La Libertad, that’s more than a half an hour’s walk.”

On one corner of the city, to the south east, the hillsides are not densely packed with slums. The bus ride out of the city takes you past beautiful terraces, with trees and gardens scattered around spacious homes and luxurious apartment complexes. As the road ascends to the mountain ridge, the land gets even richer, and the upper-middle class housing gives way to walled estates for the truly wealthy. I looked at the other bus passengers, who looked far too poor to inhabit this region, unless they were maids or gardeners, and I asked, “When do we get to Baruta?”

Nikari laughed, “This is Baruta, it’s the richest part of the Caracas. Just be patient.” As we kept winding along the top of a high ridge, she pointed down a side road. “Look, there’s La Mata. That’s where the National Guard arrested the Colombian paramilitaries a few months ago. A right-wing, Cuban-Venezuelan guy named Alonzo sneaked them onto his big estate, the Hacienda Daktari. People say they were here to try to instigate another coup d’etat against Chavez. It’s easy to hide up here.”

Very easy. On either side of us, steamy clouds from the morning rain were rising from the thick rain forest that plunges into the deep valleys. Now there were no more estates, just a few poor huts scattered among the trees along the road.

When the bus finally stopped, the rain resumed, so Nikari decided we should forego the forty minute walk to La Libertad -- “too treacherous,” she said. Instead we took a muddy path that looked treacherous enough, winding down a 45 degree slope and disappearing into the forest. I landed on my backside twice.

Nikari, talking with Leo

Soon, we could see the roof of the first house in Los Mangos, and someone was shouting “Ciao, Nikari” and bounding down the path. It was Leo, a nineteen-year-old guy in a pony-tail who wore a t-shirt, running shorts, and torn-up tennis shoes. He was just returning from his morning training run, limbering up for a soccer match in the afternoon.

As we continued down the path, Leo pointed through the trees to the other side of the ravine and said, “That’s our house. Do you see my horse?” You couldn’t miss the horse, who was very fat and standing under a tin roof beside a little girl.

Their house, a one-room shack with a roof over the entry area, was home to Leo, his mother, his older brother, and three little sisters. The earth, inside and out, was swept very clean. The brother, in an immaculate white shirt, was heading up the hill to catch a bus going back toward the city, where he had a class at one of the education missions. After we exchanged greetings with Leo’s mother and sisters, who were hanging out the wash, we kept descending through a community of dozens of homes, all more or less like Leo’s.

Suddenly there was a roar overhead and I jumped back to see a big black helicopter flying in low over the tree tops. “Wow!” I exclaimed, “Is that the army or the national guard? Are they still looking for Colombian paramilitary guys who escaped from La Mata?”

Leo laughed, “No, that’s not the army, that’s Cisnero’s helicopter. It flies over all the time.” He pointed over a hill. “His hacienda is over that way.”


“Si, Gustavo Cisneros.”

Gustavo Cisneros is the richest man in Venezuela, perhaps in all of South America. His holdings, once estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth over $6 billion, include the Venevision TV network, the nation’s largest, and a controlling ownership share in Univision, the biggest Spanish-language network in the United States.

Leo later informed us that Los Mangos is part of his giant hacienda, which spreads out over thousands of acres. “Cisneros wants to pay us to leave our ranchos, so he can tear them down and start up commercial coffee production again. But none of us want to sell because our families have been here so long. We hope that someday we can get legal title to all of Los Mangos, plus some more land down below that is more suitable for growing beans and other kinds of agriculture. Right now another hacienda owner has given us permission to plant on his land.”

Los Mangos consists of about 35 one-room “ranchos” scattered around a steep hillside that was once part of a coffee plantation in the 19th century. Gustavo Cisneros purchased the abandoned plantation along with thousands of acres of adjoining forest several years ago. But the thirty-some families who live in Los Mangos and their predecessors have been there much longer, many for several decades, and they have certain rights. It is illegal to evict them from their mud and tin huts.

Los Mangos from a hill-top

Los Mangos ought to be a paradise, for mangos, papaya, banana, and coffee trees are growing everywhere. Edible creatures, such as chickens and turkeys and ducks, are scurrying around some of the shacks.

On the other hand, Nikari and her fellow students have collected data that shows the distressing depth of poverty here, especially when compared to the high standard of living enjoyed by other residents of Baruta and Hatillo. Only one quarter of the families have running water, and there is no provision at all for sewage. Many people are unemployed and malnourished, and most who are employed have to travel for a couple of hours each way to their low-paying jobs in downtown Caracas. Children can attend an elementary school at the top of the hill, but the overall education level in Los Mangos is very low.

Some highly energetic residents, like Leo and his brother, are traveling to other parts of Caracas to take advantage of the new Bolivarian schools that support continuing education. Leo, who loves animals, is training to be a veterinary assistant. He also works in a riding stable, where the owners gave him an old horse that they no longer wanted to keep.

Other young people in Los Mangos get despondent about their prospects. On the day I visited, Nikari spent a couple of hours consoling one of the women who lives at the very bottom of the hill. Her 22 year-old son had committed suicide the week before, with a shotgun.

Leo and hisyoungest sister and horse


Later, the same night,
Nikari and a fellow sociology student, Carlos, met me for a few drinks. Apparently they thought a little sociological contrast was necessary. They took me to the multi-story mall of San Ignacio in a wealthy section of Caracas -- the people, the glitzy shops and bars, and the gleaming gold escalators all shouted out “Conspicuous Consumption!” as loudly as any rich neighborhood in Miami or Los Angeles.

They told me that some students at the Central University of Venezuela were strong Chavistas, like Nikari, whose mother works as a secretary in Caracas. Others, not necessarily just the rich ones, supported the opposition. And many, including Carlos, who is the step-son of a professor who supports Chavez, consider themselves “ni ni” (“neither …nor” – neither for nor against the government).

In Carlos’ case, he totally supported all the social missions, health care and food distribution programs, but didn’t approve of Chavez’s rhetoric or his harsh treatment of the oil company employees, mostly white collar, because they took part in shutting down the industry in 2002-2003. One of his neighbors was one of 19,000 people who were fired, Carlos said, and the family had been in rough economic circumstances ever since.

“The government says they were trying to wreck the national economy,” I pointed out, “and they nearly succeeded.”

“True, but people like my neighbor were only doing what the chief executives and the big media were telling them to do,” replied Carlos. “I think they should have rehired a lot more of the people who were fired.”

And what about Cisneros and Los Mangos?

Gustavo Cisneros and his TV network, Venevision, were major supporters of the oil industry shutdown, as well as the attempted coup in 2002. Cisneros, who has been a friend of the Bush family for years, seems to have adopted a quieter, semi-conciliatory position now that Chavez and his supporters have won so many elections overwhelmingly. His TV network, which still supports the political opposition, now refrains from the vehement attacks and unsubstantiated rumors that are peddled, in a style that makes Rush Limbaugh look innocuous, by many other private media such as RCTV.

Will Gustavo Cisneros ever be willing to give up a tiny portion of his vast property so that the little settlement of Los Mangos can prosper? Will the citizens of Los Mangos get organized so that they can fight for their rights? Will somebody in the national government give a little push, so that the Law of the Land (La Ley de Tierra) can be implemented? La Ley de Tierra, which took effect in 2001, allows the government to purchase unused land from very large landowners at market prices, then turn it over to small farmers and cooperatives.

Such things are happening all over Venezuela, where millions of acres of public and private land have been redistributed to hundreds of thousands of poor families. But not in the Baruta and Hatillo districts of metropolitan Caracas – they are still controlled by the wealthy opposition, including the ultra-rightwing mayor of Baruta, Henrique Capriles Radonski, who has no interest in implementing the Bolivarian programs.

Less than a week after visiting Los Mangos in 2004, I attended “El Encuentro de Artistas y Intelectuales en Defensa de Humanidad,” (Conference of Artists and Intellectuals in Defense of Humanity) in Caracas. Of all the commendable things that Hugo Chavez said to us at this international conference, one sentence seemed to sum up the aspirations of the Bolivarian Revolution in a way that speaks directly to the people of Los Mangos.

“Yes, it is important to end poverty, to end misery,” said the President, “but the most important thing is to offer power to the poor so that they can fight for themselves.”

And now you know why this particular quote appears on the opening page of Venezuela Notes underneath the picture of Erica and her sister, who kindly served me a cafecito while we were waiting for the rain to stop in Los Mangos.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Bolivarian Education

Honorio Dam, on left, and Rafael, a teacher of agriculture, at the office of the “maestros rurales.” The slogan on their office wall says: “Constructores de sueños, profesionales de la esperanza” ---- “Builders of dreams, professionals of hope.”

When I first met Honorio Dam, the director of rural teachers in the rugged, mountainous region that surrounds Sanare, he took me to a unique graduation ceremony. The first class of adults, more than 200 people, had just finished Mission Ribas, a Bolivarian initiative designed for adults who wanted to complete their high school education. It was a festive occasion as relatives, teachers, and the mayor celebrated with the most jubilant group of graduates I have ever seen.

In January of 2007, when I accompanied a group from Dickinson College in Pennylvania on a visit to Sanare, Honorio introduced the North American students to area residents who were enrolled in Mission Sucre, an education program for adults who are studying at the university level. Afterward, Honorio said to me, “You know, nearly all of that first graduating class from Mission Ribas, the ones you saw two years ago, are now studying in Mission Sucre.”

One of the major achievements of the Bolivarian revolution is its massive investment of money and human resources in education, an effort that has been matched by the overwhelming response of campesinos and working class people who are enrolling at all levels.

About 6 million people were going to school in 1998 before Chavez was first elected. By 2005, approximately 12 million, or nearly half of Venezuela’s population, were enrolled in all educational programs.

The statistics for the mountainous municipality that includes Sanare (a municipality here is similar to a county in the USA) are even more impressive. “In 1999,” Honorio explained to us, “when Chavez first took office, there were 8,000 students in our municipality of Andres Eloy Blanco. Now, in 2007, there are 25,000 students. That’s out of 47,000 people. More than half of our population is in school.”

Diego gives a cheer for his friend who finished the Mission Sucre program last spring and now is a teacher in the liceo (high school) in Monte Carmelo

Although part of this increase is due to intense efforts to keep children in school who previously would have dropped out, the majority of the new students are adults. About twenty of those participating in Mission Sucre, some with their small children in tow, came to the meeting with the Dickinson students and shared their stories. Many had aspirations of embarking upon new careers, but one single mother of three emphasized a theme that was common to all. “What is important to me,” she said, “is that I am growing as a human being.”

The Zaragoza School

School children also enjoy some new opportunities. There are several Bolivarian schools in the area that offer classes, cultural activities, and athletics all day long, as opposed to the traditional school day of 4 or 5 hours that is still the norm in other schools. While the Bolivarian schools are experimenting with revolutionary educational philosophies and curriculum, they also offer very practical kinds of assistance to students and their families. For instance, all students are fed two free meals during the school day.

This region in the state of Lara was experimenting with progressive education long before Chavez assumed the presidency of Venezuela. One successful example of radical schooling was developed at the Zaragoza School in Palo Verde, a small community on the edge of Sanare. Zaragoza serves as an inspiration to educators in the area and as a model for the new public schools.

The Zaragoza school is a private institution created in 1991 by parents and teachers who were unhappy with the poor quality of public education. Since most of those involved were campesino and working class families, they needed some financial help from progressive Catholic charities to get started. Their own efforts have been considerable: the parents have constructed all of the school buildings themselves; each family contributes as much money as it can toward salaries and expenses; and parents meet regularly to hire their school directors and teachers, as well as choosing the curriculum and setting school policy.

Goya, a founder of the school and one of the current teacher/directors, says that Zaragoza is a “communitarian education project” that really works. In part, she attributes this to the traditions in the surrounding small communities of Palo Verde, Bojo, and Monte Carmelo, which have successfully organized and operated various cooperative ventures for many years.

As for intellectual inspiration, much of it comes from proponents of revolutionary educational methods like Paolo Freire, the Brazilian author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. According to Goya, the teachers are trained to be progressive educators who create learning experiences that they are sharing with the students, instead of dictating from above. In keeping with this egalitarian tradition, teachers and students are on a first name basis, and they always sit down to eat together at lunch time. In fact, the teachers take their place in line with the students as they wait to be served. Furthermore, because there are no janitors at the school, teachers and students work together on all maintenance tasks, including cleaning the bathrooms.

Isn’t this anti-authoritarian atmosphere going to create chaos? What about discipline? “It’s hardly necessary,” says Goya, “since the kids are excited to be here every day. Because the parents and teachers run this place together, we’re able to meet comfortably and discuss the case of a child who is having problems learning or socializing with his peers. I can’t ever remember having to expel anyone.”