Global Exchange is a membership-based international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic, and environmentsl justice around the world.

The following post was written by Global Exchange Supporter and B.C. based trade union researcher Blair Redlin who recently took part in a Global Exchange delegation to Venezuela. This originally appeared on rabble.ca in two parts.

During Global Exchange delegation visit to Venezuela. Photo Credit: Blair Redlin

A Glimpse of Venezuela: Part 1

Ten yearsafter the failed coup attempt of 2002, revenue from huge oil reserves and widespread popular mobilisation are supporting grassroots change for many parts of Venezuelan society. Despite media demonisation of the Venezuelan experiment here in Canada, the changes are significant and deserve to be better understood — especially given the increasing importance of oil revenue for our country too.

In order to get a glimpse of the Bolivarian Republic in 2012, I recently took part in a fascinating “reality tour” of Venezuela organised by San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange.

The 10-day tour featured meetings with activists from many sectors, as well as a visit to the San Juan tambores festival in the Afro-Venezuelan Barlovento region. We spent time in the sprawling capital of Caracas, in the small Andean community of Sanare, in the industrial city of Barquisimeto and the Afro-Venezuelan town of Curiepe.

My main takeaway was of a population deeply committed to social change within the context of historic inequality and class divisions. The country has numerous problems, including poverty and deadly gun crime, but it was inspiring to see the energy and enthusiasm that both local communities and the government are bringing to bear.

Particularly striking are the efforts to circumvent bureaucratic obstacles to change through community based initiatives. Whether it’s the numerous “misiones” (to tackle poverty, housing, adult literacy and more) or empowerment of communal councils and co-ops, a significant theme of development in Venezuela is local democratic control.

Our group met with a variety of locally based mission activists, in addition to actors in the women’s, students, co-op, community media and labour movements. Here are a few of my impressions:

Progress on Inequality – the focus on reducing inequality and poverty is producing results. The United Nation’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reports that Venezuela now has the third lowest poverty rate in Latin America and is the least unequal country in the region. So-called “extreme poverty” rates have been reduced from 21 per cent of the population in 1999 (when Hugo Chavez first came to power) to 6.9 per cent by 2010. Venezuela had the second highest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America from 2002 to 2010, exceeded only by Ecuador.  Venezuela ranks 73rd out of 187 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Gasoline Absurdly Cheap – given that the world price of oil is hovering above $85 a barrel, it seems incredible that the price of gasoline in Venezuela is approximately .05 cents/litre. You read that right. Less than one cent a litre. or pretty close to free. This represents a massive public subsidy of gasoline prices — an expensive policy that has to be making global warming worse. To an outsider, super cheap gasoline seems like a crazy way to spend scarce resources in a country with numerous social needs, but the historical and political context is important. In 1989, Venezuelans rebelled en masse against austerity policies imposed by the IMF that included a 100 per cent increase in consumer gasoline prices and a doubling of transit fares. That rebellion was dubbed the Caracazo. As a result of the Caracazo thousands were killed, former President Carlos Perez was removed from office, the IMF restraint policies were modified and Hugo Chavez began his political career. In light of all that, it is apparently politically challenging to raise gasoline prices today. Meanwhile, Venezuela is overwhelmingly dependent on oil revenues and its economy needs to diversify. Oil accounts for 90 per cent of export earnings, 50% of federal budget revenues and 30 per cent of GDP.

Women’s Rights a Priority (Except for One Key One) – in a region where the culture of machismo remains strongly embedded, it’s encouraging that women’s rights are a priority of the government. There is a Ministry of Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, a Mision Madres del Barrio for working and single mothers, a Women’s Bank and mass participation in International Women’s Day. But Venezuelan women are still denied the right to reproductive choice, as abortion remains illegal. The National Assembly has had a committee studying abortion reform since 2010, but no actual legislative change appears to be forthcoming. Our delegation met with representatives of the “Popular Feminist Circle” organisation in Barquisimeto, which provides a range of programs, including prevention of violence against women and children. They told us it has made a big difference that the President clearly identifies himself as a feminist, but until women gain improved rights to reproductive choice in Venezuela, full equality rights are a long way off.

Venezuela 2012 Photo Credit: Blair Redlin

A Glimpse of Venezuela: Part 2

Venezuela has been undergoing big changes since the failed coup attempt of a decade ago . The first part of this blog report discussed how the Chavez government is implementing change at the grassroots level through  “missions” and communal councils; the progress that has been made in reducing inequality and poverty; the context for Venezuela’s policy of  almost free gasoline; and efforts to promote the rights of women in a country where abortion remains illegal.

Here are some further reflections on my brief glimpse of Venezuela in 2012:

A new labour law for working people – on May 1 of this year, a new fundamental labour statute came into effect. Entitled the Organic Law of Work and Workers, the new law is the culmination of a major mobilizing effort by the National Worker’s Union (U.N.T.)  labour central that included over 657,000 signatures on a petition demanding a new labour law as well as the presentation of more than 20,000 specific legislative proposals to a 16 member special Presidential commission.

Important changes in the new law include: reduction of the work week to 40 hours from 44 and the requirement for a full two days off per week; 25 weeks of maternity leave for women, plus a guaranteed right to return to one’s job for up to two years after birth of the child; 6 weeks of paternity leave for men, plus the same employment guarantee for up to two years; a prohibition on out-sourcing; and restoration of a retirement bonus scheme which provides one month of pay for every year of service. The government has also instituted a 32 per cent increase in the minimum wage, taking it to approximately $700(U.S.) per month. This is now the highest minimum wage in Latin America.

The status of trade unions in Venezuela has been controversial and complex since Carlos Ortega, the former President of the Confederation of Workers of Venezuela (C.T.V.) worked closely with the U.S. in support of the 2002 coup attempt.

Ortega was sentenced to 16 years in jail for his role in the 2002 oil company lockout and coup attempt, but escaped in 2006 and was given asylum in Peru. Subsequent to the failed coup, the C.T.V. still exists and represents some 200,000 members, but it has been supplanted by the U.N.T. (with 1.2 million members) as the main labour central in the country. The U.N.T. is affiliated with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (P.S.U.V.) which is currently the governing party.

During our visit to the industrial city of Barquisimeto, we met with trade union leaders in a large office building (the “Casa Sindical”) housing many unions. The local labour council they are part of represents 80 different union locals from most parts of the private sector economy. The unionists told us the story of how they took over the union building in 2009, occupying it due to alleged corruption and lack of representation by the C.T.V.. They said they had found a “chop shop” in the building where stolen cars were dismantled so parts could be sold. When asked how they had fended off armed members of the C.T.V. who tried to take the building back, they said they had discovered 100 cases of beer in the building so they threw beer bottles at them from the upper floors until the police came!

Adult education a big priority, but easier said than done – in the small Andean town of Sanare, our group met with activists with two missions related to adult education. “Mision Robinson”  is based on a Cuban methodology which uses volunteers to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to illiterate adults while “Mision Ribas” provides remedial high school classes to adults who have dropped out of high school. For those who complete Mision Ribas, the government has also organized “Mision Sucre” to provide free college and graduate level education.

All this focus on adult education is bearing fruit. UNESCO’s 2010 Education for All monitoring report  and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics report that Venezuela has a literacy rate of 95.5 per cent for adults and 98.5 per cent for youth. The reports project that adult literacy will reach 97 per cent by 2015. In terms of adult literacy, the country is 55 out of 128 countries, while its standing in the Education for All Development Index was 59 out of 128 countries, up from 64 three years previously. Venezuela scored better than 18 other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It was moving to see the enthusiasm with which adult education is pursued at the grassroots. We were told that in the small town of Sanare alone, they have graduated people as old as 89 years and that one 65 year old is now studying medicine. It was also striking that a big part of the Mision Ribas program was the requirement for a written report on development of a concrete community improvement project such as reforestation, improving the electric grid, building a new school, etc. We also learned of integrated linkages between the education programs and “Gran Mision Vivienda” which is building badly needed public housing throughout the country. Workers taught construction skills through Mision Ribas are subsequently paid as apprentices in the construction of new housing.

But we also discussed amongst ourselves the challenges of keeping children and youth in the basic education system. Despite laws requiring school attendance and banning child labour, we had occasion to  meet 16 children from one family who are all required to work on the family farm. Only one of them can read or write. This anecdotal experience helped us realise that family and cultural issues make education policy extremely complicated in a developing country like Venezuela. Adult education is in part necessary because it is so challenging to keep children in school. Still, high school drop out rates fell by half in Venezuela between 1998 and 2011.

Bolivarian University – speaking of education, our delegation paid an interesting visit with student activists at the campus of the main Bolivarian University in Caracas. During the failed coup of 2002, the state oil company P.D.V.S.A. assisted the coup plotters by shutting down the oil industry and locking oil workers out. After the coup was thwarted one government response was to convert the former headquarters of P.D.V.S.A. in Caracas into the main campus of the new Bolivarian University.

As with the unionists we met in Barquisimeto, the student activists in Caracas were very militant. They view their own personal educations and the activities of the university as key parts of the Bolivarian project. The university is closely linked to “Mision Sucre.” There is a central campus in nine of the country’s main regions, combined with Mision Sucre university level classes in most major towns. There are therefore 4,000 students at the main Caracas campus, but 350,000 in the  wider “Bolivariana” taking university and college level courses nationwide.

The Bolivarian University has a unique entrance requirement process. As opposed to entrance exams or acceptance based on previous grades, applicants must take a three month long pre-university course. If they pass that, then they are eligible to enter the university.

Given the intense debate in Quebec and Canada about tuition and the costs of post-secondary education, it was interesting to learn that not only are there no tuition fees at the Bolivarian University but the government also covers three free meals at day at the cafeteria, student housing, free health and dental care, transportation, insurance and other student costs.

As with Mision Ribas, students are expected to complete projects that contribute to the development of the country.

Afro-Venezuelans – one focus of our trip was the Afro-Venezuelan community, descendants of slaves who were in the main brought from the Congo and Angola. Today, Afro-Venezuelans are mostly concentrated in the Barlovento region of Miranda state, which we visited.

Cacao is the main raw ingredient for chocolate and Venezuelan cacao is among the best in the world. Many slaves were brought to work in cacao plantations, so it was interesting to visit a modern-day cacao plantation which has been farmed by the same Afro-Venezuelan family for generations. A state owned chocolate processing plant (“Oderi”) is nearby, as well as six smaller co-operative chocolate factories for artisanal products.

The Marquez family told us of several recent government steps to improve the cacao economy. In April 2011, cacao was declared a national strategic project. Chocolate processing has been nationalised through the Venezuelan Cocoa Socialist Corporation and a “fair price” is paid to farmers that is 20 per cent above the market rate. Many new co-operatives have been assisted and through the A.L.B.A. alternative trade agreement, new international cooperation and trade measures have been put in place to improve cacao markets. The Marquez family told us none of this has been popular with international chocolate companies, but the quality of Venezuelan cacao is very high, so the higher prices are being paid.

Afro-Venezuelans continue to struggle against racism. The 1999 reform of the Venezuelan constitution included significant recognition of indigenous rights, particularly land, cultural and language rights. However, no similar recognition was provided for Afro-Venezuelans. Particularly since the 1999 inclusion of indigenous rights, Afro-Venezuelans have argued for their own constitutional inclusion though — as Canadians know well — the land rights of aboriginal peoples are in a different category than rights for settler communities. In 2007, Hugo Chavez proposed a series of constitutional amendments that, among others, included significant recognition of Afro-Venezuelans. Unfortunately, those proposals were defeated by citizens in the subsequent referendum so the campaign for better constitutional recognition continues.

In 2011, the National Assembly passed a new law against racial discrimination and the new basic education law of 2009 included specific recognition of afro-descendants.

Final observations – 21st century Venezuela is deeply involved in democratic change at many levels, as evidenced by the big push for communal councils, regional assemblies and co-operatives. Of course, intensive electoral democracy is also key. Venezuelans have voted repeatedly over the last 15 years, in both general elections and constitutional referenda, and the next national election for president will take place this October. Despite a spirited campaign by opposition leader Henriques Capriles Radonski, most polls show a commanding lead for Hugo Chavez. Certainly, most of the people we met were very enthusiastic about the changes Chavez has been leading. This enthusiasm and mass participation is in marked contrast to the disempowerment and low participation rates that too often characterise politics in Canada.

An interesting side note . . . just as the long-time popular Latin American (and farm worker) slogan of “si, se puede” was picked up by Barack Obama last election as “Yes, we can,” so this year the main slogan for Hugo Chavez is “Pa’lante” which in English means “Forward.” Barack Obama’s main slogan this time out? Also “Forward.”

The efforts in Venezuela to fight poverty, reduce inequality, develop the economy and provide social improvements are largely funded by the oil revenues that are unique to Venezuela. But other Bolivarian countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia are also using the specific resources available to them to make improvements at the local and community level. All three countries, are working with Cuba, Nicaragua, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (and soon Suriname and Saint Lucia) within the alternative trading bloc called A.L.B.A. (“Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas”).

Unlike in Canada, oil and other resource revenues  are not being squandered on tax cuts or royalty reductions. In Venezuela and the other Bolivarian countries, secondary processing of resources is a strategic priority as opposed to the focus here on export of raw resources. And rather than corporate rights deals like NAFTA or CETA, the priority in ALBA is international cooperation and the raising of standards.

The changes in Venezuela are big and they’re happening right now in the real world. They deserve a lot more attention and understanding from our part of the hemisphere.

  • Our “reality tour” to Venezuela was put together by Global Exchange, which did a great job. For information on future tours to Venezuela, or many other countries in the world, go here.
  • Global Exchange helped publish a very informative book on Venezuela called Venezuela Speaks!: Voices from the Grassroots by Carlos Martinez, Michael Fox and Jojo Farrell. Go here to get a copy.
  • One of our hosts in Venezuela was Lisa Sullivan, who is involved with School of the Americas Watch, a group that is having great success at persuading Latin American governments to withdraw military personnel from the notorious School of the Americas in the U.S..For information about the work of S.O.A. Watch, go here.
  • Another host was the Prout Centre in Caracas. “Prout” stands for Progressive Utilisation Theory. Developed by Indian philosopher Prabhat Ranjan Sarker, Prout makes a case for economic democracy and localised development. For information on the new edition of a book by Caracas author Dada Maheshvaranda called After Capitalism: Economic Democracy in Action, go here. 

Blair Redlin is a B.C. based trade union researcher, whose priorities have included privatization, trade agreements and local government. He’s vice-chair of the Board of Oxfam Canada. In the 1990s, he was a Deputy Minister in the B.C. public service.

Travel to Venezuela! To find out how you can travel to Venezuela with Global Exchange, we invite you to visit our website.

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