Articles touting Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's political successes and social programs are a dime a dozen on left wing Web sites these days. When I was researching my own book, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (recently released by St. Martin's Press), I read a lot of these accounts and began to develop an exceedingly idealistic idea of what was happening in Venezuela. Having just returned from an extended six week trip to the country, however, I feel that the political and social landscape is a lot murkier and more ambiguous than many have suggested.
As an admittedly "left wing tourist," I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a delegation organized by Witness For Peace, a Washington, D.C. based group which has been working for more than twenty years to halt U.S. interventionism in Latin America. As a member or our delegation, I had the rare privilege to interview figures from across the political spectrum. After the delegation left, I stayed and conducted more interviews on my own.
Feeding the Poor: Chavez Scores Some Gains
In our meeting with Marino Alvarado, the cautious Provea human rights advocate praised government programs to bring food to the Venezuelan poor. After meeting with him in downtown Caracas, our delegation went across town to a so-called "Endogenous Center of Development" housing workers' cooperatives and a government sponsored market or Mercal. The space had formerly been a pumping station belonging to the state oil company, PdVSA, and was located within the working class district of Catia.
Within the market, local residents could buy discounted items including cooking oil, beans, ice cream and shampoo. Jeff Cohen, a media critic and member of our delegation, bought some pasta in the store. Our young guide said that shoppers could save up to 50% on discounted high quality items. Nevertheless, the Chavez opposition claimed that the market served only "dogs."
At another Mercal in the countryside, a package of sugar only cost 750 bolivares, half the price that consumers would pay in a normal supermarket; chicken too was half as expensive. Discounted pasta had a message on the back of the package: "When the people are in need, its revolutionary government responds!"
Rafael Uzcategui, the media coordinator at Provea, remarked that Chavez's popular markets were "well done." Rafael argued however that more thought should be put into the planning of popular markets. Most of the products there were imported, he told me, while the government wrote catchy propagandistic slogans on the packaging. In the long term, Rafael said, Venezuela would have to develop greater food self sufficiency to feed the neediest.
The government had also put a great deal of effort into promoting soup kitchens. I had the opportunity to observe one of the kitchens, located within a Mennonite church which worked closely with Witness For Peace. Working class Protestants comprise a chief base of support for the Chavez regime, and the government provided raw food to the church.
The church was run by Pedro, a wiry and hardworking black man, and his wife America. Their family, including children and a Siberian Husky puppy, lived in the church. Upstairs, women prepared the food that had been donated by the government in large vats and pots. On one day, the church staff provided lunch to the poor waiting outside in the street. The meal consisted of juice, rice, patacones (fried and mashed plantains), and sausage.
Workers' Cooperatives: Advancements and Criticisms
One example of the government's determination to eradicate poverty is the Women's Bank. Housed along pollution clogged Urdaneta Avenue in downtown Caracas, the bank has extended credit to working class women so that they might form small businesses.
To get a better sense of how the Women's Bank had affected working class women, our delegation traveled to Charallave, a town outside of Caracas. After a rather hair raising ride through the mountains, we arrived at a house which housed a women's baking cooperative and Mercal.
After completing a quick baking course, the women had applied for credit from the Women's Bank and set up their thriving bakery. Spread out on the tables were pastries that looked much more tempting than the usual fare served up in most Caracas bakeries.
According to Ercilia Seijas, one of the workers, the cooperative started initially with 27 women. This number subsequently went down however to 14. This was so, she explained, because the women's husbands fiercely resisted their spouses growing economic independence.
The women worked in two shifts: the morning crew arrived at 6 A.M. and finished at mid-day. The others worked from noon until 6 P.M.
"Our lives have improved," Seijas remarked. "We were taking care of the house before the subsidized market and cooperative. Now we can make money."
We also visited cooperatives at the "Endogenous Center of Development." Within the complex in Catia, workers had set up a textile and shoe manufacturing cooperative. The textile facility had two male workers but otherwise was staffed solely by women.
In Venezuela, explained a young woman guide, poverty affected women hardest. It was they, she added, who had to shoulder the responsibility of raising children when men abandoned the family.
On the other hand, our guide remarked, the women had undergone a profound psychological shift working in the cooperative. Before, they had always been ordered around, but now they had all become part owners in the cooperative and took great pride in the Che Guevara T-shirts produced at the plant.
Later, Jeff Cohen and I walked outside into the street, where we were greeted by huge murals depicting Simon Bolivar. Jeff remarked that the cooperative model of development at Catia bore striking similarities to the classic anarchist vision emphasizing democratic and decentralized workers' control.
To get a more critical perspective on the cooperative issue, I asked my old acquaintance Rafael Uzcategui what he thought. In the conference room back at Provea, we discussed Chavez's many social programs.
Five years previously when I'd met him Rafael was a student at the Central University of Caracas, writing his thesis about the anti-globalization movement and the significance of the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization.
He'd been a frequent contributor to El Libertario, an anarchist newspaper published in Caracas. He'd now cut his hair but still wore his trademark high top canvas sneakers. Rafael said that his work now took up much of his time but he still managed to write for the paper.
I'd read numerous columns appearing in El Libertario over the years, and sometimes grew frustrated with the newspaper's seemingly relentless criticism of the Chavez government. What, if anything would satisfy the writers?
"Isn't Catia an anarchist idea?" I prodded.
Rafael said that in theory the cooperatives were a good idea, but in practice the government would hire cooperatives to sweep the street or carry out other work without extending adequate labor protections. He added that in some cooperatives, but not all, there was no right to social security. What's more, the authorities had been derelict by extending credit to groups of workers who would then take advantage of government largesse and set up fictitious or ghost cooperatives.