Sunday, March 26, 2006

Getting the picture 

There have been several articles in newspapers recently about the large numbers of people traveling to Venezuela to see for themselves what is going on there. I think this is a good thing. While you can't possibly see everything, nor get every possible point of view, in a two week trip you will still get a much better sense of things than you can ever get just by reading about the place from afar. And it certainly will help you see the place as a multi-dimensional and colorful place, very diferent than it seems through the often black and white filtered lenses of the pro and anti Chavez internet debate. So I do recommend that people who have the oppertunity go, be it part of an organized trip or on your own with nothing more than a "Lonely Planet" guide book.

An added advantage of people visiting Venezuela is they tend to come back with the realization that for all the problems the country faces there is plenty of good tranpiring there too:

Venezuela doing more right than wrong
I recently read the Sentinel op-ed by Laina Farhat-Holzman "Be Careful What You Wish For."

Well, Ms. Holzman, I wish I could have the opportunity to dialogue with you. I wish I knew when you last visited Venezuela. I wish I knew why you demonize President Chavez. I wish I knew why you find it necessary to muddy your specious argument about "fiery demagogue" with Cuba. I wish I knew if, in your opinion, this demeans Cuba or does it demean Chavez? Or both?

And, if I had the opportunity to dialogue, I would tell Ms. Holzman what I know about President Hugo Chavez and his country. I just returned from Venezuela, where I had the opportunity to speak with people who are the recipients of some of the profits of PDVSA, the nationalized oil industry.

These are social programs for the poor. Our tour guide, Lisa Sullivan, a Maryknoll lay worker, had lived in Venezuela for 21 years and raised her three children in a barrio. That alone would make her knowledgeable about poverty. We visited schools, cooperatives, endogenous enterprises, women's groups among others. One thing they all had in common — a spirited reply to the dignity in their lives since these programs have gone into effect.

And a few words about some of the changes. UNESCO, of the United Nations, has certified Venezuela illiteracy-free. Scarcely six years ago, this nation of 25 million had 1.5 million illiterate adults. A series of free educational programs designed by the PDVSA includes Mission Robinson, where students are encouraged to work toward a high school diploma or complete their education even if they have never attended school. Another one, Mission Sucre, is a university program available to any high school graduate. We visited a community center where we met adult students, young children in preschool, a group of dancers and drummers.

In health programs, the deal with Cuba is 20,000 doctors, sport and health consultants in exchange for discounted oil. Medical clinics are everywhere, built with living quarters for doctors. Venezuelan nurses and teams of volunteers visit patients to check on their medication and progress. In the meantime, Cuba is training young men and women to be doctors and eventually take care of the health of their own country. We visited several clinics where free health care, drugs and dental services were available.

Other interesting enterprises include endogenous developments akin to grass roots beginnings. One we saw was a shirt factory. Folks from a nearby barrio decided they wanted to learn the manufacturing shirt industry. They asked the government for loans for 196 machines, help in administration and distribution, instructions in mass production and in accounting. The factory was large and airy, the workers relaxed since they all earned the same salary and made decisions together. Between shifts, their children, from a school on the grounds, raced up and down the aisle to see their mothers. This was one of the many examples of a partnership with the government helped by oil profits.

Other co-ops we visited included fishermen who showed us their refrigerated equipment purchased with the help of the government, a cocoa farm trying to develop a tourist trade for their chocolate drinks and sweets, and a farm, carpenter and yogurt cooperative that took pride in their large permaculture red worms used in fertilizing land. In essence, most of the programs are small, local and supported, rather than created, by the government.

Housing is still a major problem. The land law stipulates that unused land with a title can be taken by the government, but must be compensated; unused land without a clear title can be taken without compensation and the government will help those without title to obtain one. The one we were at needed land clearance and lots of vision to imagine a community in progress. Having seen others, especially the one that Lisa had lived in, we knew this could happen.

There is much more, Ms. Holzman, I could say about Chavez and the poor of Venezuela. It is not ideal. The oligarchy, the oil corporations and the U.S. government have tried subtly or directly to unseat this democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez. Although he won the referendum by 6 million votes, at least 4 million voted against him. This is a complicated situation, but suggesting that the business community could be the savior was not true when 80 percent of this oil-rich country had lived in poverty during the time the oligarchy was in control of the nationalized oil industry. I suggest Ms. Holzman research why Chavez is "fiery" toward business and why so many support him now.


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