Columnist Vijay Prashad: Talking to the mayor of Caracas about the democracy of the poor


Published: 3/11/2019 5:47:05 PM

On the streets of Caracas, Venezuela, the graffiti bristles. There are many portraits of Hugo Chavez, the man who set in motion the Bolivarian Revolution. He defines the uprising of the poor, the millions of Venezuelans who were never able to get a share of the oil revenue from this resource-rich but development-poor society.

Chavez’s supporters are known as Chavistas. They are poor people, Afro-Venezuelans, mestizos — the salt of Venezuela’s rich earth. Chavez died six years ago, but talking to these Chavistas shows how alive he is to them. He is their comandante, their commander, the man who took the Venezuelan state over through a series of elections and tried to make this a democracy of the poor.

It is not hard to find other graffiti — the occasional hand-written sign that accuses Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, of being a dictator. It’s an odd kind of “dictatorship” that allows such graffiti to remain and that allows the opposition to control newspapers and television channels, as well as hold rallies across the country.

One sign caught my eye early in my trip – te amo Erika (I love you Erika). It refers to Erika Farías Peña, the mayor of Caracas. The 46-year-old is a widely known and charismatic Chavista with a keen political intelligence. I met Peña in her office, where we sat a conference table, the chairs taken up by women leaders from the city and from the Francisco Miranda Front (FFM), one of the key political organizations of the Chavista movement.

Peña had not asked women leaders to come to the meeting. She asked the leaders of the various social missions — for education and health — to attend. They happened to be women. That’s what interested me: the mayor of Caracas is a woman, the leaders of her team are women, the leaders of the grassroots comunas are women — this is a revolution not only of the poor, but of poor women.

That morning I had been in a comuna in La Vega. It was led by an Afro-Venezuela woman. Poor people have — over the course of the past two decades — taken over empty land, built homes on them with government assistance (materials and machines) and now run them in a cooperative fashion.

There are hundreds of these across Caracas, most of them run by women. Many of these comunas have communal kitchens, which feed hundreds of people through the provision of subsidized food from the government. Peña tells me about these food schemes, which are not only about the distribution of food but also about the production — on small lots — of organic food for the consumption of the poor.

Venezuela, like so many oil-rich countries, never bothered to increase its domestic food production and to diversify its economy. Oil revenues smothered ambition. With the fall in oil prices, there is a real crisis in places like Venezuela, which cannot afford to import food and medicines as they once did. The United States embargo on Venezuela does not help, nor has it helped Cuba — another country totally reliant upon imports of grain. The government, which is hemmed in by low oil prices and by the sanctions from Washington, has few tools at its disposal to solve the economic crisis.

At the grassroots, though, there is energy to find a way to grow food, to use resources smartly, to prevent the use of this economic crisis to overthrow the government. What is at stake, Peña says, is this democracy of the poor. It is not attractive to the old elites, the oligarchy that forms the basis of the opposition. They are unhappy, Peña says, to have a former bus driver as a president and to have Afro-Venezuelan women be in charge of the country. They want their country back, a slogan familiar to the United States, where older elites are as frustrated by the extension of democracy to non-white populations.

Monroe Doctrine

Just outside Peña’s office is a large painting of the signing of the independence declaration for Venezuela (1811). There’s fierce pride in this country. The founder, Simon Bolivar, is spoken of with reverence. The Chavez revolution is known as the Bolivarian Revolution in honor of the founder of the nation. Chavistas speak of Bolivar and Chavez in one breath, the first the founder and the other the redeemer of the revolutionary energy.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Donald Trump and his Venezuela team (John Bolton, Elliott Abrams and Marco Rubio) have begun to speak openly about the Monroe Doctrine (1823). That doctrine, which came a decade after Venezuelan independence, suggested that the United States was in charge of the American hemisphere. Whatever the initial motives for the Monroe Doctrine, it was subsequently used as a justification for U.S. intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean to secure U.S. interests.

From the U.S. capture of a third of Mexican territory (1846) to the Dirty Wars in Central America, there is an ugly history of subordinating the peoples of the hemisphere to protect the rights of U.S. corporations to plunder bananas and oil, gold and copper.

“Human rights” and “democracy” are tarnished words when they come from the mouths of U.S. officials who have often used them to justify military coups and regimes of torture. I have visited museums of torture from Buenos Aires to São Paulo, where there is terrible evidence of the collusion between the U.S. government and the militaries of these countries to break the spirit of sensitive people who wanted to build free countries.

The names Arbenz (Guatemala, 1954) and Allende (Chile, 1973) ring across the continent. In the Foreign Ministry of Venezuela, there is a massive sculpture by the Chilean artist Carlos Altamirano of Allende’s broken glasses, a visual symbol of the U.S.-backed coup against Chile.

Ordinary people in Latin America are not fooled by the language that comes from Washington. They are in fact horrified to see the return of men such as Elliot Abrams, a convicted criminal and friend of the brutal former dictator of Guatemala (Efraín Ríos Montt), to the front of this campaign to overthrow the government in Venezuela.

One of the women who leads a community reminds me that Chavez used part of the oil wealth from Venezuela to help the poor in other countries, from Haiti to the United States. During the severe economic downturn in 2007-08, the Venezuelan government provided subsidized fuel to heat the homes of Americans in 23 cities, including Boston. When the U.S. was in trouble, the Venezuelans came to help, she says. When Venezuela is in trouble, the U.S. wants to bomb the country.

Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. His most recent book is “Strongmen.” He lives in Northampton.
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