By Selma James & Nina Lopez, Global Women’s Strike
Many of us in Britain feel that whether or not we vote, we are unlikely to unseat this warmongering and widely hated prime minister. Others of us look to other countries where people have been able to resist the US onslaught on which the British government models its own actions.
In Venezuela democracy has taken on a new meaning as people expect to act on their own collective behalf. In 1998 they elected Hugo Chavez as president despite a campaigning hostile media. Faithful to his constitutional mandate, Chavez has refused to privatize and hand over to US multinationals the vast oil and water reserves that belong to the population. Instead he wants to ‘eliminate poverty by giving power to the poor’ – the great majority. He faces US-backed coups and assassination attempts. But his popularity is greater than ever. The constitution uniquely gives the electorate the power to recall any official halfway through their term of office. In August 2004 Venezuelans used it to ratify Chavez as president with a 59% to 41% landslide.
Since 2002, we have worked with its Women’s Development Bank (Banmujer), which offers micro credit to the poorest women. We have found it entirely practical, and have invited its president, Nora Castañeda, and one of its co-ordinators, Angélica Alvarez, to speak in Europe about their work. As Nora Castañeda says: ‘Micro credits are an excuse to empower women. The economy must be at the service of human beings, not human beings at the service of the economy. We are building an economy based on co-operation and mutual support, a caring economy. And since 70% of those who live in conditions of poverty in the world are women, economic change must start with women.’
This programme was endorsed by 59% of the population, the poorest, when it reaffirmed Chavez in power. But what about the 41% who voted against it?
This would of course include the relatively small elite, which was until Chavez in charge of Venezuela’s considerable oil revenue. They refused to accept the referendum results, despite President Carter, the Organisation of American States and over 100 independent international observers, all verifying the transparency and validity of the results. The former rulers were further defeated in the October regional elections which won the Chavistas 20 out of 22 state governments.
But the elite have friends abroad among the political and financial power fraternity, especially in the US where Condoleeza Rice has again threatened Chavez, accusing him of ‘destabilising the region’. The Venezuelan elite will be encouraged to continue to object to the redistribution of wealth which challenges the structure of power – untold wealth at one pole and an impoverished majority at the other.
Most of Venezuela’s middle classes too has opposed Chavez’s anti-poverty programmes as well as the way these have been conducted. They complain that Chavez has gone over the heads of state institutions to introduce reforms and has created structures based on the direct participation of the previously most excluded sectors. This, they claim, is ‘dictatorial’.
Yet according to Dr Thais Ojeda, who works for Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and is a member of Clase Media en Positivo (Middle Class Positive) which sees itself as part of ‘el proceso’ (the process of change), it is the institutions that have blocked the reforms. She is deeply critical of her peers.
‘For the two years after Chavez was first elected, the government worked through the institutions. Chavez thought that doctors and educators, whom you expect to be most socially aware, would support changes that were for the good of the majority. But they didn’t. Only 2% of doctors support el proceso, and obstacles were put in the way of ideas, orders, directives that came from the Minister of Health or of Education so they never got implemented, never reached the grassroots. In response, the government set up a parallel system of neighbourhood health clinics and education campaigns.’
Known as the missions, these are implemented by the users, and first of all by women who as society’s main carers are most concerned with health and well-being in the community. The government has also relied on over 14,000 Cuban doctors to serve in the shantytowns. They live in people’s homes and work with Venezuelan nurses as part of each neighbourhood’s Health Committee.
Ojeda’s own political training has a source deep in modern Venezuelan history. Her father Fabricio headed the Democratic Front that defeated the 1950s dictatorship. Two years later he resigned from parliament in protest at the corruption of the elected parties. He was imprisoned and then assassinated in 1966, when his daughter was a child.
Most professionals have so far refused to bow to the will of the majority who, like Chavez, are the colour of their servants -- the majority they have despised enough to ignore all their lives. Caring professionals were never expected to care for the ones who could not pay.
Ojeda: ‘I come from state hospitals, I know. Doctors are paid for six or eight hours work but the pay is low so they work two or three hours and spend the rest in private hospitals for higher pay. Previously the state didn’t care if you provided good healthcare.’ Now it does, and a new crop of Venezuelan doctors is being trained in Cuba to minister to all.
Uniquely for a head of state with such a huge majority, Chavez has made a direct appeal to the 41% who voted against him, and told the mayors and governors who won the October elections not to sit on their laurels.
‘The people, some of the people, have elected us, but we have not won. I’ll say we have won when this revolution succeeds... We look at the regional elections and at the referendum, we see that many people voted for the opposition… In some states we only won by a few thousand votes. Yet in those states, as everywhere in the country, the majority of the population are poor or lower middle class. We must consider this carefully… Instead of condemning and witch-hunting, we must talk and convince them… These results force us to look again at the work of the parties, the leaders, the militants, the government officials… We cannot afford the luxury of allowing the oligarchy to keep 40% of the population captive.’
Many of those who voted against Chavez are professionals and small business people. In a society where the hierarchy is shifting daily, their monopoly on skills is insecure. Ojeda believes that ‘As grassroots people get the skills that education provides they will begin to replace those professionals who never did anything for them, and many professionals will leave the country.’ Some may well decide to take the plane to Miami. But some are likely to be drawn by the promise, the energy and above all the excitement of this massive movement. And even those who are not may be educated by their own revolutionary children: another generation comfortable with, even inspired by power relations which are undergoing a seismic shift.
Chavez is determined not to allow such change to be held back. With the vote of confidence of the majority under his belt, hailed as ‘president of the poor’ at January’s World Social Forum in Brazil, the oil revenue rising – and fires still raging in Iraqi oil fields – he is focusing on ‘deepening the revolution’.
Land reform is the priority. There can be no food security when 65% of basic foods are imported. The land must go to those ready to work it; credit, equipment, training, help with housing and benefits for woman-headed households have been made available. Many of the co-operatives Banmujer funds are rural, and women are delighted that there is help at hand. For the first time since the oil boom drew everyone from the countryside into the cities (creating the huge shantytowns that comprise so much of today’s urban landscape), agricultural production is encouraged. GM crops have been banned, replaced with native crops, and an international seed bank is being created.
Like Ojeda, Blanca Eckhout, a young woman who comes from community media and now heads both government channels Vive TV and Venezolana de Television, tells a story of deadly obstacles put in the way of change. ‘As the legislation giving rural people the right to idle land came into force, over 80 rural leaders and their families were assassinated by powerful landowners. They had no protection. We reported on it, and when Chavez saw our programme he sent soldiers to ensure that taking the land that our constitution says is theirs would not be a death sentence.’
Chavez has now instructed mayors and governors to inspect the latifundios, negotiate with the landowners where possible, but seize the land they are not entitled to by law. ‘Some people are scared to take on the landowners. If you need backing ask for it, we will send reinforcements. This is a daily war against the latifundio and we must win it… We must use the power that the people have given us. Not to do so would be inexcusable, irresponsible and a betrayal of those who believe in us.’
The grassroots structure which was born with the electoral battle units made up largely of women who mobilized their neighbourhoods to vote and were instrumental in winning the referendum, is now key to ‘a new organization of the grassroots movement, well beyond the political parties…We must ensure that popular participation is a reality, not a formality…’
A government based on the self-activity of the grassroots. As Nora Castañeda says: ‘We must build the new state as we get rid of the old.’ Participation includes working out local government spending plans, through general assemblies, making sure there is accountability, and stamp out corruption. Chavez does not mince words: ‘We must demolish old habits or they will demolish us… The best medicine against corruption is to give up personal and material ambitions… A public servant cannot be making business deals.’
Closer to home, in Spain, 97% of the population opposed Aznar’s alignment with the US and UK in Iraq. They took to the streets in huge numbers independently of political parties. All were involved, from nursery children to pensioners. They hung banners on their balconies and banged pots and pans night after night in a symphony of protest. Vox populi vox dei. When the Madrid bombing killed nearly 200 people on their way to work, 11 million marched accusing Aznar of lying for political gain. Aznar lost the election. Within weeks Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq.
Thinking of Venezuela and even of Spain, it is hard to live without such visible and massive signs of the movement in Britain. But we can help ourselves by disseminating information about the real and startling successes the movement is having in other places, learning from these successes, and preparing ourselves to defend them.
Nora Castañeda and Angélica Alvarez will be speaking at the University of Manchester, STudents Union Building, MR1, Oxford Road. Hosted by University of Manchester Students' Union, Women's Collective, Latin American Society.
For the full itinerary click: www.globalwomenstrike.net
Selma James & Nina Lopez
Global Women’s Strike
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Tel: 020-7482 2496