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lunes, mayo 16, 2005

Meetings with a Bolivarian Circle

In 1999, when Venezuela’s new Constitution was drafted by an elected Constitutional Assembly and approved by the voters, citizens around the country began to meet in small groups with their neighbors to study and discuss the Constitution. These groups became known as Bolivarian Circles.

The purpose of the Bolivarian Circles later expanded to include everything from neighborhood beautification to obtaining medical care for the neighborhood to securing small business loans, depending on the community’s needs and the members’ motivation. In December 2001 their status was formalized; they became legally constituted community organizations and began coordinating regionally and nationally. When extremist anti-Chavistas briefly overthrew the government in the April 2002 coup, it was through Bolivarian Circles that ordinary people got the message out and organized to take their country back. By 2003 there were said to be some 200,000 circles throughout the country, with 2.2 million members.

Since then their influence has diminished somewhat as some of the functions they had been performing are taken up by the government missions. Internal politics and leadership conflicts within the national coordinating network have taken a toll as well. But many circles are still alive and vibrant.

I started attending meetings of a Bolivarian Circle earlier this month. Accompanied by a Venezuelan friend who introduced me, I met the circle’s members; not very many, the first evening. About seven people. They explained there were fewer folks than usual there due to the heavy rain, and also because the leader of the group (who usually keeps order in the meetings) was out of town.

The circle meets once a week, in the small daycare center of a large apartment complex. We all sat on the tiny child-sized chairs, and someone went around the corner to buy soda and cookies to pass around.

In the first meeting, the others were very curious about me, where I was from, why I was there, and so forth, so we spent a fair amount of time talking about the U.S. They also, of course, had their own opinions about the United States, surprisingly well-informed in some areas (several knew the amount and trends of our federal budget deficit), and not so much in others, especially regarding the basics of how social systems function in the U.S.: topics not covered in the daily news or on CNN. Folks wanted to know what are workers’ biggest problems (at the moment, health care and unemployment, I said), and why don’t the people of the U.S. organize (in large part, I responded, because they don’t believe they have the power to make change, at least not on a collective level). They don’t believe in themselves, said one man, and in a way I think he’s right, though it may seem contradictory to the massive American egoism.

The following week’s meeting was better attended, with maybe twice as many folks. Waiting outside I met José*, one of the participants from the previous week. We got to talking about unions and the UNT. José doesn’t think much of Marcela Máspero (a director of the UNT – watch for an interview with her in the coming weeks), said she’s never been a worker, though I’m not so sure that’s true, and that she was part of the old regime who just opportunistically became a Chavista, and now spouts platitudes about Chavez and the revolution in speeches. When I mentioned Chirinos, another UNT director, José said he didn’t like him much either but he’s better than Maspero. I wasn’t clear what he had against Máspero beyond a general perception that she wasn’t really committed to Chavez’s program and preferred words to deeds. Might some of this have to do, consciously or not, with Máspero being a woman leader in a field dominated by men? Dunno.

José also pointed out that the UNT has yet to held elections for its leadership, and said the leaders have to come from the workers. There is general agreement that the two-year-old union central needs to hold elections as soon as possible, certainly this year, or lose a great deal of credibility.

He had basically the same complaints about elected officials, including Chavista ones. He said the newly elected members of the parroquial junta (the smallest political unit, basically a neighborhood) has come to the BC’s meeting a few weeks ago, and just wanted to shake everyone’s hands and talk about their programs, not listen. Also said there’s a lot of corruption and the junta members often just end up using their position to help themselves and their family and friends.

Once the meeting got started, discussion ranged freely from international politics to gossip about the neighbors. There was some talk about the problem of privatization, a man originally from Peru talking about how far it had gone in that country.

Also more questions for me, about the U.S. minimum wage, the health care system, the educational system, and of course, California’s wonderful Governator, who, I explained, also wants to privatize everything he can get his hands on. The Peruvian guy in particular wanted to know about the school system, who had the opportunity to go to college, how much it cost, if there were scholarships, etc. We finally settled on the conclusion that it is difficult for youth from low-income families to go to college in the U.S. because the lack of sufficient spots in the colleges makes for stiff competition, in which those from wealthy families and wealthy schools have a distinct advantage.

This was interesting because I had never thought about it in terms of scarcity of spots – after all, in rating universities, we use “competitive” as synonymous for “prestigious.” But when he started asking me if students who graduated from high schools in poor areas were eligible to go to college, and I was struggling to explain why so many don’t even though colleges theoretically accept qualified students from any accredited high school and provide scholarships to very low-income students, I realized that out colleges’ vaunted “competitiveness” is indeed part of the problem – it ensures that not everyone who wants to attend a four-year university can do so.

Of course there are other important factors, including schools that track students away from college so that when they graduate they haven’t fulfilled the requirements, and the insufficiency of financial aid, among others. But this issue of a lack of overall supply is, I think, something that bears more thought.

In talking about the Venezuelan educational system, one complaint echoed by several was that students from other nations are coming and studying at the public schools, then going back and working in their countries, or that the children of immigrant parents are studying here and then returning to their native lands. There seemed to be substantial resentment over the fact that here they were benefiting from free or low-cost education funded by the Venezuelan state and than instead of giving back, taking their newfound skills to other nations.

We moved from international to neighborhood issues as they started discussing the new Barrio Adentro unit being built in the apartment complex. Barrio Adentro is one of the new state programs known as “Missions” that have been launched under Chavez. Under this mission, Cuba sends doctors to Venezuela in exchange for petroleum, and these doctors work in newly-built clinics in poor neighborhoods across the country, many of which have never had access to primary medical care. They see patients in the clinic (which is usually attached to the doctors’ housing) and also make house visits. I believe there are currently 15,000 doctors practicing in Barrio Adentro; the overall public health goal is one doctor for each 250 families.

So, on a small plot of empty land that is part of this massive apartment complex, the government is constructing what will be a new unit of Barrio Adentro. It’s a fenced-off area whose entrance opens onto the street, so the doctors and entering patients won’t pass through the grounds of the apartment complex to get to the clinic (like most buildings in security-obsessed Caracas, the apartments are heavily fenced off from the street, creating someone of a gated-community atmosphere inside.)

Earlier that day, from what I gathered, a small group of people had gathered inside the complex near where the construction was to take place in order to protest. A couple stood at the entrance and tried to collect signatures from residents to oppose the new clinic. According to the folks at the meeting, their opposition was based mainly in the fact that they were anti-Chavistas and Barrio Adentro is a Chavista project. But they came up with other arguments to try to persuade the neighbors. In part, they claimed that the electric connections on that plot of land were unsafe and would end up exploding if the clinic were built. They had two people there from the electric company, I think, to elaborate on this theme. (Why did they come now, complained the residents, when people living in the apartments call and call with electrical problems and nobody ever comes?)

Upon realizing what they were doing, one man in our group (and I think some others not present) went down from his apartment to talk to them. Most of them, not actually being residents, apparently left really quickly, but he talked to one woman who doe slive there, and is anti-Chavez (one of the few in this neighborhood). She didn’t want the clinic there because it would attract a “bad element”, i.e., the people who would seeking free medical treatment. If they’re going to continuing building, she said, the least they could do is it that they have to put in a higher wall so she won’t have to see it. The BC members qualified such attitudes as racist and discriminatory (a form of NIMBYism, I’d say), and the protest overall as “manipulation”, since most of the folks involved lived elsewhere. At any rate, I’m pretty sure the clinic construction will continue as scheduled.

We segued into talking about the missions more generally, and other member described then as “a parallel action”. This is a theme I’m encountering more and more frequently – that with the entrenched bureaucracy and corruption of the government nearly impossible to tackle, the Chavez government is circumventing it by creating parallel institutions, in particular the missions. Here’s an interesting article that touches on this theme.

Finally, a woman from the neighborhood came to the meeting to ask for financial help. She’s in her late 50s and lives with her 18-year-old daughter, who worked at a small grocery store down the street. From what I could understand, they were having trouble paying rent, and when the daughter went to her boss to ask if he would give her a loan, he fired her and threw her bodily out onto the street, punching her in the face in the process. They went to the police, but as the owner was much wealthier (and I think had paid the police off), he accused the daughter of being a robber and so forth, and the police did nothing. Now, they can’t pay their rent, and the apartment owner is on the verge of kicking them out.

After considerable discussion with the woman and among each other, the group took up a collection and agreed they would raise enough by the next day to cover her rent for that month. They told the woman that she needed to go immediately to the office to apply for her retirement benefits, which she apparently had never done. Also, since several of them knew the store owner in question, they said they’d see what could be done about that situation.

Since it was now after 10 pm, someone offered to drive me home, which I gratefully accepted. More to come after next week’s meeting...

* Names have been changed.


Interesting tale. I do appreciate very much your critical approach of not buying all at face value. I did link you in my blog, by the way.
I would like to tell you something, take care with that people, they only show what they want you to know, you are very smart. He is my website link: http://escritoseneltiempo.blogspot.com, enjoy it. Give me some advices, I'll really apreciate that. Take care, Venezuela, my country, is so beautiful you can find out many, many good thinks. Be careful, a lot of good people, but as many good ones as many many bad. Is just my advice. I like your web. Have a good one. Juan Estrada. Webmaster. E-mail: jmestrada@gmail.com
mother fuckers bug chavez must die
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