The neighborhood of El 23 de Enero is like many improvised neighborhoods in Caracas clinging to the hillsides of the city; multi-colored apartments made of brick and cement were stacked on top of each other forming labyrinth-like alleyways and streets.
One of many barrios in Caracas, the community was self-assembled by immigrants from the countryside, most of whom began by squatting land on the hills outside the center of the city, and assembling houses next to and on top of each other. As in most barrios in Caracas, the approximately 15,000 residents of El 23 are accustomed to their barrio being stereotyped as a dangerous, drug-ridden slum. They have also become adept at building their own community infrastructure, at times by hand, and at times over radio waves.
Community media activist Gustavo Borges, a big moustachioed man with a smile that doesn’t always come easily, escorted us gravely toward the barrio´s new radio station, La Emisora Libre al Son del 23 de Enero. He loosened up a bit when we arrived at a two story cement building with a mural of Che Guevara painted on the outside of it. Borges, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, pointed to the roof of an enormous apartment building with laundry flapping in the windows. "We attacked the police station with guns from the roof of that apartment," he explained, referring back to his days as a guerilla fighting against right-wing governments.
Now, like many other barrio residents, Borges is a staunch supporter of the administration of President Hugo Chavez. "This is the police station we were shooting at," he says, smiling. The white building looks different now, with murals of Che and Simon Bolivar in progress on the walls next to the main entrance. Outside people set up chairs for a community event, and from the second floor, the Emisora Libre broadcast festive music. There is nothing to suggest to the visitor that the building’s former incarnation was that of a police station and jail where, for 40 years before the presidency of Hugo Chavez, political activists and dissidents were detained, tortured and assassinated.
Long known as a community of revolutionaries and guerillas, the barrio was one of the first communities to receive titles to their land and houses, and to install community gas, water and sewer systems. Social programs instituted by the Chavez government have flourished here, and so have independent community media organizations such as the Cordinadora Simon Bolivar and the website El23.net. Both organizations seek to provide positive community news, and educational material, promote community involvement and media for the community by the community.
Both the radio, La Emisora Libre al Son del 23 de Enero and its home, La Casa de Encuentro Freddy Parra (the Freddy Parra Meeting House), as well as the magazine "Desafio" are projects of the Cordinadora Simon Bolivar, a force for community activism and social change in Caracas’ historically rebellious barrio. We spoke with Cordinadora member and social worker, Juan Contreras and El23.net editor and community activist Gustavo Borges about the community, the radio, the internet, their histories and hopes for the revolutionary government of Hugo Chavez.
Benjamin Dangl: Can you comment on your opinion of the larger media operations in Venezuela?
Juan Contreras: They are intolerant monopolies. Even after 7 years of the revolutionary process they are still resisting change, they have manipulated information terribly about what is really happening. They have changed the ethics of journalism from the idea of informing, communicating the truth, into a discursive criticism, into conspiratorial criticism. The profession of journalism in this moment is run by these bourgeois companies, the people who have all the money and a lot of power in this country. They are twisting everything that’s really going on; they are "disinforming" people, and they have sold themselves to this diabolic campaign, the coup, conspiracy and destabilization. The corporations don’t permit the media to tell the truth about what is happening in this part of the hemisphere, particularly in Venezuela.
BD: How is the neighborhood of El 23 reflected in the mainstream press?
JC: The negative things are always covered: if tomorrow five people are killed they say "Oh! Look at the violence in El 23 de Enero! They are killing people!" But for those same news sources, we are not important: the fact that a building where people were tortured and killed has been turned into a radio station isn’t important for them. If tomorrow there is a public concert with five bands and dancers from a local dance class, that’s not news. So all of the positive things, organizations, forums, new resources, new computers in the library that give a kid access to the internet, to do his homework, get an email account, communicate through email, that doesn’t come out in the news. The fact that technology is allowing people access to new ideas, information, that doesn’t matter to them. All the mass media does is censure and stigmatize what’s being done here. For the big media monopolies, we are some terrorists who have a radio, who kicked out the police, that, I don’t know, we are criminals, that we are ruining the barrio, that we are dirt. That’s what we are to them.
On the other hand, Chavez talks to us with love, he has talked with the people, and through that discourse, has learned about the public sentiment, and has also been able to express his love for the public. So we are all going to create this great country that we love, we are all going to look for our roots, and our roots are in Bolivar, who is our own culture.
So you hear the media saying "the Chavista hordes, those dirty blacks in the 23 de Enero who kill people," and we hear nothing positive about ourselves. Then you hear Chavez saying that there is a rich culture in the barrio, that people in the barrio know how to create the future, that they are wise people, decent people, people who are studying, looking for a way to make the quality of life better, and are making all possible efforts to survive in adverse conditions, then who do I support? I support Chavez: he’s making hospitals, getting Cuban doctors to attend to us; he created missions so that the people can have the possibility of studying agriculture, infrastructure, tourism, and can study in their own barrio, not far away. Then the people can attend to their own barrio with what they learned. So I stay with Chavez. He’s talking to me about love, about our country, about symbols, affection, principles and values that nobody has ever talked to me about. He´s also telling us about what his plans are, what he’s doing and how he’s spending our money, which nobody has ever done.
BD: Can you describe the role that independent and alternative media organizations, especially radios, had duriung the attempted coup in April of 2002 in Caracas?
JC: See, at that time we didn’t have the two radios that we have now in this area; they were created recently. But there was a ´word of mouth´ radio. When witnesses reported that they were attacking the president, about what the golpistas (people carrying out the coup d’etat) were doing, that mobilized a huge quantity of people. And yes, there were other community radios like Radio Perola, and Radio Rebelde that put themselves in function of the needs of the people: they announced what was happening, encouraged the people to take to the streets and denounced the actions as a coup. They were a very important tool in the hands of the people, in the hands of the popular movement. In situations as difficult and complex as these were, radio was a tool that allowed us to communicate with everyone, to mass spread the information, and in that moment, that was super important. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have this radio at that time, but there were others and other medias that at that moment denounced what was going on, and that’s the important thing, that the alternative media, radio, press, and television, have a function of, let’s say, liberation and conscientizing our community.
Gustavo Borges: According to what I have heard both on the radio and from what the community has said to me about it, I understand that the radio is going to change a large percentage of community life for the average resident of El 23 de Enero. This is in part because the programs are already listening to the needs of the community. The majority of the programs are made by the community, to win it over, and also to be able to influence it. In El 23, people listen to the radio a lot, men and boys more than anyone. So everything that they are doing from here, from El 23, through the Cordinadora Simon Bolivar from this radio, is going to have a positive effect on the community.
April Howard: Can you tell us about how the radio is organized? Who works here and how are decisions made?
JC: We have been working on the Radio since August 22, 2005, but we´ve only been transmitting since November. In the radio there are 15 workers, people doing the technical production, as well as those actually making the radio shows. But we work as a team, members of the Cordinadora, as well several young people who get involved in their free time. It feels good being part of a community project, integrating with generations of the future of the country
To speak of the Cordinadora, it is a social-political organization that has existed for 12 years. We have a directive that functions more in the paperwork, a president, vice president, but in reality it’s more horizontal: everyone has their responsibility, and the assembly is the body that guides our activities and makes decisions. We all mess up sometimes, we’re human, but we try to function in a horizontal way.
AH: How was the idea of creating a radio generated?
JC: Well, it wasn’t just my idea, but an idea generated by the whole cordinadora, our friend and co-worker Freddy Parra Soler, who died Jan 11, 2005 in an accident. He was a natural leader, had incredible potential, and what we have now is due to the work of his brilliance and the work of everyone in the Cordinadora. It also comes from the situation in which we have lived: living in poverty, being black, that our fathers were workers, or from the country and came looking for work, the adverse conditions of the barrios. If we were analyzed by some structuralist North American sociologist, he would have said that we were all condemned to be delinquents because we are poor, from a poor barrio, our parents were poor, they don’t know how to read and write, they aren’t educated, prepared, all those conditions. So it means a lot to us to be here, doing this work in the house we named for Freddy. It means so much that coming from here in El 23, the barrio with the greatest percentage of [medical] drug distribution, Freddy went to the university, graduated in history and education, became a teacher, sergeant, and founding member of the coordinadora. His sister is a doctor, went to university in Russia, his brother is a doctor and a captain in the army,
So we do things together; we have ideas and fight about them. But when it comes time to put it together we work together, and our next project is the Meeting House, where we are having different community activities. Our goal is always to help create well-being and social justice in our community,
BD: Where does your funding come from?
We don’t have any advertising to bring us revenue yet, we don’t have any patrons, or money from the government. What we have now we have due to the pressure we created to make the space available, and the pre-existing organization that we already had. We have had help from friends, a friend works as a plumber, and so he helps us with the bathroom, like that. There have been a few institutions, like the metropolitan alcaldia, which helped us get the papers, and which recognized the necessity of this moment in the community and the need was to destroy a symbol of the old political culture. Recently we have a new, 18 meter antenna on Building 26 so that the signal will reach a greater distance.
AH: Could you tell the story of how you got the building?
We got in to the building due to popular pressure, which is the only thing we know how to create. It is still the only effective tool for us. We had to pressure the authorities and the police in order for anything to be done. The words were there: we had spoken to the Metropolitan Mayor, and he was very interested and in agreement with us that this place should function in another way than as a police station, but there’s always a lot of stumbling around. The police balked a lot, here there was a group of about 20 functionaries, transferred all the police in the area here, more than 60 people, and they brought tons of stuff, made the building almost unusable, we couldn’t understand how they even worked here. So the police played with us, stalled and stalled, and refused to move out, even after we had the mayor’s permission. We came one day for a scheduled meeting, the chief didn’t show up to the meeting, and we decided to stay, saying that we wouldn’t leave until they met with us. Once the chief came, we decided not to leave until the police left.
We had to strip it down the floor, but we’ve made an effort. In six months look what we’ve done! It shows that we know how to direct resources, know what to do with them, how to make sure that they are used efficiently and that things are going to be accomplished.
BD: Can you talk about the importance of transforming this building from a jail to a community radio?
JC: For me it is a concrete political act, and very important, even more in a problematic barrio like the 23 de Enero. The 23 de Enero has spent 5 decades fighting and approximately 100 compañeros have been assassinated in those 5 decades. Here people were persecuted, tortured and assassinated, and those things were done in this physical structure, this building that was constructed in 1975, under the first government of Carlo Andres Perez. The building was put practically in the heart of all El 23 de Enero in order to detain popular protests, to repress the people, to persecute the people, to punish the people and to assassinate the people.
So what is the importance? It is a concrete political action. Rather, the revolution is becoming tangible; the fact that we took a jail where they were meeting us with sticks and torture, and today it includes the community, is a community radio called "the Emisora libre al son del 23 de Enero," and the Mission Robinson (Mission Robinson is an adult literacy program enacted by President Hugo Chavez) is there, the administrative part, in the morning the senior citizens receive literacy classes. There are a variety of activities going on now to organize and educate the community. Primarily this means the radio, which has the fundamental role. It arrives in the heart of each house throughout El 23 de Enero, so that we can express ourselves, to organize and educate our people, to spread awareness our people because when we created the cordinadora we said that the most difficult times in this country haven’t been lived yet.
We have had a powerful enemy, which is the United States; the State Department of North America has plans for interventions in Venezuela. They can’t tolerate that in Latin America, a president such as Hugo Chavez would integrate and privilege a south-south relationship, instead of a south-north relationship. So they tried to make a coup in April of 2002, there was a petrolero (oil company) strike in December of the same year, and a general strike. They tried to use the anarchy in the street protests to destabilize the government. All of that failed, but we said to ourselves, we are playing with a dangerous enemy. This enemy is very powerful from an economic and military point of view, the most powerful in the world. But we also have internal enemies here: the oligarchy that ruled and still rules a ton of money and resources. So, in light of those enemies, the radio acts as an instrument, a very important tool for the "consciencizing", educating and ideology of our community. That’s why it’s a community radio named Free Radio to the Sound of El 23 de Enero.
This place was a symbol of repression, of the 40 dark years of our country.
So we took that symbol and made it into a new one, a tangible part of the revolution.
It is evidence of the revolution made by us, the citizens. The institutions need to play a role and the government needs to play a role, but we can’t hang around waiting for the revolution to be made for us; we have to make the changes.
BD: Can you talk about the kind of programs you transmit?
JC: Well, there is one program for community issues: problems and complaints that normal people might have, a working person who doesn’t participate in the social movements, but is mad that things aren’t taken care of. Maybe he or she voted for Chavez, but feels that, 7 years later, things might have gotten a little better, but aren’t finished. Well, it’s a problem that exists, and we aren’t hiding it. We don’t have a perfect society, but like the song by Pablo Milanes, we aim to live in a society where everything is just, the quality of life works, education, health, work, housing, recreation for everyone, everything. So we recognize we have a problem and we aren’t hiding it, and this program is mostly to express that. And there are some institutions that have to do with local issues, and they come to give reports so that the people can give attention to them, and can be informed about what the plans are this year, so that they know what the money’s being invested in and where they’re headed to in the institutions that they are presiding over.
Another show is called "Latinoamerica en vivo" (Latin America Live) that supports and pushes for integration around Latin America. If this process ends up failing – which I doubt – but hypothetically we’ll say, we aren’t going to say that it was President Chavez’s fault. We also have to say that it’s our responsibility, we did it. So, as we understand our role, we are pushing this program, precisely looking for integration, educating our community about what our Latin American reality is, and why we have to organize ourselves, why we have to integrate ourselves. There are other shows, one about Hip hop, which a few young guys are giving on Sunday, another about health for senior citizens, which a neighbor has, there are music shows, call in request shows. All the programs are created to educate the community.
The radio as a tool allow us into people’s houses, permits us to be linked, to establish a bridge of communication with all our neighbors, all of our community, ultimately to convert people into citizens. We have to take an attitude of converting ourselves into citizens. In this time of revolution we are trying to transform our past reality: a negative 40 years of disgrace.
BD: What does a resident of El 23 have to do in order to have a program?
We are creating a form that we can hand out to neighbors. The person has to tell us a plan for the show. They have to answer questions such as: What does the show contain? What is its goal? How will it be identified? We need to know, and to have a bit of a filter. We want to make sure the person is a part of the revolutionary process, and not someone seeking to sabotage us.
In a barrio of 15,000, the listeners have given us positive comments so far. They like the music, news coverage, the variety for all the public, coverage of community problems. We are representing the people, and so people identify with what they hear. We have achieved a good audience, and have motivated the people to listen to the station due to the variety of material.
GB: For the amount of time that it’s existed, it’s raised an impressively strong audience.
BD: How much can you criticize the government?
JC: We can criticize the process up to a point, I think as long as we maintain equilibrium. As revolutionaries, it’s our role to criticize ourselves. We also have to be aware that this is a very young process, it is barely 7 years old, and we come from 40 years of repression. You can’t think that from between evening and morning things are going to change. Besides, we come from an old political process that installed itself in the minds of Venezuelans, that made them used to living with old politics, and we have to open a way to change this mentality. To transform the people we need to create a new reality: new values, new principles. It’s a complex process transforming human beings; that’s why the radio, the press, web pages, the street murals are important tools with which we are trying to transform the old politics, old culture, in order to open the way for the new. We are making an effort to help these new ideas to fly so that they can give life to the new process.
April Howard is a history teacher and journalist currently living in Bolivia. Email April.m.Howard@gmail.com Benjamin Dangl took the photos in this article and is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia," forthcoming from AK Press in March, 2007. He edits TowardFreedom.com and UpsideDownWorld.org For more info on Dangl’s work and writing go to www.UpsideDownWorld.org/ben