La Vega, a sea of tin-roofed shacks and steep, narrow streets, is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Caracas, Venezuela. Most of the country’s population lives in slums, or barrios like this. Until President Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998, politicians had done little more for these communities than seek their votes, and then forget about them. Under Chavez, much of the nation’s oil wealth has been poured into social programs. As a result, many citizens have been able to receive an education or see a doctor for the first time in their lives. A recent visit I made to La Vega offered a close look into the inner workings of the government projects and grassroots fervor in Venezuela.
Calle y Media
Calle y Media (Street and Media) is a media collective located on a hilltop in La Vega. Katrina Kozarek, a member of the collective, introduced to me her friends in the neighborhood and pointed out the local Mercal, a common sight throughout poor neighborhoods in Caracas. “Government subsidized food is sold here,” she said. “At the Mercals everything is always cheaper. Here you can usually get the basic stuff.” She explained that the directors of the Mercals were currently looking into ways to buy products that were produced locally, not from corporations. Next to the Mercal a building had been constructed which is scheduled to include 8-12 computers and offer free workshops on computation and the internet.
A block from Katrina’s apartment was a two story, octagonal building home to the local Barrio Adentro health clinic. A criticism I had heard of these clinics was that long lines often formed while people waited for hours to see a doctor. According to Katrina, this wasn’t the case, “I have never seen a line outside of these clinics. There is no paper work. They take of medicine and everything for free. The care and quality is always good. In this neighborhood there is a Barrio Adentro every five blocks or so, which is another reason why there are no lines. The doctor usually receives patients in the morning and visits people in their houses in the afternoon. Most of the doctors are Cuban. The government just started sending Venezuelan students to study medicine in Cuba as well.”
“We have a film screening every Friday,” she said about Calle y Media’s activities. “There is a small community newspaper and we’re trying to raise money for a printing press to make T-shirts and fliers. There are various classes as well. I teach theatre, others teach printing, photography, internet skills and video. If people want to borrow equipment, they can do so and if they don’t know how to use it, we teach them.”
We walked into her apartment, which also served as a base for the collective’s operations as well as a film editing office, kitchen and classroom. I was introduced to Atahualpa Perez, 18, who had been involved with Calle y Media’s classes. “Most Venezuelan media just reports on how many people die in the barrio each week,” he said. “They don’t show anything about the youth movement, sports and culture here. What they mainly show is violence.” Perez is trying to counter that coverage with the media he works in, which involves a pirated radio station and a news program.
Tony, 14, also attends video workshops with Marcelo Andrade, one of the members of Calle y Media. In turn, Tony has taught him how to change the tire on a car.
“Chavez isn’t the Revolution, he’s a part of it.”
When I asked Marcelo what he thought of the Chavez administration, he said, “Chavez hasn’t necessarily been giving people jobs. He’s been helping to generate cooperatives. With cooperatives you can apply for a loan to start a business and then pay it back regularly with a low interest rate 5% percent of the population owns 80% of the country’s wealth. This is changing now but these smaller political and social changes are preparing for a massive change in the future. Chavez’s reforms are arming the people for change in the long term, 15 years from now.”
“One big criticism I have is what the Chavez government is doing with the carbon mines that are going to be built in Cerro de Zulia in Western Venezuela near Maracaibo,” Katrina explained. “They will be massive, and they have to make a lot of roads to do it. It will destroy the land and displace 300 indigenous families and farmers.”
Next door to the Calle y Media apartment was another center of cultural and social activity in the neighborhood. The mother of the house, Alicia Cortez, also the Coordinator of the local Health Committee, explained how the Comedores Libres, or Free Cafeterias worked. She had been running the government funded cafeteria from her home for a year.
“Around 150 people come here each day to eat. We go around and look for families that seem the neediest and invite children who live in the street, sick people, pregnant women and so on,” she explained while stirring a pot of soup and cutting up carrots at the same time. Her daughter, Ayari works in the Comedore Libre as well, but also spends time teaching at Mission Robinson, the government funded literacy program.
Alicia continued, “The meals are free and the food is served from 12-2 pm. Four women, including myself, work all morning to prepare the meals. In all the sectors of the barrios (a sector is an area of about five blocks) there is at least one Comedore Libre. With this program, people can depend on at least one good meal six days out of the week.”
“Gordo” Edgar Lopez, Alicia’s husband, is a worker at the Central University of Venezuela. “Gordo”, a jovial man with a huge smile, is also well known drummer in the neighborhood.
“We’ve been doing community work for decades,” he explained, sitting down at a table in the kitchen. “My mother and father were both union leaders and worked in a cooperative Since Chavez has been in office, community participation has increased and has been better facilitated. People have been given more responsibility over their own lives. We support and defend the Chavez government, but we are very critical when we need to be. If there are no criticisms, the revolution dies. Socialism fails when people stop having a voice in the government. I don’t believe in saviors, I believe in the people.”
Gordo’s sentiment was shared with dozens of people I spoke with in Venezuela. It represented an enthusiasm to make the most of Venezuela’s current political movement, and insure that it doesn’t become bogged down in bureaucracy and centralization. Marcelo of Calle y Media put it well with, “Chavez isn’t the revolution, he’s a part of it.”