Over the course of forty years, Venezuela’s wealthy oligarchy plundered the nation’s wealth and turned a relatively prosperous country into one with 80 % of its people living in poverty.
Finally, in 1998 Hugo Chavez was elected president, with a mandate to make big changes. Since then he and his supporters have won solid and consistent majorities in one election after another.
But the oligarchs have not accepted the fact that the majority of Venezuelans do not trust them to run the government. They have used deception, violence, and sabotage to try to destroy the elected government. None of those tactics have succeeded. Now they are carrying on a propaganda offensive, claiming that President Chavez is a "dictator."
Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution is not the kind of thing that any dictator could decree. In reality, it involves a mass movement of people who have taken the initiative to make it happen. The story of the revolution is only partly the story of Hugo Chavez. It is also the story of all of the organizations and campaigns of the Venezuelan people, more stories than will ever be written. This is the story of one of those countless organizations that make up what Venezuelans call "the process."
Merida is a city of 250,000 people in a beautiful Andean valley at the foot of Venezuela’s highest mountain, Pico Bolivar. The University of the Andes has about forty thousand students, and the charming setting makes the city a magnet for tourists. It is the capital and commercial center of the mountainous state of Merida, population about 750,000.
In March of 2002 the oligarchy used their control of the mass media to create huge demonstrations of mostly upper and middle class people in Caracas to demand that President Hugo Chavez resign. According to television news, the vast majority of people were against him.
People in Merida, three hundred miles to the west, were in contact with friends and relatives in Caracas and in the army. (In Venezuela there is one cell phone for every two people.) They knew that what the media were telling them was not the whole story, but they needed information about what really was going on.
A few friends decided to set up a low power FM transmitter in Merida and broadcast whatever reliable information they could gather. This was not unique. Around that time radio stations were being set up all around Venezuela for similar reasons.
The first problem was getting the equipment. There was a young man in the neighborhood who had only finished sixth grade, but he had a reputation as an electronic genius. He managed to construct a transmitter that worked very well. In fact it is still working, and the people at the station worry about it, because the young man has gone off to seek his fortune in Brazil, and if it breaks down they won’t know how to fix it. You can’t just buy parts for a piece of equipment that is, as they put it, "artisanal."
The next problem was building an audience. They found a frequency that was not being used in Merida, and they set up an intermittent schedule. Given the thirst for reliable news, the word spread quickly.
They had to keep this work clandestine, so the current director of the station, Jorge Luis Hernandez, hid the transmitter in an old fashioned washing machine in a corner of his kitchen. They were not worried about any Venezuelan equivalent of the FCC tracking them down, but there are about eight commercial radio stations in Merida, and they were concerned that someone from one of those stations would get the police to hassle them.
They decided to call their station Radio Zamorana, after General Ezequiel Zamora, a revolutionary hero of the 1800’s whose slogans were "Tierras y hombres libres, Eleccion Popular, and Horror a la Oligarquia." (Free land and free men, Election by the people, and Horror to the Oligarchy.)
On April 11, 2002, the coup d’etat finally came, Chavez was kidnapped, and the constitution that had been ratified in 1999 by a vote of 72 % was declared null and void. The commercial media presented their usual one sided version, and the upper classes of Merida, wild with joy, were demonstrating in the Plaza Bolivar.
The next day, Radio Zamorana broadcast the follow up story: that huge crowds of people were pouring into the center of Caracas from the poor neighborhoods in the hills, even coming by bus and car from other cities. The oligarchs lost the support of the army when the soldiers learned that their generals and the media had lied. The self appointed "government" of the oligarchy fled from the presidential palace. After 47 hours in captivity, Chavez was back in charge.
These developments were not reported by the big Caracas media, who put routine programming on TV and music on the radio, and pretended that the oligarchy was still running the government. Finally, with community radio stations broadcasting, and the government TV station back on the air, people learned that the president and the constitution were safe.
People in Merida took heart when they heard the truth, came out in great numbers, and drove the upper class supporters of the coup out of Merida’s Plaza Bolivar and city hall.
Similar things happened in cities and towns all across Venezuela. Afterwards, there was a lot of pressure on Conatel, the government agency, to issue regular licenses to community stations. Radio Zamorana came out of the washing machine and is now housed in the city’s cultural center, a large concrete building downtown. There is a full day’s worth of varied programming, with a lot of flexibility to allow people from the community to have their say. Often they contribute information, like the professor from the medical school who has presented programs about health, or a bright young boy of seven who has a Sunday morning program of Andean legends.
The station also provides a forum for controversy. One example of that was a group of hospital workers who came to the station with well documented evidence that certain members of management were stealing and reselling hospital supplies.
The station has maintained its role in mobilizing people by providing up to date news. For example, some months after the coup failed, the opposition tried to create chaos in the country by a general strike, and by staging what Venezuelans call guarimbas, where people set fire to tires and trash in the streets to disrupt things. When this would happen, Radio Zamorana would broadcast the news, and large numbers of people would go to the scene with banners, put out the fires, and take back the streets.
The University of Latin America is a private university, with a student population drawn largely from the upper classes. Therefore it is not surprising that right wing student organizations are very strong on the campus. In the fall of 2005 a student was killed in a mugging, and some students called a demonstration to demand more police protection. The radical right wing groups on the campus managed to turn the demonstration into a rampage, with fires, looting of stores, and battles in which several police were injured. Most people in town had no idea what was going on, so people turned to Radio Zamorana for an explanation and updates.
I had a demonstration of how quickly the station responds to the community on December 4, the day of the elections for the National Assembly. I happened to be walking through the Plaza Bolivar in the late afternoon. As I passed the cathedral I saw that a crowd was watching police and firemen going in and out. A bystander told me that a tear gas bomb had been set off in the sanctuary, presumably by the opposition, some of whom had threatened to disrupt the election by violence. I went to a phone to call Jorge, and when I said I had just come from the cathedral he said, "You mean the bomb? We have someone there now, reporting."
Even though the station is officially recognized, the struggle goes on. The previous director of the community center had been a friend of the station and established them in their current home. He was a popular community leader, and he was planning to run for an elective office, when he was shot to death by someone on a motorcycle who was never caught. There is a portrait of him in the mural of national and local heroes on the wall across from the cultural center.
The next director was different. He claimed to be a supporter of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution, but when people from the neighborhood came on the station to complain about the way he was running things, he had someone go up on the roof and cut the wire that runs to the station’s antenna.
A group of friends of the station—campesinos, artisans, neighbors—got together to figure out what to do. They decided that they would do just what their station’s namesake Ezequiel Zamora would do in a similar situation. They notified the director of the center that if he ever did that again, they would beat him with the flat of their machetes. There has been no further trouble.
This is not the picture of people living under a dictatorship. Radio Zamorana is an independent entity that answers only to the people who it serves; nobody tells them what to do except their community.
Nor are they bribed with lavish gifts from the government. Conatel does not hassle them, but while it promises material aid, it does not always get around to providing it. Jorge is really worried about the transmitter, and he wishes he could afford a good omni-directional microphone. Their signal reaches out beyond the valley now that they have more power, but the studio is a barely adequate space in the basement.
The Bolivarian revolution includes countless independent organizations. Some have to do with communication, like Radio Zamorana, or like the motorcyclists who rode between the barrios like Paul Reveres to mobilize people to fight the coup. Others are cooperatives, or cultural organizations, or they are set up to deal with a wide range of community problems. Some are political; there are several different parties in the governing coalition in the National Assembly.
Participation goes beyond people who support Chavez. For example, the committees on urban lands handle the process by which people in certain neighborhoods acquire titles to the houses that they have built on public land around the cities. A community organization settles all the details of who owns what, and then contracts for basic services to the neighborhood. Everybody, regardless of their political opinions, has an interest in seeing that things are handled efficiently and honestly, so they get involved.
The government provides micro-loans, technical advice, and oversight to the coops, and funding to neighborhood organizations that have a budget and transparent accounting. But the main role of the government has been to enable people to get things done by getting the bureaucracy to work with them instead of against them. Since Chavez, they are sailing with the wind at their backs.
Taken all together, these coops, neighborhood associations, radio stations, political groups, and other organizations are making the Bolivarian revolution happen. Many of them started long before Chavez was president, and they haven’t needed him or anyone else to "dictate" to them how to do it. Venezuelans are creating what they call "participatory democracy," where the lower classes who make up the majority of the population are actively taking control of their government, their society, and their own lives.