Disabled people have a voice in Venezuela

For Correo del Orinoco:

 

The corridors are always packed in the Metropolitan Council of Popular Power for People with Disabilities, situated in a building just down the street from Plaza Diego Ibarra in Caracas. Wheelchairs come and go, sometimes squeezing to the side in order to let another person pass first. In a small area just behind the front door, which is frequently opened and closed as new visitors come inside, Jose Suarez is leaning back in his chair, relaxed, chatting with a friend. It seemed to contrast with the tension I had witnessed on the streets outside, in the days following Nicolas Maduro’s Presidential election victory on April 14th.

“Firstly, yes I voted”, says Jose, turning his attention in my direction. “I voted this time and on October 7th as well. Really, it is right that we all have, and especially people with disabilities. But more than a right, it’s a commitment that we have to the nation.

As disabled people, we are proud of this process. The Bolivarian process has put us into the public light, recognized us as human beings and included us in the political base”.

Since my arrival in Venezuela just over seven months ago, I have often been struck by the visibility of disabled people, particularly in Caracas. I am walking towards Plaza Bolivar on a warm afternoon when I notice Ramon, a blind man, being helped along the path by a member of staff from the Metro. Perhaps helping travellers with disabilities is a matter of due course inside stations for Metro workers in many countries, but here they had already walked some distance from the nearest Capitolio stop.

When the Metro worker leaves, I speak with Ramon. He too, is eager to affirm that he is “with the process”, but suggests that the recognition Jose had mentioned still has a long way to go.

“The problem is that the law still doesn’t have its enforcement. There a group of articles [from the 2006 Law for People with Disabilities] concerning our rights, but those carrying the most weight are 28 and 38. These are what we are discussing now, but we need unity on the matter. Nevertheless, the government has a huge capacity for construction. They have achieved what no government has achieved. They have given what no government has given. Maduro should take charge of this affair. But, we are asking for political participation. We want to have disabled people at the front of the Municipal Councils, but also in the [National] Assembly! I would like to see representatives for disabled people in the PSUV. That level of political participation still hasn’t arrived for us. Participation and protagonism!”

The question of political representation is an important one, and a concern shared not only by Ramon. Back at the Metropolitan Council, Luis Roja, a leading figure of the organization, says that he is proud of their independence from the government, but that something more is needed.

“It seems that first our rights were originally passed onto the Ministry of Health, as if we have illnesses, but we are not sick. It’s an important distinction we should make. We’re not just a small group, we are hundreds of thousands, and we are asking Maduro to create a specific government ministry for people with disabilities. That is something which needs to happen! The first thing we have in mind is the law. Article 28 stipulates that public institutions must employ disabled people as at least 5% of their workforce. This means that disabled people are leaving their houses; we are going out to sustain our families”.

Former opposition candidate Henrique Capriles spent much of his pre-election campaign promising that he would keep benefits and missions for disabled people in place, although his subsequent refusal to accept the results of the elections, even after they were audited, has thrown into doubt his ability to co-operate with democratic institutions. Capriles promised that he would deliver the “change” that Venezuela needed, but many disabled citizens, to the contrary, see Capriles as a symbol of the old political forces which ignored them for so long.

I ask Jose Suarez for his opinion on the violent events which followed the opposition’s refusal to accept the results. Capriles made a speech just one hour after they were announced, calling for his supporters to “show the world [their] rage”.

“It will always be like this”, says Jose. They are never going to feel satisfied because they lost. It doesn’t matter if they are presidential, municipal or parish elections. They are always going to be screaming and crying, specifically because of Henrique Capriles Radonski. Capriles is not going to accept the results, because he comes from a part of society that had become accustomed to using such tactics and getting their own way. They don’t understand that in the last fourteen years, things have changed. If the majority of people say Nicolas Maduro is the president now, then Nicolas Maduro is the president.A few of the leaders of the opposition want to deceive their followers because they can’t believe they have suffered yet another loss to the revolution, but, thanks to God, they are a minority, even amongst their supporters. But also we should say that we have a conscious, revolutionary people who are mentally and ideologically prepared”.

“Why are we revolutionaries?” asks Luis, rhetorically. “Because we were excluded from society in the years before. The por ahora was an awakening for people with disabilities. The governments of the Fourth Republic had a badly-named law for people with “incapacities”. Just with the name of that law, they assassinated our rights as human beings. So the por ahora served as something of an internal revolution amongst people with disabilities”.

“Before Hugo Chavez, I never voted. They had a political system like sharing out a cake”, affirms Jose. “What the revolution has provided is a space for disabled people, a space for us to project our voices. The process hasn’t given me a house, or a car. I work, but the process didn’t give me a job. But I know people, friends and family, humble people in need of those things, who have benefited greatly”.

I meet Alexander as he is travelling from one line of the Metro to another in his electric wheelchair, holding on to the sides of the escalators for stability.

“Before, we never had any support”, he tells me. “We didn’t have a base. I voted because we want a free country. The opposition don’t have a choice, because our rights are in law now. The law applies to everyone. But Capriles wouldn’t even remember us”.

Recent weeks have been a time of reflection for disabled people here, as they have for many Venezuelans. The struggle remains for disabled people not only to be visible in society, but to lead the narrative on the fulfilment of their rights as citizens. But even more than laws or articles, it is a self-respect that disabled people stride with today. The road is a long one, but the wheelchair tracks are being marked into the earth.

“We don’t shut the doors to anyone here”, says Luis. I ask him what his position is at the council. As we talk, people come and go, discussing and joking with each other, often contributing to Luis’ responses to my questions with their own thoughts and suggestions.

Luis smiles. “I’m just another one.”

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