Author Archives: jodymcintyre

Living in “disputed territories”

In some strange ways, the south of Morocco, or Western Sahara as it appears on maps, reminds me of trips to visit my family in Scotland. The motorway quickly ends, people are much more relaxed than the other half of the country, and there’s a lot of fishing going on. Weather-wise… not so much.

The King of Morocco is due to visit the capital of the region, El-Aioun, and his expected arrival is evidenced by the rapid repainting of speed bumps and pavement kerbs in fresh red-and-white stripes, and the abundance of fluttering Moroccan flags lining major roads throughout the city. One local resident tells me that one week before any royal visit, the entire local police force will be temporarily re-posted and replaced by colleagues from other parts of the country, just in case any willing to accept bribes in exchange for some turning of a blind eye lurk amongst their ranks.

The first time I arrived in Western Sahara, in 2015, I really knew nothing about it. It’s one of those places that you only hear about as a kind of ‘political hotspot’ – an all-too-common lazy over-simplification of a region as ‘dangerous’, ‘unstable’ or ‘oppressed’, often with little or no knowledge of the reality on the ground. I was surprised to find in El Aioun a spacious, modern city in the middle of the desert, certainly less materially prosperous than the north of Morocco (or at least by European standards), but where mosques around the city are packed with worshippers every time an adhan for one of the five daily prayers is made, and the markets and public squares come alive with family outings as the coolness of night descends.

It’s a strange mixture of Morocco and Mauritania here, with many of the former’s customs and delicacies, but the latter’s Hassaniyya dialect of Arabic and traditional daraa’ clothing. If you cross the border from Morocco south into Mauritania, you notice a phenomenon prevalent on either side of so many borders in the world. People wearing the same clothes, speaking the same dialect and holding the same values. The irony of the dispute over Western Sahara is that the borders separating nation states in this part of the world were not drawn by Morocco, Algeria or Mauritania, but by France, Spain and the UK. So it is that Western Sahara was once known as Spanish Sahara, and that Spanish words still occasionally creep into the local dialect, in contrast to the French influence on Moroccan and Mauritanian tongues. Even more ironic is the Mauritanian who will tell you Morocco was always part of Mauritania, the Moroccan who will tell you that Mauritania was always part of Morocco, and the historical truth that the two together, as well as Algeria, Tunisia and Libya were once collectively known as The Arab ‘West’ or ‘Maghreb’ or… ‘Morocco’.

I was recently asked my opinion of Morocco’s ‘occupation’ of Western Sahara, considering my stance and campaigning against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The more I think about it, the stranger the question seems. Moroccans and Sahrawis look the same, sound the same, eat the same food, marry each other, and share the same religion. Israel is a colonial project that has displaced the inhabitants of a country, and settled foreign nationals in their homes and cities. Morocco offer a benefit package of 2100 dirhams per month, per person, as well as a house for married couples, to displaced Sahrawis in Tindouf, across the border in Algeria, as an incentive for returning home, whereas Israel has consistently denied even the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine from refugee camps and countries in neighbouring countries and around the world. Morocco took control of Western Sahara through a peaceful ‘Green March’ in 1975, with hundreds of thousands of people holding a Moroccan flag in one hand and a copy of the Qur’an in the other. The State of Israel came into being in 1948 through a brutal campaign of massacre, fleeing and forced displacement.

Unfortunately, ‘disputed territories’ such as Western Sahara often become buzzwords for foreign observers, with a kind of manufactured concern or condemnation the respectable position for one to take. Although the obvious sites of Fes, Marrakech and Essaouira in the interior of Morocco provide a tourist haven, trips to Western Sahara are relatively rare. When I suggested to someone who had recently visited Morocco to try visiting the south of the country, they replied that they had heard Agadir was beautiful – the very city where the interior (and the motorway) end, and the Sahara begins.

With events currently happening in the world, you won’t hear about a place like El Aioun. A Muslim community where people go to the mosque to pray, people have jobs and can find a place to live with their family, and healthy and locally-produced food is affordable and plentiful. In other words, it’s not much of a news story.

Being a Muslim in Europe, Part Three

I had arrived in the Port of Caen in the middle of the night, exhausted from a long drive and having already missed a ferry back to the UK from Bilbao. After a few hours sleep, I woke up just as the time for the morning Fajr prayer was entering.

Driving past the Port terminal to a nearby hotel, I parked my car and walked into reception, intending to ask if I could use their toilet facilities before continuing on my journey. However, before I managed to utter a word, a middle aged French receptionist had risen from her seat and started walking towards me. The look on her face told me – we may have a problem.

Luckily for me, verbal expressions quickly replaced the need for deciphering facial expressions.

‘Non! Non!’ she began, ‘Get out!’ The fact she was now standing next to me and pointing at the door suggested I was the intended recipient of this verbal assault, but it certainly wasn’t the ‘Good morning, ça va?’ I had been expecting.

Verbal soon became physical as the woman began to literally push me towards the entrance, all without me having had said a syllable. The shock of the situation stinted my French linguistic abilities, basic at the best of times, so I chose ‘Tu parles anglais?’ as my opening gambit. ‘Non!’ the woman replied, quite forcefully, and continued to push me outside. In terms of upper-body strength, I’m not the weakest person on the Brittany coast, but it didn’t seem socially acceptable to get in a physical fight with a woman in her fifties. Anyway, by the time I had realised what had happened, I was outside and she was sitting back at her desk.

As you can imagine, I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the outcome of the encounter, but time was of the essence. I needed to pray Fajr before the sun approached the horizon, so I went to the Port terminal to confirm my ferry ticket and to use their bathroom instead. Finding the staff far friendlier and aggression levels much lower on this side of the car park, it wasn’t long before I was ready for breakfast.

But I couldn’t let Hotel-gate pass without some kind of response. At the front of the Hotel was a café, and through the window I could see that it was being run by the same woman who had been staffing reception just half an hour earlier. Moving with ninja-style speed to take a table before she had detected my presence, I quite deliberately arranged my car key, British passport and a twenty Euro note on the table in front of me.

The receptionist-manager-waitress spotted me from a distance, and smoke gently began streaming from her ears (or was it the coffee machine behind her) as she stormed over to my table with the same mixture of fury and determination that had marked our earlier rendezvous.

As she got closer and noticed my table arrangement, she slowed her pace. ‘You’re… you’re British?’ she asked. And guess what? She had mastered the English language in my half an hour absence.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘And, you’re just waiting to get the ferry to the UK?’

‘Right again. So, it’s a buffet breakfast right? Could I have a bowl of corn flakes, some toast with chocolate spread, a couple of those mini croissants and a some fruit please. Thanks so much.’

Being a person with what some comedians like to call a ‘disability’, I’m quite used to having such enthralling encounters, but apparently I’m not the only one to enjoy the joy of French hospitality recently. Uthman, aged thirty-one and born in Paris, tells me of taking his pregnant wife and younger brother to a luxury ski-resort near Chambéry in the Alps.

‘We arrived in the evening, just as dinner was going to be served, and I had paid for the evening meal as part of the package, he begins. We were all really tired from the journey, so decided that we would go straight through to eat. Then, the manager of the hotel came through to reception and said that it would not be possible.

The question of why hadn’t entered my mind yet, so I just asked what exactly wouldn’t be possible. I didn’t even understand what he was referring to. He said it would be better if we ate in our room instead. I was beginning to get the gist. We’re French, we’re white, I was wearing European clothes, I didn’t have a big beard, but my wife was wearing hijab.

‘We don’t allow hats in the dining area,’ the manager continued, pointing directly at my wife.

‘But that’s not a hat,’ I replied, ‘it’s a hijab. Is it our religion you have a problem with?’
‘Yes,’ the manager replied, raising his voice. ‘It’s your religion! It’s your religion that’s the problem!’

When Muslim women walk on the street in France, people spit on the pavement in front of them. When they go to the supermarket, people barge into them with their trollies. So yes, it’s getting quite hard.’

It’s strange that for a hundred years of occupation, France saw Algeria, and other Muslim-populated colonial possessions, as part of France, but today, Muslims born in Paris are not.

Being a Muslim in Europe, Part Two

I set off in the early hours, on a long trip through Spain from north to south and on my way towards Morocco.  Actually, I had inadvertently taken a detour from the main motorway route, and so found my way driving through countryside and small villages when the time of Fajr prayer entered; the sky still dark, but showing the first signs of day separating from night.


I pulled over at the side of the road of the next village I entered, a serene scene of narrow streets and low houses.  I could still feel the chill of the morning, but I lay out my prayer mat on the pavement just next to my car, prayed, and then got back in, to sit and read some Qur’an until the sun had risen.


I was absorbed, reading at the time that the Qur’an itself describes as witnessed by the angels.  So absorbed that I was quite taken aback by the tapping on the window right next to my face half an hour later.  Only once I had pulled down the window and said hello did I notice the rather large police van from my rear-view mirror.


‘Someone called us and said that they saw you praying,’ the police officer said.


‘That must have been an annoying phone call,’ I replied, ‘did you tell them to stop wasting your time?’


He was accompanied by three friends, two compañeros and one compañera, and after the exchange of pleasantries, I was asked for where I was going, and then my passport.  Handing it over triggered a telephone call to their superiors.


‘So you’re Moroccan,’ the very fat but also friendly officer with the phone to his ear asked me.


‘No, I’m from the UK,’ I replied.  Further hurried conversation ensued.


‘So you’re originally Moroccan?’


‘London, actually.’


I was then informed that myself and the entire vehicle would have to be searched, for reasons that will forever remain unknown.  The officer who had originally tapped on my window made some attempt at an explanation.


‘We’re really sorry about all this (they always are) but, you know…’  From the inclination of his eyebrows, and nothing else, I could tell that he was expecting some kind of response.


‘No, I really have no idea what you’re talking about.’


‘Well, you know, with the news and everything… everything that’s been going on… in the news.’


‘Oh sorry, I misunderstood,’ I laughed, ‘I thought you were talking about real life.  No, I haven’t been watching the news, what’s been happening?’


The car search must have been much more of a hassle than searching me, because it was packed with my wheelchair, clothes, lots of books to read on my travels, and a walking frame for an elderly person in Morocco.  Amazingly, one of the officers was not satisfied with such an impressive haul.  He waited until the others were away from the car before turning towards me conspiratorially, like a Spanish James Bond.


‘Where are the weapons?’ he asked me.  I presumed that I must have misheard.


‘Come on,’ he repeated, ‘where are the guns?’


Oh dear.  Lucky I can speak Spanish, otherwise I might have mistaken these upholders of law and order for a group of complete lunáticos.

Being a Muslim in Europe

“It takes me longer to explain it than anything else,” the officer at the UK border of Dover Port quipped, “but I have the power to detain, search and question you for up to six hours, although I’m sure it’s not going to take that long, under Schedule 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act.”


A peculiar mix of extreme politeness and also racism, so prevalent amongst some sections of British society.


“Oh, OK,” I replied.  “Well, don’t worry, I’m not a terrorist.”


After establishing that a written record of the impromptu interrogation would be kept “indefinitely”, again with the courteous reason of providing evidence if I ever wanted to enquire as to why I had been stopped, I decided to make such an enquiry right away.


“So why have I been stopped?” I asked.


“Well, I saw some stamps from Morocco and Mauritius..”


“Mauritius?  I’ve never been to Mauritius in my life.”


“I don’t have your passport to hand right now so I can’t quite remember, but I think there were a few Arabic stamps in there,” the officer helpfully elaborated.  “Are you a religious man?”


“I’m a Muslim, if that’s what you mean.”


“Oh no,” he looked flustered now, “I didn’t want to make any assumptions.”  It was reassuring to know that he was so free of any “assumptions”.


I was polite for the rest of this enthralling conversation, until his last question, which I felt might need further comment.


“Do you go to the mosque?”


“Why do you want to ask me that?  Shouldn’t you be trying to work out whether I’m a terrorist or not?  I don’t understand the relevance, and you need to be careful with these kinds of questions, because it changes from looking for someone who might be a terrorist, to just looking for Muslims.”


“But sometimes people are being taught extreme views by certain organisations, and they don’t even know!”


“Okay, so ask me if I’m a member of this or that organisation, but how does “Do you go to the mosque?” help your investigation?  If I say yes, do you write down that this guy might be a terrorist?  Does it make it more likely?  Less likely?  There’s no link between someone going to a mosque, and someone being a terrorist.”


“Well,” the officer replied, “we only get a few minutes to talk to you.”  Sorry about that, would love to have stayed.  On the bright side, at least it didn’t take six hours.


It’s funny, but when I think of terrorists I think of groups like the Stern Gang.  Not someone who hasn’t been to Mauritius.

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.”

Lebanese Expats Prepare for a Post-Chavez Venezuela

Ahmed’s clothing store on Lecuna Avenue, Caracas, is doing good business.  “People in Venezuela always want something new,” he tells me, “seven t-shirts, minimum, seven pairs of trousers, minimum…” he laughs at the thought.  Ahmed moved to Venezuela from Lebanon when he was just two years old, although his parents and three sisters have since returned to the Bekaa Valley.  His cousin, Mohammed, who is aged 17, was born here.  The Lebanese community in Venezuela stretches back for many decades.  Under the government of Hugo Chavez, however, a particular contradiction was faced.  Here was a government who openly spoke out against the Israeli government, unlike many Arab leaders, and who regularly criticised the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but whose economic policies did not always benefit Lebanese people doing business on the country.
When I meet up with Ahmed on the day after recent Presidential elections, in which Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro won by a hairline majority of just under 2%, with the opposition immediately refusing to recognise their defeat, Ahmed’s little finger is stained with purple ink, one of the measures taken by the National Electoral Council to ensure the security of the vote.  He tells me that it was made easier for foreigners to take up residency in Venezuela during the Chavez government, and since successfully applying for citizenship four years ago, he is now able to vote.
“Yes, in the end I voted for Maduro,” Ahmed says, “because I look at [Henrique] Capriles, the opposition candidate, and I know that he supports Israel… he does not have our interests at heart.”
It is clear that the government remain popular with the poor majority in Venezuela, not least due to their social policies of building new apartments and homes for struggling families, selling food at cut prices in government-subsidised supermarkets, and sending doctors to provide free healthcare in the most deprived areas of the country.  Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Maduro’s vote was down by almost half a million from what Chavez received in his last electoral victory, just five months before his passing away in March.  The trauma of three full election campaigns in seven months as well as the death of Chavez has left financial speculation dramatically increasing.  For Ahmed, the issue has a personal effect.
“I have to send money to my sister in Lebanon so that she can study.  It used to cost around ten or twelve bolivars to buy a US dollar, but suddenly, it is at least double that!  I’m tired of working and working and then finding I have no money at the end.  We are earning in bolivars, but it’s hardly worth anything when I want to send it home.”
During Chavez’ time in power, the Venezuelan government imposed restrictions on the amount of foreign money a person can buy, in order to strengthen the Venezuelan currency and in an attempt to prevent wealthy Venezuelans trying to damage the economy by instigating mass flights of capital.  However, the downside of the measure has been the profilgation of a black market, on which foreign currency is available for purchase at far above the official rate of exchange.  It’s good news for tourists arriving in the country, but a nightmare for Ahmed.
“You are lucky, man,” he tells me, “you could go back to London and visit your family right now.  For me, it’s a big problem.  You can change $3,000 dollars with the government, once per year, and nothing more.  If they got rid of the currency controls the black market would disappear!”
In the Paraiso district of Caracas, shawarma restaurants and Arabic spoken in the streets are a mark of a strong Lebanese presence.  Samer, who lives in the area, says that the government has benefited poor people, but that corruption remains prevalent.
“I know Lebanese people who came here years ago with no more than a hundred dollars in their pocket, and they have made millions,” Samer tells me.  “The system is wide open to corrupt practices.  You can import whatever you like; it can be clothes or just piles of garbage… the point is that you make the profits in exchanging the currency.  Under the system that Chavez’ government introduced, you just sign a piece of paper saying you want to import a certain amount of goods, but people deliberately over-estimate the value.  Once the governments have also signed the agreement, it’s like having a blank cheque for making money.  Did the government introduce this system to help poor people?  No, but it is helping people get rich.”
Issa, who also lives in Paraiso, says that despite their problems, he will continue to support the government in power.  “There is no other option,” he asserts, “Capriles is a gangster… he is supported by the US government, and his followers send money to support Israel.  There are many problems here; there are people being attacked in the streets by criminals, the cost of living is high, but Capriles is not the solution.  The Venezuelan government are always speaking for the rights of our Palestinian brothers.  What other government in the world do you see doing that?”
Following his refusal to accept the results of the Presidential elections on April 14th, Capriles’ call for his voters to take to the streets resulted in violent actions across the country.  As well as the killings of nine government supporters, the protests included arson attacks on government initiatives such as hospitals and cheap food markets, as well as the surrounding of the home of Tibisay Lucena, President of the National Electoral Council, an independent body responsible for the running of the elections.  However, Capriles laid blame for the deaths on the government, and amongst critics of the Bolivarian process, crime is always a major talking point.
There is more to the issue than is often presented, with Venezuelans pointing towards attempts by successive right-wing Colombian governments to destabilise the country by sending in armed mercenaries.  During his electoral campaign, Nicolas Maduro accused US officials Roger Noriega and Otto Reich of being behind a plot to assassinate Capriles in order to justify foreign intervention in Venezuela.  “They want to do the same here as they have in Libya and Syria,” Maduro announced on more than one occasion.
Nevertheless, not all violence in the Venezuelan capital can be blamed on foreign plots.  To Ahmed, the rising murder rate in Caracas is more than a number.  In early March, his uncle was stabbed to death on the doorstep of his home by a man demanding money that he didn’t have.  It was just a day after Chavez’ passing had been announced.
“Of course we were sad,” Ahmed says, “above all, because there was no reason for it to happen.”
The problems faced by the Lebanese community in Venezuela can be seen as a microcosm for those the wider society is now coming up against.  Nicolas Maduro is the first post-Chavez President to be elected since his Bolivarian revolution began, and he is living in the shadow of the former leader, still referred to by many as “our Commandante”.  According to Ahmed, activists within Maduro’s own party, the PSUV [United Socialist Party of Venezuela], have unofficially given him until December this year as a trial period.
“We hope things will get better”, Ahmed concludes.  “Personally as well, I hope that the currency gets strong, that I will be able to go and visit my family in Lebanon.  If Maduro manages to calm the situation, and to improve the economy, then we can go from there.  If not?  Yes, he might have problems on his hands.”

“It’s like the American dream, but different”

Yesterday, in the National Assembly and in front of continental and world leaders, Nicolas Maduro Moros was officially sworn in as the President of Venezuela. The centre of Caracas was filled with supporters, yet again; how many times have I said that now? It feels as if I have lost count since arriving here exactly seven months ago. You cannot describe these as marches, because there is barely space to move. Demonstrations of solidarity, of love, and now, of defiance in the face of attack.

Maduro’s swearing-in also marked the anniversary of Venezuela independence. During his acceptance speech, he referred to the people of the country as “an army of liberators”, and says that the United States’ recognition of his electoral victory, which has still not been announced, “does not interest him”.

The banging of pots begins at 8pm every night here. The cacerolazos, called for by Henrique Capriles after he refused to accept his narrow defeat in the Presidential elections. On Thursday evening we took a walk through the La Candelaria neighbourhood, where I first lived upon arrival in the city. Here, the noise is almost deafening. Occasionally, you catch a glimpse of someone leaning out of an apartment window in one of the high-storey buildings, but mostly the people behind the sounds remain out of sight. Nevertheless, the stunning nature of the result is something that is impossible to ignore.

“The worst thing is,” Norma, a government-supporter responsible for organising people in her local area tells me, “there were Chavistas who went out to vote for Capriles. We were missing his character… we were lacking our maximum leader. There is no-one who can replace him.”

“The opposition want to commit a coup d’etat, there is no doubt about it,” Norma continues, “they are deliberately deceiving their own followers by demanding something they know will not happen and would not make a difference to the result. Eight people have been killed already, so why have the police not put those responsible in prison?”

At the Friday demonstration, I find long queues lining up in Plaza Bolivar to sign a petition calling for Henrique Capriles to face the law. José Rivero, standing nearby, is keen to explain to me:

“Capriles made the call, and he is responsible for the deaths that have happened. He has to be held to account. The opposition think we can return to some kind of monarchy, but the people here are strugglers, we are fighters. The importance of today is to show that, to show that we are a sovereign, independent and free nation. When Maduro said that, from the Tuesday coming, we will have ‘governments of the streets’, it says that sovereignty lies with the people.”

Maduro is speaking in a defiant tone. But there is an underlying tension that remains. “How can they have lost over half a million votes in a few months?” says Jamal. “It really makes me sad, there are people that had no homes before, nowhere to live, and now they have homes, but are fighting each other, brother against brother! How can you forget so quickly and go out to vote for Capriles?”

There are problems that have been exasperated by dramatic events; two Presidential election campaigns, regional elections across the country and, of course, the passing away of Hugo Chavez have left financial speculation increasing, and food prices rising.

“But how would Capriles resolve these problems?” asks Jamal. “He won’t. The truth about the opposition is that they do not care about anyone when they’re trying to get into power. This is a country where the last two Presidents have been poor people. Hugo Chavez was selling sweets in the streets for his grandmother… they called him the arañero. Nicolas Maduro was a bus driver! I have a daughter in this country, and it makes me believe that she could be President one day. Not because she was born with a golden spoon in her mouth, but even with a wooden spoon.”

“It’s like the American dream,” Jamal laughs, “but it’s different.”

Western silence on Maduro’s victory in Venezuela is hypocritical

For the New Internationalist:


Alberto Garcia lives in the Petare barrio, in the east of Caracas, but was born in Maracaibo, Zulia state.  Like thousands of others, he didn’t wait for election results to be announced before taking to Avenida Urdaneta, the road which runs through the centre of the capital up to Miraflores, the Presidential palace.  “Chavez is more dangerous now he has died than when he was alive,” Alberto tells me.  “He liberated us from the imperialist powers… here, we have democracy!”


Fifteen year-old Jonayca is also in the crowds, too young to vote, surrounded by a group of friends from school.  “We are here for our future,” he says, “we want to defend our country.”


When the results of the Venezuelan Presidential elections were announced, late on Sunday night, few were surprised by the name of the winner.  Nicolas Maduro had been personally named by Hugo Chavez as the person to vote for if anything happened to him, and the commitment had held strong.  Unlike Chavez, however, Maduro had failed to capture a landslide percentage, as had become the norm in recent Presidential elections.  His victory margin set of a war of rhetoric, continuing the trend of the political campaigns that preceded; Maduro took to the 23 de enero barrio to proclaim the continuation of the Bolivarian revolution, whereas an hour later, in a far wealthier side of the city, his electoral opponent Henrique Capriles called a press conference in which he denounced the President-elect and refused to recognise the results of the election.


Capriles has spoken a lot about wanting to follow a peaceful route over the last two days.  However, there is an implicit contradiction in calling for peace whilst refusing to accept the results of a democratic election, and this, unfortunately, is the message his followers have received.  On Monday, Capriles called for a cacerolazo in the evening, a form of protest consisting of a co-ordinated banging of kitchen pots, first made popular amongst the opposition to Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970s.  The cacerolazo went ahead; I could hear it from where I am staying in the city.  Later that evening, Capriles supporters attacked the headquarters of Telesur, a news channel broadcast across Latin America.  Another group of opposition supporters surrounded the home of Tibisay Lucena, the President of the CNE [National Electoral Council].  Minister of Communication Andres Izarra posted online that some were threatening to burn the house of his father.  Henrique Capriles also called for a demonstration to take place outside the headquarters of the CNE on Wednesday; are we to expect the same kind of peaceful behaviour from his supporters?


In October, it seems, the force of the tide which swept Chavez to victory, with more votes than he had ever received before, was simply deemed too powerful to scale.  This time around, however, Maduro was over half a million votes down on his predecessor, and Capriles had increased his vote by a similar amount to narrow the gap.  However, close election results are not a stranger to systems considered by many as democratic.  In the UK, none of the three mainstream parties won, and so two parties “teamed together” to form a government, as if that had been a hidden option unwittingly voted for by the majority of the British public.  The “coalition” government, as well as their Labour “opposition”, wish to mourn the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; she gained power with a vote of 40%.  But since Sunday’s election, both the United States and the European Union have failed to recognise Maduro’s victory.  On Monday, he was officially sworn in as President by the CNE; still, no recognition from the sacred tongues of the former imperialist powers.  Despite the fact that Venezuela has one of the most open, safe and fair voting systems in the vote, with seven individual measures to ensure the security of the vote.


So why, I wonder, the double standards in the case of Venezuela?  In the UK, the Guardian newspaper reported that elections in Venezuela ended in “turmoil”.  Why does a close election result automatically mean turmoil, but in “first-world” countries simply the exercise of democracy? Is it because this is a country rich in resources, rich in oil, and refusing to follow the dictates of foreign powers?  Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the Venezuelan ambassador to Spain for consultations yesterday after the Spanish government said they would not recognise the “implicitly strong and clear” results of the election.  On Monday night, President Maduro took advantage of a press confidence to re-assert the position:


“Take care, because Venezuela is free… we defeated the King of Spain a long time ago!”


Almost every government in Latin America, the real international community in this part of the world, has recognised the results of the Presidential elections and congratulated the people of the country for yet another successful democratic process.  It is time for Henrique Capriles, and his backers abroad, to do the same.

Too much to be lost or won in a single day

For Rabble magazine:


Sol has a long journey to get to work every day, living in Junquitos, an hour’s bus drive into the mountains outside of Caracas.  On Sunday, the collectively-run café she works at was shut, but Sol was awake even earlier than usual.  At three am, she was helping to organise her local voting station and making sure people knew which table they were registered to vote at.  By eight am, she was driving around in a car, looking for disabled or elderly people who might need help walking to their voting station.  “Of course, we all need to vote,” Sol says, “they will not return.”


My younger brother had noted that with all their rhetoric and brimming with confidence, it was hard to remember that the opposition party have never won a Presidential election here.  However, in the opinion of many Venezuelans, they have won, and were winning for the forty-years of punto-fijismo, or “pacted democracy” that prevailed before Hugo Chavez first came into power in 1998.  So “no volveran”, or “they will not return”, has been a commonly-heard phrase in recent days.


Sobhan, an eldery man, was born in Guyana, but has lived in Venezuela for many years.  I notice the ubiquitous purple-ink stained on his little finger that afternoon, one of seven measures imposed by the CNE [National Electoral Council] to ensure the security of the vote.  “I voted for us,” Sobhan tells me, a careful smile lighting up his features.


These are more than political elections that take place in Venezuela.  To realise that, you only needed to visit Avenida Urdaneta and the approach to Miraflores, the Presidential palace, in the hours leading up to the announcement of results.  The voting tables had officially closed at 6pm, and it was clear that millions had gone out to vote for both Nicolas Maduro, Hugo Chavez’ appointed successor and Henrique Capriles, his wealthily-backed electoral opponent.  But that evening, just like at previous elections, it was a sea of government supporters that had flooded the streets.  Here, perhaps, was a contradiction of the Venezuelan system.  The elections, undoubtedly clean, had been carried out with calm and without fear, in perhaps one of the most democratic systems in the world.  However, with a couple hours still to go before results would be announced, a party atmosphere had descended on Avenida Urdaneta.  I couldn’t help to wonder, where would these people go if Capriles were to be announced winner?  They had travelled from the barrios, they had struggled for many years, they had received homes, education and medicine when they had none before.  Would they really just lay down and die for an election result?


“Look, we’ve already got experience of the electoral process,” says Yennetor, a woman in her forties.  “We have a process that is well organised.  We went out to vote with a political commitment, but also with a moral and sentimental commitment to Commandante Chavez.  So there is a feeling of sadness, but we are in the streets right now to show the opposition that we are taking care of Miraflores, because for us Miraflores is a symbol of our participative democracy.”  


At 11.20pm, Nicolas Maduro was announced as the next President of Venezuela.  The name didn’t surprise me, but the figures certainly did.  Both candidates had received over seven million votes, with a participation rate of 78%.  Maduro had received around 700,000 votes less than Chavez in the October elections, and Capriles had received 550,000 more than he had last time round.  Maduro had won the elections by less than 2%.  However, whereas Chavez, winning in October by a significant landslide, had spoken from the “balcony of the people” in Miraflores, in the middle of the night, to speak of dialogue, unity and tolerance, Maduro, winning by far less than expected, was in a far more victorious mood.  Nevertheless, underneath the bravado, he must be realising the task that now faces him.  Of course, as the government quickly pointed out, they had accepted an electoral defeat, their only electoral defeat, in 2007, of just 0.1%, but you could not mistake the tension in the air.


Capriles waited for little over an hour before calling a press conference.  His face was full of anger, his voice seething with rage.  He had refused to commit to recognising the results of the election beforehand, as had every other Presidential candidate, and now he was coming good on his threat.  He accused Maduro of losing the elections, and demanded that a re-count be held.


The Venezuelan Presidential elections took place on April 14th, 2013.  Eleven years earlier, on the very same date, Hugo Chavez landed at Miraflores in a helicopter after nothing short of a popular uprising had demanded his re-instatement in power after a coup d’etat of just seventy-two hours crumbled and fell.  There is much at stake in Venezuela; the oil interests of imperialist powers, the homes of the poor majority, and the elites who lost their grip on power almost fifteen years ago.  Too much to be lost or won in a single day.

People with disabilities want Venezuelan revolution to continue: ‘We need even more of a voice’

For Rabble magazine:


Disabled people have always positioned themselves at the forefront of the Bolivarian project in Venezuela, but their role is often understated.  I took a trip to the Metropolitan Council of Popular Power for People with Disabilities, an independent organisation campaigning for the rights people with disabilities, and spoke to Luis Roja.  It appeared that he was one of the leading figures of the Council, but he tells me that he is “just another one”, gesturing towards the many people who come and go as our conversation develops.  Luis spoke to me as a passionate supporter of the political process taking place in his country, but was adamant that more needs to be done.


“Por ahora [a ninety-second, televised speech made by Hugo Chavez immediately following the failure of his attempted coup in 1992, which propelled him into the public eye for the first time] for us, was an awakening.  Chavez was saying that people needed to organise, and so we organised ourselves.  The governments of the Fourth Republic [those that came before Chavez’ first electoral victory in 1998] had a badly-named law, the law for in-capacitated people; just with that law they assassinated our rights as disabled people, as if we weren’t supposed to leave our houses.  I believe that the por ahora was an internal revolution for people with disabilities.


We have this organisation, but disabled people need to be given much more of a voice.  What we are asking Maduro for is a new government ministry to be created for people with disabilities.”


Ramon, a blind man who I meet as he walks along the street near Plaza Bolivar, agrees with Luis’ sentiments.  “We need disabled people in the National Assembly, disabled people in the regional governments, disabled people speaking on every platform, because we are the people who know how to solve the problems that we face!”


It is all too easy to take the small privileges in life for granted.  For people with certain physical disabilities, for example, a wheelchair can be an essential item.  You can try to imagine having no way of getting from A to B, but unless you have been in such a situation, you will not be able to imagine.  The first few times I met Ofel, a young man selling telephone calls, sweets and cigarettes in the centre of Caracas, I assumed he had always used a wheelchair.  In fact, he told me, now aged 30, he received one from the government just two years ago.


“Before that, I never had one!  I got one from Mision Jose Gregorio Hernandez [a government program set-up in 2008 to help people with disabilities], and thanks to that, now I am able to work, to get around… before I couldn’t even leave my house.”


Opposition supporters say that the government “missions”, designed at helping to alleviate problems for disadvantaged sections of society, are inefficient and need to end.  At an opposition stall in Parque Central, I speak to Mrs. Ferreira, who has lived in Caracas for the last thirty years.


“The problem is, if you just gift people things, they don’t know how to take care of it, because they didn’t have to pay anything!”


Despite his supporters views on the missions, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles, who will come head-to-head with Nicolas Maduro in Presidential elections on Sunday, has been promising to keep them in place.  His claims have failed to resonate with many voters who have benefited from them, and who believe that with the opposition in power they would never have existed in the first place.


“If Capriles wins,” Ofel tells me without hesitation, “the missions will be gone.  The benefits for disabled people… out!”


It is a commonly-held sentiment amongst supporters of the Bolivarian process.  In a speech in the state of Nueva Esparta this week, Nicolas Maduro warned against the dangers of “triumphalism”, whilst recognising the near-certainty of his victory in upcoming elections.  However, for people who have lived without wheelchairs, homes, medical care and education, the choice they have to make on Sunday is a very real one.  Maybe some citizens here believe that things “handed out for free” will not be appreciated by those who receive them, but if I got my first wheelchair at the age of twenty-eight, looking after it would certainly be a priority.