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.

“What is your opinion of capitalism?”

For the New Internationalist:

Things are heating up in the centre of Caracas. The heat is sweltering and Venezuela’s presidential elections are fast approaching on 14 April. It is hard to find a quiet moment in between the seemingly endless ‘red points’ which hand out posters and information in support of Nicolás Maduro’s election campaign.

However, Henrique Capriles too has his supporters, who are intent on speaking out against what they see as an undemocratic government. In Plaza Candelaria, 18-year-old Yelis, is working handing out Capriles’ leaflets, but she agrees to take a few minutes out to be interviewed.

‘This government isn’t democratic, because they use power and they use the people.  They want to make a revolution and they criticize capitalism, but they are the capitalists. I think that Capriles has better intentions than the government does,’ she tells me.

‘What is your opinion of capitalism?’ I ask.

‘I think capitalism is a good thing and can help provide give people the opportunity to work. This government talks about a revolution based on equality, but equality isn’t the same thing is justice. Because there are some people who work really hard for many hours, and the government want to take their money away and give it to people who don’t work at all.

‘For example, the system of the misiones [Bolivarian missions] needs to change. There is one called Mision Vivienda, which is a government programme that builds houses and gives them to people who have lost their homes or have problems, but it isn’t just that, because if you get an apartment from the Mision, you have to vote for the government! It’s like buying peoples votes. They don’t vote for the government because they like them, but because if they don’t they can’t get a home.’

‘But how does the government know who they are going to vote for?’ I reply.

‘Well, people are scared that they’re going to lose their job or home if they don’t vote for the government. For example, my dad lost his job just because he voted against the government!’

It’s difficult to know how to get to the bottom of such a claim, especially when it is presented without evidence to support it. Despite Yelis’ view that the system of voting doesn’t work, it is votes for Capriles on Sunday that she is campaigning for.

‘I think we need to improve our relations with the US. What happened is that Chavez was always criticizing the ‘Yankee capitalists’, but the government were still buying clothes and everything.

‘In truth, I really think that Capriles is going to win. Maduro doesn’t want to improve the country.’

This overwhelming confidence has been prevalent amongst opposition supporters in the run-up to the elections, not least due to the rhetoric of their presidential candidate. I ask Yelis what has changed since the last election, only six months ago, when Capriles was badly beaten.

‘Well he’s made the same campaign as last time, but this time he’s speaking more to the people’ she explains. ‘In every state he’s visited, Capriles is talking more about people’s problems, with the lights and with jobs, and he’s proposing more solutions.’

In the La Paz Mision Vivienda complex, there are two huge blocks of brand-new apartments with a children’s playground in front. Although progress hasn’t been as quick as hoped in a country with a severe shortage of housing, this week alone has seen hundreds of bungalows being delivered to families from the poorest sections of society in several states. Here, I come across a different set of opinions.

‘If I tell you how we were living before,’ says Paola, a woman in her late forties, ‘you won’t even believe me.’

When I ask how things would change if Capriles were to win the elections, I am met with radiant smiles and a chorus of responses.

‘We’d be back living in the hills,’ says Teresa, ‘where we were before! We are going forward with this process, and Capriles can never win!’

Campaign for Presidency Kicks-off in Venezuela: An Interview with Carmen Hidalgo

For Upside Down World:

It is Tuesday, April 2nd; music and people fill the streets of Caracas.  This is the official opening day of the campaign for Presidential elections in Venezuela, due to take place on April 14th after the death of Hugo Chavez, a popular leader who had won a total of fifteen elections during his fourteen years of rule.  Nicolas Maduro, former bus driver, ex-Vice-President and the man Chavez personally named as his successor, kicks off his tour of the country in Barinas, the state where Chavez was born and the heart of the Venezuelan countryside.  Henrique Capriles, the main opposition candidate who lost to Chavez last November, had originally announced that he would start in the same place, but changed his plans after his local team warned of the tensions such a clash of dates could cause.  But, as journalist Reinaldo Iturriza once told me, these are not “normal elections” that take place here in Venezuela.  From the beginning, the political campaigns are vibrant, colorful and visible everywhere you turn.

Carmen Hidalgo, aged 23, was born in Barinas, but currently lives and studies in the Andean city of Merida.  She has worked for Mision Ribas, an educational program set-up by the government in 2003 to provide classes and qualifications for people who had never completed high school. Carmen describes her home-town as “tender and sweet Barinas, full of friendly and very hard-working people.  Where the struggle every-day is to grow, and not only economically but also intelligently, always united together.”  Huge crowds turned out to greet Maduro in Barinas on Tuesday, a sign that opposition claims that the Bolivarian project will cease to exist without Chavez may not be as accurate as they wish to portray. Nevertheless, Chavez’ images does continue to dominate the government’s re-election bid; indeed, their campaign is named after him!

A couple of weeks before we spoke, Capriles had visited and spoke in Merida.  In reality, neither candidate waited for the date of April 2nd to begin rallying their troops.  In Carmen’s view, Capriles’ speech was “Chavez, but without the socialism.”

“Capriles understands that the majority of people like socialism; that is why we speak of a system of “inclusion.”  We remember that in the governments of the Fourth Republic [i.e. before the first election of Chavez in 1998] the country was full of exclusion and few had the opportunity to live well, due to the robbing of the country’smoney and resources. First [Capriles’ election campaign] has chosen to use the name Simon Bolivar.”  This suggests that they approve of “Bolivarianism,” whilst in the coup of April 2002, in which Capriles participated in the attack on the Cuban embassy, the first thing they did was to remove the word “Bolivarian” from the name of the country.  Secondly, they are using a t-shirt withCapriles eyes and signature, exactly the same as the Chavez t-shirt we designed during the last election campaign.  A political leader should be more serious and not copy the designs of the sovereign people.”

Many people believe that the opposition know that they will not win the upcoming elections.  Indeed, every single poll in the last two weeks, including those conducted by firms traditionally considered as opposition supporters, have given Maduro a lead of between ten and twenty-three points.  Accusations of external forces attempting to use the elections as an opportunity to destabilize the country flared up once again when US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson recently stated that although they were not favouring either candidate, “Capriles would make a good President”.  Venezuela Foreign Minister Elias Jaua responded by breaking off communication with the US, adding, “Mrs. Jacobson, when you learn that we are a sovereign country, then give us a call.”

Carmen says that everyone knows that Capriles is “totally immersed” with the US government, and claims the opposition candidate recently travelled to the country to “plan a campaign of destabilization”.

Nevertheless, it is largely a spirit of positivity that has been prevalent in Caracas in recent days.  On April 14th, millions of Venezuelans will go out to vote for their next President, possibly in larger numbers than ever before.  The central hope is that the results of the elections will be adhered to and respected.

“We spend more, in order to gain more”

For the New Internationalist:

 

Tamara brushes her fingers against the strings of her guitar, thoughtfully. I had met her on a trip into Plaza Bolivar, near the Capitolio Metro station in Caracas, where I keep noticing that there are a lot of people using wheelchairs.

 

‘I don’t know why,’ Tamara replied, ‘but you can see how things have changed. Before, it was much more difficult for disabled people to get around. The Metro was much less expensive, it cost money to get a wheelchair, there was no help. Also, people’s attitudes are changing.’

 

‘Before’ is a word I keep hearing in Venuzuela. For example, all of the museums and historical sights in the centre of the capital, Caracas, are free to enter, but it wasn’t like that ‘before’. Even one of the parks near Bellas Artes, a beautiful place to walk through, was exclusive ‘before’. The visibility of disabled people in day-to-day life in Caracas is something that I have found especially touching but, again, it wasn’t like that before. ‘It’s because it’s so much easier to get around if you’re in a wheelchair here!’ my younger brother comments.

 

‘I think it’s really important that you are making these observations, as a person who is coming from outside of Venezuela,’ Tamara continues. ‘Because here, after fourteen years, I think it is easy for us to forget these things. For example, pensions for senior people: there are some who say, yes this is great, but this is my right – it is not from the revolution. OK, you are correct, it is your right, but shall we see where your rights are if the opposition got into power?’

 

Tamara, like many Venezuelans, has thoughts of the Presidential elections on 14 April on her mind. Voters will need to decide who will replace Hugo Chàvez as president after he died in March 2013. ‘We do feel positive, but it is a completely new step. We need to be alert,’ she tells me.

 

It is during another trip to Plaza Bolivar when I see Ramon, a blind man, being helped along the street by a member of staff from the local Metro stop. He has accompanied him for quite some distance before stopping and pointing him in the right direction. It was both a surprising and heart-warming sight coming from London, a city where transport staff often believe their task is to hinder rather than help disabled people to travel.

 

When I approached Ramon to ask him some questions, he wanted to know who I was writing for. Eventually, once he was convinced of my credentials, he concluded: ‘Oh, so you’re with the process!

 

‘We need to get more disabled people into the government, the National Assembly, the regional governments, so that we are representing ourselves,’ Ramon continued. ‘There are laws defending and promoting our rights, but we should always be striving to ensure that they are properly enforced.’

 

The deep social changes are described to me as ‘the process’. Governments that came before the election of Hugo Chàvez in 1998 are grouped as ‘the Fourth Republic’. Venezuelans, now living in the Fifth Republic, do not want those days to return.

 

Solange works in Cacao Venezuela, a hugely popular hot chocolate café sitting on the corner of the Plaza. I wasn’t sure what to expect from our interview but, as with every person I speak to here, she speaks with deep political conviction and well-thought out analysis.

 

‘I think the hot chocolates are so good simply because of the pure cacao that we use,’ Solange says. ‘I can’t tell you the recipe, because there are other cafés that really want to know. But the problem with the capitalist companies is that they want to make such huge profits and nothing else.

 

‘We spend more in order to gain more.’

“To me, it appears like a dream…”

Every story has a motive; a thought that should always be kept in mind when reading the news.  Is it any wonder that we are only targeted, on a daily basis, with negative images from around the world.  In Egypt, all has become chaos thanks to “Islamists” taking over.  In Mali, the same situation would have engulfed another African, Muslim country if it were not for European soldiers restoring order.  In England, the government’s policies, many of which came into effect yesterday and throughout the rest of April, will make thousands of families homeless.  When you consider the sweep and rapidity of the tide of Conservative ideology scarring the face of England, it is hard to remember that they never actually won an election!  Here in Venezuela, an alternative to that ideology is being built, but its achievements are rarely reported.  Is it really a surprise?  Or do we need to read less “news” and more books?

 

The campaign for the Presidential elections begins today.  Every poll puts Nicolas Maduro in front, and a long way in front.  Tensions rose when Capriles announced that he would kick-off his campaign in Barinas, the state of the Venezuelan countryside and birth-place of Hugo Chavez, three days after Maduro had chosen the same state to begin his own campaign.  Why, the government asked.  According to our political culture, it’s a provocation, people summarised.  The following day, Capriles said that after advice from his team in Barinas, he would begin in Monagas state instead.

I made an interview with Jamal Amir, a Tanzanian man who has been living in Venezuela for the last fourteen years.  “I was speaking with a woman who supports the opposition, and they definitely believe that Capriles will win,” he told me.  “But to me, it appears like some kind of dream.  The only thing Capriles is doing is saying how bad Maduro is…”  He shakes his head.  “That is not the right thing to be doing now, he needs to be saying what he is going to do.  The bigger aspect is the fact that before Chavez died, he specifically named Maduro as the candidate that people should vote for if anything happened to him.  Now, people feel as if they have a commitment with Chavez.  In the last elections [on October 7th] there were a lot of Chavez supporters who didn’t come out to vote, and I’m sure supporters of Capriles too, but this time everyone wants to fulfil their commitment.”

 

Last night, an extraordinary meeting of the Forum of Sao Paolo took place in Caracas, opening with a recorded video message from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former President of Brazil.

 

“I am not interfering in what is an internal Venezuelan affair, but I could not leave aside my thoughts to a people that are so dear to us,” he said, before going on to lend his support to the Maduro campaign.

 

Will the United States make the same affirmation, not to get involved in an internal Venezuelan affair?  It’s a question that many people here would like an answer to.  I often wonder why people living in countries that interfere in the affairs of others on such a regular basis can take so long to understand the concept of imperialism.  I think it could be because they have never experienced life on the receiving end of their government’s foreign policy.  Juan Bosch was the first ever democratically-elected President of the Dominican Republic in 1963, but was overthrown in a military coup after just seven months in charge.  Over forty thousand US troops dispatched to the island later ensured the change.  In one of his books, entitled Pentagonism, Substitute of Imperialism, Bosch writes in reference to the people of the United States:

 

“The ‘pentagonist’ people [too] are exploited like a colony, since they pay, through their taxes, for the bomber planes that enrich their manufacturers.”

 

One of the speakers at the Forum of Sao Paolo last night was a young woman named Alba Santana, from the Youth of the FMLN in El Salvador.  She said that young people were determined to be a leading force in the uniting of the continent, and that they were “returning” to the ideas of “the Liberator”, Simon Bolivar.

 

“Last year, Lula sent a message to Chavez in regards to the Presidential elections in Venezuela,” Santana added.  “Now, we want to send the same message to Maduro; your victory is our victory too.”

“Media restrictions” in Venezuela

The press seems to have developed in a positive way since I first visited Venezuela, in December 2011.  Yes, the richer sections of society still possess the largest media interests, but alternative sources of information are flourishing.

Ciudad CCS is a free newspaper, distributed daily across the capital.  There are elements of this paper that I have been particularly impressed by, and would like to draw attention to.  On page ten of each edition, we find a section entitled “Denuncia la gente”, or “The people denounce”.  One message reads, “The schools in San Juan are in a bad state.  Make a call to the Ministry of Education.”  Another person writes, “The butcher El Barbecho is selling a kilo of meat for double what it should cost.  The authorities need to make an inspection.”  Another note says, “The staff in the Banco Industrial de Venezuela, near the Ministry of Education, aren’t treating customers properly.”

Moreover, the tone of the journalism is refreshing.  The opinion columns aren’t afraid of having an opinion, when they say “…if Capriles is an independent candidate, then I am the reincarnation of the Inca god Quetzalcoatl.”  There are articles announcing the opening of bicycle-only lanes on Saturdays alongside analyses of foreign affairs.  The paper is funded by the municipality, and hugely popular throughout the city.

Wouldn’t it be a positive thing to have free newspapers in local areas of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, and cities across England, informing people of issues in their neighbourhoods and giving them the chance to raise issues with the politicians that are supposed to represent them?  Maybe some already exist… or maybe we can do better.

Then again, the government and the media in the UK haven’t been the best mix in recent years.

It is very strange when people mention “restrictions of freedom of press” that have taken place in Venezuela.  If Hugo Chavez did attempt to clamp down on the media here, he did a terrible job.  When TV channels described the democratically elected President with racist epithets such as ‘monkey’, or compared him with such well known leftist leaders as Hitler and Mussolini, and that is decried from afar as “restriction of press”, you really have to wonder what a liberal policy would look like.

There was one TV channel, RCTV, that was shut down after its role in the attempted coup d’etat of April 2002.  Or rather than “shut down”, which is how the action is usually described, we can be more accurate and say that the government waited until its broadcasting license expired five years later, and then refused to renew it.  Well, let us try to imagine a similar event occurring in a front room in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

A family switches the television on to watch the evening news on ITV.  Instead, except for the news, there are adverts shown over and over again, telling people to march to Downing Street the next day to remove David Cameron from power.

Do you think ITV would last for five years?

Also, even after the decision, the channel continued to broadcast via satellite and cable, as RCTV International.  It’s a very strange type of “restriction of freedom of press” they have in Venezuela!

There is more than one type of freedom of press.  Freedom of expression, yes, but also the freedom of the public to receive accurate, interesting and relevant information.

Ofel Albano Sanchez, aged 30, born in Caracas

Plaza Bolivar was one of the first places I visited after arriving in Caracas.  A relaxing spot in an otherwise bustling city, with a collectively-run café serving the best hot chocolate imaginable on the corner, means there is not much more you could ask for.

 

On the pedestrianised road that runs from the nearest Metro station to the Plaza, Ofel greets me with a “Como estas, hermano?”  When I ask him the same, his one-word answer never differs; “Pa’lante!”  “Onwards!”

 

This morning, Ofel is serving his customers with sweets and mobile phone calls from the seat of his electric wheelchair, just as he does every day.  This is the only way I have known Ofel, working independently, travelling through the city on his own, and so I presume it is also the only way he has ever known.  As I learn from our conversation, however, this is far from the truth.  When I ask about the benefits of Mision Jose Gregorio Hernandez, created by the government in 2008 to help improve quality of life for Venezuelans with disabilities, Ofel doesn’t have to point far.

 

“This wheelchair!  I’m thirty years old now, and two years ago I got this wheelchair from the mission.  Before that, I had never had a wheelchair in my life!  I couldn’t work, but now, thanks to the chair, I can.”

 

The many government missions are always a point of political discussion in Venezuela, and often a point of controversy.  Mision Barrio Adentro, for example, sent tens of thousands of Cuban doctors into the poorest areas of the country to provide free medical treatment for the people there, many of whom had never seen a doctor in their lives.  This was denounced by the opposition as a campaign of Communist propaganda, and they decried the growing presence of “Cuban militias” in the country.  No evidence was provided to back up this claim.  The official Venezuelan medical society claimed they were being undermined, somewhat ignoring the fact that the Cuban doctors were working in areas they had always refused to visit.

 

Nevertheless, the missions have been a hugely positive development for millions of people in Venezuela, and more recently it seems that the opposition have resigned themselves to that fact.  A mysterious text message received on my phone earlier this week announced that Capriles had “guaranteed” to keep many of the benefits in place if he was to be elected as President.  Ofel, however, seemed far from convinced.

 

“I hope that Nicolas [Maduro] wins [the upcoming Presidential elections].  Why?  Because Capriles only cares about money.  If Capriles wins, the benefits for disabled people… out!  The missions… out!  So yes, I’m going to vote for Maduro.”

 

I remember passing by just a few days after Hugo Chavez had died.  Ofel was decked from head-to-toe in red clothing.  Today, I ask him about his thoughts when he heard the news.

 

“Brother, bad.  I couldn’t believe that Chavez was dead.  And I still can’t believe.  It was the first time that we had a good President.”

 

“The United States?” Ofel adds.  “I don’t want to speak with them.”