CHICAGO — The dynamic, grassroots character of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution under President Hugo Chávez was vividly depicted at a forum here March 16 through words, music, slides and photos.
The program featured eyewitness reports by Shelby Richardson, a trade unionist who traveled to Venezuela with the U.S.-Cuba Labor Exchange, and Jim Fennerty, president of the Chicago chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Both visited Caracas, the country’s capital, in late January.
Big changes are under way, said Richardson. “For the first time, the Venezuelan people, particularly the 80 percent who are poor, know that the country’s natural resources are being placed in their direction. Money is being spent on health care, on education, on food subsidies,” he said. Progressive land reform is also under way.
Many experiments are taking place. For example, under a special agreement, thousands of Cuban health professionals are delivering free health care to Venezuela’s poor neighborhoods, many of which had no health care before. Cuban doctors “live with the people,” often upstairs above their clinics. Meanwhile Venezuelan youth are studying medicine in Cuba.
A feeling of newfound dignity among the country’s working and indigenous peoples is an important byproduct of the changes. Richardson said one person he met in Simon Bolivar Square, once an exclusive preserve of the rich, said with great pride, “Now anybody can walk in this square!”
Among the people he met, including labor union leaders and representatives of the Communist Party of Venezuela, “there was a lot of emphasis on building new forms of organization and structure to support the revolutionary process, and an accent on ‘participatory socialism.’” Richardson, a member of the Communist Party USA, also participated in the World Social Forum while he was there.
Richardson did see opposition to Chávez, particularly among the well-to-do. “The opposition clearly dominates the media. They certainly don’t like what’s going on,” he said.
Jim Fennerty, whose Lawyers Guild delegation met with trade unionists, community leaders, elected officials, leaders of opposition political parties, media figures and judges, also observed some opposition to Chávez, especially among the self-described “elite.”
“We met with leaders of the Primero Justicia party,” Fennerty said. “They said they didn’t like the workers’ cooperative movement and said, ‘We’re for self-sufficiency, too, but we think corporations should come in and they’d run these enterprises better.’”
It was remarkable, Fennerty said, how readily opposition groups acknowledged receiving money from abroad. In a meeting with leaders of Sumate, the group that funded and supported the recall drive to oust Chávez, he said they frankly admitted receiving money from the U.S.-backed National Endowment for Democracy.
Fennerty agreed with Richardson’s observations on the newfound dignity and feelings of self-determination for many working-class and poor Venezuelans. Many are quick to invoke their country’s new constitution to defend their rights, he said.
One resident of a working-class neighborhood said, “People are not doing what Chávez is telling them to do. Chávez is doing what the people want him to do.” Another resident said that the neighbors make the decision about what happens in their “barrio.”
Fennerty said when he visited one of the worker co-ops he asked a woman, who was working late in a shirt factory, if her life had changed much over the past few years.
“Now I don’t have to be a street vendor,” she said. “I’m taking care of my kids better and I’m going to school now.” What kind of school? “I’m getting my primary education.”
The forum was sponsored by the Workers Education Society and the People’s Weekly World.