What a beautiful day it was to be alive. Today was the third day of the World Festival of Youth and Students, here in Caracas, Venezuela. We received a wakeup call at 6 a.m. to try to get to the busses by 7:30. Each day had been packed with different activity options. Today I chose the Caracas tour, which every day takes you to a different part of the city’s outskirts.
They took us to a community called Caricuao, in the hills of Caracas. I had no idea what to expect. As we got close we could hear music, chatter and chants. Wonderful chants that just got louder and louder. When we finally arrived we were greeted by a group of Cuban delegates who had gotten there before us, and what seemed to be the entire little community — men, women and children all smiling, clapping and singing as we got off the bus. We felt like stars as we went around the square shaking and touching all those outstretched hands.
The community had organized its own cultural event for us which included a Venezolano man singing Mexican ranchera songs, a group of young dancers and a children’s chorus singing a song of peace and harmony.
After the program we mingled with the community people. They were so eager to tell us their stories: Literacy campaigns for the older citizens, free education through college for all their children, free medical care, medicine and new clinics. Affordable housing, free identity cards that allowed all, many for the first time, to participate in the democratic process.
“Tell your country, tell the world of all that is going on around here,” they told us.
Two women, both in their 50s, told me of the despair and anger they felt during the April 2002 military coup. Word of President Hugo Chavez’s abduction and the installation of a right-wing government spread like wildfire through Venezuela’s streets and hills. The thought of losing all that the people had gained was just unacceptable.
So down they came from the hills by trucks, by buses, by foot, surrounding the government palace and catching the coup leaders totally off-guard. When the plotters got wind that troops loyal to Chavez were preparing a counterattack, they knew that they had lost. They quickly returned Chavez to power and they themselves were quickly arrested.
The women told me of their joy and new sense of empowerment at this victory. “If they try it again,” they both said with so much conviction, “again we will beat them.” I, for one, totally believe them.
Next we strolled over to their clinic and met three Cuban doctors and a dentist. The small clinic was clean and orderly. Upstairs were the doctors’ living quarters. The doctors were very friendly and open to any questions.
How were you chosen to be here? I asked.
“A call was issued throughout Cuba’s medical community for volunteers to make a two- or three-year commitment and work in the poorest areas in Venezuela. Today there are 15,000 of us working in these communities.”
How were you received by the Venezuelans? Mixed reaction. The conservative opposition said we were an invading force sent by Fidel to take over the country. The people we serve welcomed us with great hospitality and now see us as an integral part of their community, as family.”
How much do you make? “We don´t have a salary — we have a stipend that covers our food and basic living expenses plus one month’s vacation in Cuba and free phone calls to friends and family.”
What motivated you to come to Venezuela? “Our Venezolano brothers needed us. We will go wherever our skills are needed.”
One of the three doctors there had just finished a three-year commitment in Africa and went straight into this new one in Venezuela.
How many patients do you see? “It varies, but we each see approximately 100 patients per week. The serious cases are referred to larger hospitals or taken to Cuba, all free of charge.” Amazing!
Just before it was time to leave, we stopped by the community supermarket. It was small but very clean and well stocked, and every item was sold at a reduced price.
As our cramped little bus started its bumpy descent, passing kids playing ball and people going about their daily routines, I began to sort out all that I had been exposed to this day. Two things stood out.
From the two women I learned that you can have a clear grasp and vision of how to create a better world without having gone to college and read tons of books, that a small act of defiance can blossom into a great sense of empowerment and that there is nothing so precious as dignity found.
After all my years in the movement and the books that I had read, I had felt that I understood the meaning of solidarity and internationalism very well. But the Cuban doctors taught me that internationalism is not an abstract intellectual idea. It is a more evolved and complex way of looking at the world. It is a concept that is born not in the mind, but closer to the heart.
What a beautiful day it was to be alive.
Arturo Cambron is a People’s Weekly World reader in Los Angeles.