CHICAGO – In an effort to share experiences led by grassroots struggles, leaders from Venezuela and local community groups here on the Southwest Side of the city came together to talk about what it takes to organize residents, fight for people’s power and encourage participatory democracy from the bottom up.

The March 24 event, “People’s organization to solve community problems: Venezuela and the U.S. – comparative experiences” was organized by the Salvation Army in conjunction with local groups here in the Lawndale area and the Venezuelan consulate.

“This forum is an opportunity to share experiences on how to organize communities,” said Luis Edgardo Ramirez with The Salvation Army.

Ramirez welcomed the distinguished panel along with the residents in attendance. He talked about how the Salvation Army center, and location of the forum re-opened five months ago after pressure from the community. The center had been closed for three years.

“Today we work to make fundamental change in our neighborhood and to build unity,” Ramirez said.

Programs to help local residents pay their utility bills and a weekly food pantry that serves 100 people are some of the initiatives provided by the center. Art classes including guitar lessons for youth are also provided.

Eric Hermosillo is the coordinator with the Southwest Community Block Club and presented some activities his group offers area residents. He said one of their aims is to ensure that fair city services are made available to members of the community such as youth programs and information about housing rights.

“We work with area residents to make and build positive relationships,” he said. Hermosillo said sharing experiences and learning about community development taking place in Venezuela will be helpful.

“I know community organizing is not an easy task and change does not happen over night,” he said. “But it must start from the bottom-up.”

Hermosillo said some of the achievements made by his group include getting much- needed speed bumps on local streets, issuing new stop signs and cleaning neighborhood graffiti.

“It’s important that communities work together and form more block clubs in order to create positive change,” Hermosillo said.

Carolina Rivera is a coordinator with the Southwest Organizing Project, a local group that develops community leadership and advocates for immigrant rights and fair housing programs.

Rivera mentioned how her group directs a parent-mentoring program for elementary and high school students.

“It’s very important when children see father figures in the class room with them,” said Rivera. “This is an opportunity as parents to be involved in the lives of our children that ultimately helps every student succeed,” she said.

Jesus Rodriguez-Espinoza, consulate general of Venezuela in Chicago introduced the Venezuelan speakers from the state of Lara. He said what’s happening on a local level in Chicago communities has a lot in common with what’s occurring in Venezuelan neighborhoods. “Grassroots projects in Venezuela could even inspire and encourage change here,” he said.

Edgar Carrasco is the mayor of Carora from the state of Lara.

“The only way to achieve social justice in Venezuela was to transfer power to the people,” Carrasco said. The first thing they did in Carora was to reform the local bylaws.

“It’s important to note that this process was mobilized by the entire community who actively participated in the reform movement in order to gain decision-making power,” Carrasco said. “Once we were in control of the budget, funds were allocated directly toward projects organized by the people. This participatory budget is what we now call ‘popular power.’”

Carrasco added that because of their success the national assembly in the Bolivarian government headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez passed legislation in order to assist grassroots reforms across the country.

“This began what we call ‘community councils’ directed by the people and their priorities,” said Carrasco.

Rafael Enrique Colmenarez is a coffee farmer and producer as well as a community organizer from Lara. He talked about how reforms enacted by the Chavez government have helped small farmers like him make a living without having to compete with corporations in the big business.

“Communal banks directed by the government allow small farmers like myself to stay in business,” he said.

Former mayor of Carora and now state representative of Lara, Julio Chavez, spoke in detail about the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela and building a new society from below.

“There is nothing more important to us then the participatory democracy taking place in Venezuela right now,” Chavez said.

He noted that for too long the city of Carora was controlled economically by the power of the few.

Responding to attacks against the Venezuelan government in the U.S. Chavez asked, “When all the resources are directly put in the hands of the majority of the people, is that really a dictatorship?”

Chavez added, “Are popular clinics that provide free health care services to people who have never had them before really a sign of an autocratic society?”

Through our efforts social programs and missions are providing resources for more and more students to get a higher education that benefits the entire country, he said. “Everyday more people are joining a movement to solve problems facing all Venezuelans.”

Revolutionary laws such as land reform are providing small farmers to grow their own crops for the first time, which is supported by our government, he said.

“Maybe some people don’t agree with Venezuela or our president but how can our reforms refute the democratic process unfolding in communities all across our country. Power in Venezuela is in the hands of the people.”

The Venezuelan path was limited and did not have many options, he added. “We were forced to find an alternative that prioritized people’s concerns first.”

Chavez extended an invitation to audience members and all Americans to visit the towns and cities of Venezuela to witness what is taking place there.

U.S. delegations should organize exchanges from here to there to see that what we want is peace and democracy, he said.

“We understand that we need an alternative system other than capitalism. A structure that puts human beings first before the profits of corporate powers and it must start from the bottom-up,” Chavez said.

“Our path in Venezuela is not an easy one and faces many challenges but it’s always the people who have the final say in this movement or in any democratic process because ultimately ours is a fight to save humanity,” said Chavez.