I have spent the past three weeks filming in the
hillside barrios of Caracas, in streets and breeze-block houses that defy gravity
and torrential rain and emerge at night like fireflies in the fog. Caracas is
said to be one of the world's toughest cities, yet I have known no fear; the poorest
have welcomed my colleagues and me with a warmth characteristic of ordinary Venezuelans
but also with the unmistakable confidence of a people who know that change is
possible and who, in their everyday lives, are reclaiming noble concepts long
emptied of their meaning in the west: "reform," "popular democracy,"
"equity," "social justice," and, yes, "freedom."
The other night, in a room bare except for a single fluorescent tube, I heard
these words spoken by the likes of Ana Lucia Fernandez, aged 86, Celedonia Oviedo,
aged 74, and Mavis Mendez, aged 95. A mere 33-year-old, Sonia Alvarez, had come
with her two young children. Until about a year ago, none of them could read
and write; now they are studying mathematics. For the first time in its modern
era, Venezuela has almost 100 percent literacy.
This achievement is due to a national program, called Mision Robinson, designed
for adults and teenagers previously denied an education because of poverty.
Mision Ribas is giving everyone a secondary school education, called a bachillerato.
(The names Robinson and Ribas refer to Venezuelan independence leaders from
the 19th century). Named, like much else here, after the great liberator Simon
Bolivar, "Bolivarian," or people's, universities have opened, introducing
as one parent told me, "treasures of the mind, history and music and art,
we barely knew existed." Under Hugo Chávez, Venezuela is the first
major oil producer to use its oil revenue to liberate the poor.
Mavis Mendez has seen, in her 95 years, a parade of governments preside over the
theft of tens of billions of dollars in oil spoils, much of it flown to Miami,
together with the steepest descent into poverty ever known in Latin America; from
18 percent in 1980 to 65 percent in 1995, three years before Chávez was
elected. "We didn't matter in a human sense," she said. "We lived
and died without real education and running water, and food we couldn't afford.
When we fell ill, the weakest died. In the east of the city, where the mansions
are, we were invisible, or we were feared. Now I can read and write my name, and
so much more; and whatever the rich, and their media say, we have planted the
seeds of true democracy, and I am full of joy that I have lived to witness it."
Latin American governments often give their regimes a new sense of legitimacy
by holding a constituent assembly that drafts a new constitution. When he was
elected in 1998, Chávez used this brilliantly to decentralize, to give
the impoverished grassroots power they had never known, and to begin to dismantle
a corrupt political superstructure as a prerequisite to changing the direction
of the economy. His setting-up of misions as a means of bypassing saboteurs
in the old, corrupt bureaucracy was typical of the extraordinary political and
social imagination that is changing Venezuela peacefully. This is his "Bolivarian
revolution," which, at this stage, is not dissimilar to the postwar European
Chávez, a former army major, was anxious to prove he was not yet another
military "strongman." He promised that his every move would be subject
to the will of the people. In his first year as president in 1999, he held an
unprecedented number of votes: a referendum on whether or not people wanted
a new constituent assembly; elections for the assembly; a second referendum
ratifying the new constitution — 71 percent of the people approved each
of the 396 articles that gave Mavis and Celedonia and Ana Lucia, and their children
and grandchildren, unheard-of freedoms, such as Article 123, which for the first
time recognized the human rights of mixed-race and black people, of whom Chávez
is one. "The indigenous peoples," it says, "have the right to
maintain their own economic practices, based on reciprocity, solidarity, and
exchange … and to define their priorities…." The little red book
of the Venezuelan constitution became a bestseller on the streets. Nora Hernandez,
a community worker in Petare barrio, took me to her local state-run supermarket,
which is funded entirely by oil revenue and where prices are up to half those
in the commercial chains. Proudly, she showed me articles of the constitution
written on the backs of soap power packets. "We can never go back,"
In La Vega barrio, I listened to a nurse, Mariella Machado, a big round black
woman of 45 with a wonderfully wicked laugh, stand and speak at an urban land
council on subjects ranging from homelessness to the Iraq war. That day, they
were launching Mision Madres de Barrio, a program aimed specifically at poverty
among single mothers. Under the constitution, women have the right to be paid
as carers, and can borrow from a special women's bank. From next month, the
poorest housewives will get about £120 a month. It is not surprising that
Chávez has now won eight elections and referendums in eight years, each
time increasing his majority, a world record. He is the most popular head of
state in the western hemisphere, probably in the world.
That is why he survived, amazingly, a Washington-backed coup in 2002. Mariella
and Celedonia and Nora and hundreds of thousands of others came down from the
barrios and demanded that the army remain loyal. "The people rescued me,"
Chávez told me. "They did it with all the media against me, preventing
even the basic facts of what had happened. For popular democracy in heroic action,
I suggest you need look no further."
The venomous attacks on Chávez, who is on a private visit to London
this month, have begun and resemble uncannily those of the privately owned Venezuelan
television and press, which called for the elected government to be overthrown.
Fact-deprived attacks on Chávez in theLondon Times and the Financial
Times this week, each with that peculiar malice reserved for true dissenters
from Thatcher's and Blair's "one true way," follow a travesty of journalism
on Channel Four News last month, which effectively accused the Venezuelan president
of plotting to make nuclear weapons with Iran, an absurd fantasy. The reporter
sneered at policies to eradicate poverty and presented Chávez as a sinister
buffoon, while Donald Rumsfeld was allowed to liken him to Hitler, unchallenged.
In contrast, Tony Blair, a patrician with no equivalent democratic record, having
been elected by a fifth of those eligible to vote and caused the violent death
of tens of thousands of Iraqis, is allowed to continue spinning his truly absurd
political survival tale.
Chávez is, of course, a threat, especially to the United States. Like
the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who based their revolution on the English cooperative
moment, and the moderate Allende in Chile, he offers the threat of an alternative
way of developing a decent society: in other words, the threat of a good example
in a continent where the majority of humanity has long suffered a Washington-designed
peonage. In the U.S. media in the 1980s, the "threat" of tiny Nicaragua
was seriously debated until it was crushed. Venezuela is clearly being "softened
up" for something similar. A U.S. Army publication, "Doctrine for
Asymmetric War Against Venezuela," describes Chávez and the Bolivarian
Revolution as the "largest threat since the Soviet Union and Communism."
When I said to Chávez that the U.S. historically had had its way in Latin
America, he replied: "Yes, and my assassination would come as no surprise.
But the empire is in trouble, and the people of Venezuela will resist an attack.
We ask only for the support of all true democrats."