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Venezuela Update - August 6, 2004

By Alexandra Beech,

Caracas - I visited some of the poorest neighborhoods in Caracas. My objective was to witness with my own eyes and ears how people feel, what they’re saying. I stopped reading the polls last week, because the pollsters seem as confused as the rest of the country. During the last two pollster presentations I have attended, some of the country’s smartest men couldn’t figure out who was going to win the referendum. In baseball terms, those are either fouls or strikes.

First, I looked for external signs of support for either the President (No) or the Opposition (Yes). Everywhere in Sucre Avenue, and deep in the streets of El 23 de Enero, (No) signs are overwhelming. I spotted one brave and lonely (Si) hanging out of window in El 23 de Enero. At the tops of the colorful residential buildings in El 23 de Enero, built during the dictatorship of Perez Gimenez, blue and red flags waved the presence of Tupamaros, a radical (and in some cases violent) pro-government group. A meticulously painted wall read, "Tupamaros - profundizemos la Revolucion¨.

I stopped at a community center in Avenida Sucre, where students of the Mision Rivas social program meet every day. Having completed Mision Robinson I (seven week literacy program), Mision Robinson II (two semesters of primary school), Mision Rivas was preparing students for high school. In addition, students of varying ages learn handicrafts.

The community center, once a public toilet (the tubing still sticks out of the walls) is now painted with bright colors. Oil paintings adorn the walls, and a bulletin board is covered with portraits of Simon Bolivar. Its director, who ran the center for years before the government’s Missions came along, said that everyone at the center wanted to vote for Chavez. I asked if there was tolerance for the opposition. Of course, he assured me. It’s just that no one had offered a (Si) poster. He said that 116 people of all ages studied at the center, and that Missions had been set up throughout the country at evangelical churches, public and private schools, private homes, and other venues. Their number was difficult to estimate.

While I was forbidden from speaking to the Cuban doctors in a nearby Barrio Adentro, I was allowed to speak openly with the class which was in session. Their ages varied from adolescence to at least one woman in her seventies. They were sitting in neat desks in front of notebooks. Before them was a large television set, with a frozen image of the video they were viewing before I walked in. (The videotapes are provided by the Cuban government.)

The questions that I asked them centered around the Missions, and the referendum. I didn´t focus on Chavez, since their unwavering loyalty to him was obvious. I asked them whether the Missions were being used to indoctrinate them, and immediately felt ridiculous saying it: these were adults with their own opinions. They assured me that the tapes had no mention of politics or ideology. Reviewing the video library, I saw subjects such as geography, language, English, and mathematics. I told them that there was concern that Fidel was using education to meddle. They said that they would have studied any tapes that would have helped them learn, whether those tapes were Cuban or North American. One woman, who was vocal throughout our meeting, said that no one could deny that Cuba had excelled in education and culture. Why not use their teaching methods, she wanted to know.

I told them that pollsters said that people in the barrios were scared to admit that they support the (Si) vote. They chuckled. A man in his sixties said that life in the barrio is completely misunderstood from the outside, that Copeyanos (Social Christian Democrats), Adecos (Democratic Accion) and Chavistas get along, that the rumors of intolerance were completely false. I told them that there was fear that Chavistas would be violent on August 15th, and they said that Chavistas were yearning for a transparent referendum, so that everyone could see what they’ve known all along, that Chavez has a majority. I asked them if Chavistas are paid to attend the marches, and the woman in her seventies quickly lit up. Absolutely not, she said. The rest of the class enthusiastically echoed her answer. I asked if the busloads of Chavistas who come in from the interior of the country are paid. Once again, many said they had relatives from other places who paid their transportation to see Chavez.

Throughout our talk, I realized that the reason that Chavez has garnered support during the worst economic crisis in the country’s history is because he has fought this battle on an emotional level, and that is why he is still around. The center’s director explained to me that part of the program includes touching and hugging, that people come looking for affection. One woman, perhaps in her eighties, had just come by to say hi. She told him that was working on her homework, then burst in tears. True to form, he touched her arm.

Emotions go a long way in a culture of neglect. By generating positive emotions among the poor, Chavez has forced statistics and facts out the window. One woman who works in El 23 de Enero school system told me that some children faint from hunger during class. She said that recently, students who bring one meal to school, (which she emphasized to be a sandwich, banana, or orange) have been forced to split their lunches in half with their fellow students. The fact is that more Venezuelans are hungry today than ever.

Moreover, Chavez has instilled fear in the population. Those who signed for the referendum faced severe consequences, such as getting fired or losing scholarships. The fact that people have been tortured, detained, or killed under questionable circumstances is well documented. Moreover, just as the US government has created a culture of fear in the US, Chavez has created a culture of fear in Venezuela. He has divided the country by making opposition people fear Chavistas. Throughout our ride through the barrios, my companions were scared of the groups of people wearing red (No) t-shirts standing outside government buildings. When Chavez has said, "attack", a relative few of his supporters have, thus, he has succeeded in creating an image of all of his supporters as violent and resentful. In isolating and alienating them from the rest of society, he can manipulate and control them.

Chavez has failed to build homes, create employment, and generate enough economic growth to alleviate much of the misery in the country. The hope of the opposition rests on the vote of those poor people who are worse off today than they were six years ago.

But that vision may be shortsighted. The opposition says, "the poor are not stupid. They know what’s going on." But talking to the poorest of the poor today, I have to wonder whether it’s the opposition that doesn’t know what’s going on. The opposition says: "all those people are just scared to say they support us." The students told me that it was many in the middle class and upper class that are scared to admit that they support Chavez.

The big message today was: The people have woken up. One woman, whose birthday we celebrated with cake and coke at the end of the conversation, said that whoever is the next president will have to deal with the poor, that the poor will never allow governments to forget them again. That may be the wisest observation I have heard recently.

Alexandra Beech ( or

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