Venezuela Update - August 12, 2004
By Alexandra Beech, sixthrepublic.com
Just as Chavez has many faces, so does his revolution. On the one hand is the revolution which draws international raves for its social programs and calls for sovereignty. This revolution resides in the conceptual utopia which holds that Venezuela is on an irreversible course towards equality, prosperity, and freedom.
This revolution is painted in murals across poor neighborhoods, along with colorful images and quotes of Simon Bolivar. This revolution also permeates the classrooms where poor adults learn to read, and in the bright faces of those who yearn for a home or a university education for their children.
Then there’s the revolution that people in small towns live, and that has nothing to do with the “peaceful” and “democratic” revolution which Chavez leads.
For the poor in Venezuela’s towns, rendering honor to Chavez and the revolution means survival. Those who lead the revolution in oil-dependent places like Anaco, Cantaura, Temblador, and Morichal have no need for democracy and plurality. In what many would call “the real Venezuela”, where children with hollow eyes walk on dirt roads holding bags of yuka, democracy means voting NO for jobs, for food, and for other benefits that they are told that they will lose if they vote any other way.
Over the weekend, I drove through Venezuela’s oil rich state of Anzoategui. I spoke to people who live in the Anaco slums of La Florida Natereña, Monterrey, Anaquito, and Guayabal, four of the eighty five barrios in Anaco Municipality. The residents of these slums live in windowless tin houses which are twelve by eight feet, with dirt floors. Some are surrounded by drying clothes. One has a flower garden.
On Sunday, I spoke to Olga Urdaneta, the President of the Federation of Neighborhood Associations of Anaco, who lives in a two room bright yellow tin house in Monterrey barrio. Urdaneta oversees the presidents of the eighty five neighborhood associations in her municipality. Among lobbying for schools and other functions, the presidents of the neighborhood associations negotiated with PDVSA for their unemployed workers, until the revolution blew into town.
As many of the neighborhood associations joined the opposition, PDVSA replaced them with “Comites de Desempleado” (Committees for the Unemployed) to represent the unemployed before the Frente Unico Trabajadores, the government-created workers union which has the mandate to disburse PDVSA temporary jobs, the most cherished by the poor, due to their higher wages, benefits, and severances.
According to Urdaneta, this new structure has increased corruption substantially, as the pro-government committee heads sell available jobs and visit workers’ homes on Fridays to demand 20-30% of their salaries. On Thursdays, workers collect their pay.
In addition, working for PDVSA - the main employer in the region - requires loyalty to Chavez.
According to an unemployed worker I interviewed on Sunday morning, workers who seek jobs in the country’s state oil company must carry a badge pinned to their shirt with a photo of Chavez. Only those who say that they will vote for the No are considered for work. Many are also visited by Patrulleros, pro-government workers in charged of collecting at least ten pro-government No votes each. The Patrulleros tell the poor that the fingerprint machines which will be used on August 15th will tell them how each person voted in the referendum. The man I interviewed, as well as residents of the La Florida Natereña, expressed doubt over the secrecy of the vote, especially after the signatures of prior signature drives became public. However, many claim that they plan to vote for the Si vote, regardless of consequences. Chief among their concerns was the hatred that Chavez had instilled in Venezuelans. "People are killing each other here for their beliefs," said one. "Families have stopped talking to each other," claimed another. However, others also admitted that they would vote No.
Urdaneta also said that people who openly admit that they will vote for the Si are forbidden from shopping in Mercal Abasto in Anaquito, a government subsided food store. She says that when she recently requested an Identification program for her neighborhood, she was told by DIEX (identification) authorities that she would have to ask the local Bolivarian Circle to submit her request. In addition, she said that when she recently requested a neighborhood school from the Manager of Social Development at PDVSA Gas Anaco, she was informed that her project would have to be approved by “the Cubans”. Enraged, she wondered how “Cubans could know what we need here more than me.”
The presence of Cubans in PDVSA is well documented in this region. A local dentist told me that he was approached by PDVSA to construct and equip a dentistry office for the Missions. He furnished the office and purchased the equipment. Then he was told that he would head the office, which he gladly accepted. Rather abruptly, he was informed that he would not be the head, since a Cuban dentist would take over. Resigned, he is yet one more person who will vote for the Si on August 15th.
I also interviewed a government supporter who lives in a slum. He said that he had recently joined Plan Sucre, an educational program for adults. I asked him if he was receiving money to join, and he said that he was receiving 160,000 bolivars per month. I asked him whether the busloads of people who had left Anaco on their way to the government march on Sunday had been paid. He said he didn’t know, but added that PDVSA workers had driven around the missions asking people to attend. In addition, he said that PDVSA was paying for the buses. However, others told me that those who are transported to government events in Caracas are paid with cash, alcohol, and a bag of food. One woman received 100,000 bolivars and a bag of food.
In this area, No signs are plastered everywhere, while the Si signs have been splashed with paint. However, there’s a saying that “poles and cars don’t vote”, meaning that the thousands of No posters plastered on light poles and in the backs of cars don’t signify the number of voters in the region. “The way I see it,” said the dentist”, the Chavistas want you to know that they’re voting for the No…that’s why you see the No on their cars. But all those cars you see out there with nothing, those are voting for the Si.”
What is most troubling is the misuse of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, for campaigning purposes. Recently, PDVSA workers drove through the poorest neighborhoods in the region offering food vouchers from the “Revolucion Bonita”, or Pretty Revolution. (image of voucher given to me by an unemployed worker above.) They were told to pick up a free bag of food on August 14th, one day before the recall referendum. They were also given a No poster. Driving by PDVSA’s offices in the region, I was struck by the huge red No signs hanging from the sides of the buildings. From a distance, all that was evident was the No message. Closer, in tiny writing, the draping signs read “a la droga” in small letters. No one in this area is amused, as humorous as the signs may be intended. PDVSA belongs to all Venezuelans, and should not be used to starve those who do not support the government, nor should it be used to promote political campaigns.
“He is going to eliminate us,” said Urdaneta. “He is going to take us down to the Santa Rosa Gas plant and burn us in those ovens because we don’t agree with him,” referring to the opposition’s poor and Chavez. But Venezuelan humor is not funny when lives and futures are at stake.
Tidbits of Interest
*As I write, thousands wearing Venezuelan flag paraphernalia are heading towards the Altamira Distribuidora, for what is expected to be one of the largest opposition gatherings in recent history. (I can hear them walking along San Juan Bosco avenue where I am writing at a computer center.) Among the surprises expected are an appearance by former CTV union leader Carlos Ortega and defections of ruling party lawmakers. We’ll see.
* Two delegations representing the Cuban government´s business interests have allegedly recently visited Venezuela and met with the opposition, signaling that Cuba may be bracing itself for an opposition victory.
* At least one Cuban national who lives in Venezuela is helping Cubans who have defected from the missions. These Cubans are scared that they will be identified, since their families still live in Cuba. Some have simply walked off the job and assimilated into Venezuelan culture with illegal status. Under a new government, they will likely seek nationalization. Others are attempting to cross into Colombia to make their way north.
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