In response to an invitation from Fundlatin, a Venezuelan ecumenical human rights organization, I joined a delegation of Catholic, evangelical and Protestant Christians in April 2006 to witness the dramatic changes taking place in several of Venezuela’s poorest barrios. We were an independent group sponsored neither by the government nor the opposition. Two Methodist ministers, Michael Clark and John Collins, led the group. Mike Clark once headed Witness for Peace, and he and John Collins had shepherded many groups to Nicaragua when it was governed by the Sandinistas. In the past year the two ministers had made several visits to Venezuela. Our principal guide was Lisa Sullivan, a resident and former Maryknoll lay missioner who has served for over 20 years in the Venezuelan barrios. Lisa was ably assisted by barrio residents, women religious, lay missioners, deacons and priests in each place we visited. They enabled us to see the country through the eyes of Venezuela’s poor and the extensive experience of their missionary servants.
The 10 days were filled with visits to barrios in Caracas, Barquisimeto and Sanare, a rural village in the Andes mountains. Daily we met scores of residents who explained the “revolution” (a word we heard everywhere) that has taken place in their lives during the past five years. The revolution has included literacy classes, the formation of small agrarian and industrial cooperatives, clean water and improved sanitary conditions, and free medical services. Their spirit of enthusiasm and hope filled the air.
Children in the Barrio
The faces of three smiling little girls, however, are what I remember most about my journey. Their lives symbolize the great changes taking place among Venezuela’s poor. The girls live in Barrio Pavia in Barquisimeto. I met them at a recently built day care center set up to look after them while their parents worked at nearby cooperatives. Some of the parents were building new homes or working in social services. Each day the children are bathed, since many homes (single-room shacks) in the barrio are still without running water. They are fed nutritious meals with food often made at one of the worker cooperatives (the Pavia co-op, for example, makes bread).
The little girls receive free health services at a new building offering dental and ophthalmologic services; family doctors are nearby. These medical services are called “Misio Barrio Adentro” (“Mission Inside the Neighborhood”). They represent a major improvement in the local residents’ quality of life. The medical missions are staffed largely by Cuban doctors and their Venezuelan assistants. We were told that some 15,000 Cuban doctors and other medical professionals work in Venezuela, because the government exchanges its oil for these services. The Cubans tend to serve the poorest areas, where most people had never seen a doctor or a clinic. The medical teams train local young people so that they can become doctors and other medical professionals in their own right. They also practice preventive medicine, visiting schools and homes to care for the lame, the elderly and newborns.
In Barquisimeto the major co-op is the bread factory, which sells its bread and a variety of other baked goods at the co-op store and also to other barrios. We visited co-ops that made pasta, yogurt, organically grown farm products, clothing and shoes; and we visited a brand new Internet café. The cooperatives are worker-owned.
The workers themselves determine the working conditions—salaries, profit-sharing and child care needs—of each cooperative. The local co-ops are linked to city and state cooperatives; and, although there is some state regulation, each is essentially self-sustaining in accord with the constitutional principle of decentralization. Many are owned and staffed by women. We met some local men who expressed surprise that women could function in the business world; others were thrilled to see their wives and daughters becoming liberated through the co-op system.
The health care and economic cooperatives are connected to over a dozen other new “Bolivarian missions” that include education, housing, nutrition, indigenous rights, science and land reform measures. These are truly revolutionizing the lives of poor Venezuelans. Should these continue, the three little girls I met in Barrio Pavia will have economic and social opportunities that would shock past generations of barrio dwellers.
Voices From the Barrio
The most significant voices we heard were those of the worker-owners, enthusiastic residents who explained that the first step toward co-op ownership began with literacy classes, since many in the barrios lacked basic reading skills. Then they attended classes for several months to learn the day-to-day operation of cooperatives: management, accounting, product distribution and other related concerns. Finally, they secured interest-free government loans—to buy land, construct or renovate a building, pay for essential start-up costs (tools and basic machinery, flour for bread and material for clothing). Some of the owners we met boasted that they had already paid off their government loans.
Young people and women in particular explained how their lives had been revolutionized: they now held decently paid jobs, their families were happier, and they were proud to be contributing to their community and nation.
Frequently the workers quoted from the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, passed by popular referendum. Before its passage, the Constitution had been debated and framed in part by the people themselves. It was not uncommon to hear people in the barrios say, “We wrote that article” or “That passage came from our barrio!”
The Preamble calls on the “protection of God” and “the historic example of our liberator Simon Bolívar” to “establish a democratic, participatory and self-reliant, multiethnic and multicultural society in a just, federal, and decentralized state” that “guarantees the right to life, work, learning, education, social justice and equality.”
The Venezuelan Constitution guarantees the right to health through a national public health system “governed by the principles of gratuity, universality, completeness, fairness, social integration and solidarity.” The right to form cooperatives is also guaranteed. We were surprised to find quotations from the Constitution on the food packages sold in all the stores.
The extensive human rights agenda in Venezuela’s Constitution bears a strong resemblance to Catholic social teaching. Indeed, the sections on “Fundamental Principles,” “Duties, Human Rights and Guarantees” and “Socioeconomic System” are similar to the newly released Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Many of the lay leaders, religious, deacons and priests we met praised the constitution and described it as the blueprint for the social changes taking place in Venezuela today.
Voices of Committed Pastors and Sisters
We attended a crowded Sunday liturgy and heard a stirring sermon on the Gospel and social justice by the Cuban-born pastor of Resurrection parish in Caricuao, the Rev. Pablo Urquiaga. Father Urquiaga provides a unique perspective on current events in Venezuela, having served as a priest in Cuba, in Miami and now in Caracas. He noted that there is freedom of speech, press and worship in Venezuela and that, as in Cuba, there are many social services for the poor, especially free medical care. He seemed pleased with this combination of freedom and social justice, rooted in the Constitution as well as church teaching. “We believe in democracy,” he said, but quickly added that authentic democracy must be grown in justice.
We met Father Mario Grippo of the Little Brothers of Jesus at the agricultural cooperative, Las Lajitas, high above Sanare—a lovely village in the Andes mountains. This co-op, founded 30 years ago by the Little Brothers, today serves as a model for government land reform programs. It produces many organically grown agricultural products (including the best yogurt I have ever tasted). Father Grippo reminded us that there is a long history of indigenous and missionary-inspired cooperatives in Latin America and wryly commented: “The people in the mountains have been at this a very long time. We are glad the government discovered us.”
The final voice that stands out was that of Sister Juanita, a Medical Mission Sister who has served in Venezuela for 50 years. She was happy that the government was finally doing what missioners had tried to accomplish. She told me that she had seen many failed attempts to help the people through the years, but believed these programs to be authentic because they were endogenous—from within. When I asked if she thought the changes would last, she said: “I’ve never seen the people so hopeful. This is the real thing. The revolution will last as long as there is no outside interference.”
A U.S. Invasion?
Sister Juanita’s mention of “outside interference” was a reference, of course, to a possible invasion by the United States. It was a concern we heard everywhere. We heard it from the people in the barrios who appeared to know much more about U.S. interference in Central and South America than do many American citizens. We heard it from the lay leaders, the women religious, and the deacons and priests. We heard it from hotel workers and people on the street. The people are well aware of the U.S. role in the attempted coup against President Chávez and the economic destabilization program of 2002.
Supporters of President Chávez and his government are deeply concerned that the United States is, or will be, funding opposition groups in order to defeat him at the polls or, if this fails, to see that he is overthrown by overt or covert means. The presidential election on Dec. 4 will be closely watched, and several groups from other nations plan to serve as election observers.
Primera Justicia, an opposition group with whom we met, contends that the United States will not invade or attack Venezuela and that the people are being brainwashed into such thinking by the Chávez government. The group’s members acknowledged the success of the missions in the barrios, but called it “window dressing” designed to further President Chávez’s dictatorial goals and his ties with Cuba’s Castro. They said they would play an active role in the forthcoming presidential election. On the other hand, their critics contend that Primera Justicia is funded by the C.I.A.
A great deal depends, therefore, on what the Bush administration actually does regarding the December elections. If, as feared, the United States interferes, the people in the barrios told us they will protest by the millions, as they did during the attempted coup against Chávez in 2002. Citizen-based National Guard units are being armed and trained in case the country is invaded. Young people told us they would fight to the death for their country and their Constitution.
What position the American people take in response to overt or covert attempts by the U.S. government to overthrow the legitimate government of Venezuela is, for the people in the barrios, the key question. They begged us to tell the American people to leave them alone so that they can develop as they see fit. They know from personal experience that governments respond to the will of the people. They fervently pray that their sisters and brothers in the North will demand that the U.S. government act justly toward Venezuela.