'An experience none of us will forget': December Venezuela solidarity brigade


The Australian-Venezuela Solidarity Brigade organised its ninth solidarity brigade to Venezuela from December 1-9. Brigade coordinator Federico Fuentes, who works in the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau, explains the inspiring experience of brigade participants. The AVSN is organising two brigades in 2010,further brigades, the first being from April 24-May 2, (registrations close February 1). For more information, or to register, visit www.venezuelasolidarity.org.

Speaking to activists in the "Rebirth of the South" Commune in Valencia, solidarity brigade participant Arul from the Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) said that since arriving in Venezuela, many of his friends had been asking if he had met President Hugo Chavez.

He had told them: "While I have not met Hugo Chavez, what I have discovered is that all the people I have met in Venezuela carry a Chavez within, because it is the people, together with Chavez, who are driving this revolution forward."

The visit to Valencia to find out more about how the communes are providing a space for popular participation and decision-making about people's everyday problems was just one of the many highlights for the ninth solidarity delegation to Venezuela organised by the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network (AVSN).

Since 2005, the AVSN has been organising groups of people from Australia and other countries to see the profound changes Venezuela is undergoing, as a result of the revolutionary process.

During the nine days of activities, from December 1-9, the delegation was able to speak to Venezuelans from all walks of life, who explained to us why, as Venezuela's communications ministry puts it, "the extraordinary has become the everyday norm" in Venezuela.

A great example is the process of building communes from the ground up. Activists in Valencia explained the community— which is already organised into communal councils made up of 200-400 families who came together to resolve some of their small, local problems — is working to link the councils together into a commune so that they can begin to tackle problems that affect the broader community.

They took us around to see some of the projects they had helped to initiate. These included a local transport cooperative providing cheap transport for the community, and a grandparents' home where elderly people could receive free lunches, medical assistance and pass the time together in various activities.

The brigade also visited a textile cooperative where, thanks to government training and credit loans, women had been able to organise themselves and create employment for the local area.

Single mothers from poor families involved in the Mothers in the Neighbourhood program explained to us how they were benefiting from government scholarships that allowed women to return to study — not just to finish high school but also receive vocational training or go on to university.

The brigade participants were able to speak to students of all ages who, due to government social programs, were being given the opportunity to complete their high-school education and receive technical training to work in the state oil company, PDVSA, where employment was previous restricted to an elite few.

Activists from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela-Youth (PSUV-J), all under the age of 30 and who are taking on important responsibilities in the National Experimental Polytechnical University of the Bolivarian Armed Forces, told us how, in just five years, the university has expanded from 2000 students who came exclusively from the families of generals and high-ranking military officials to the more than 200,000 students today from previously excluded poorer sectors of society.

The university now has campuses across the country.

Cuban doctors involved in the Mission Into the Neighbourhoods told the brigade how, together with the Venezuelan government and people, they have been providing free, quality healthcare, including more than 332 million medical consultations in four years, and have saved 126,000 lives.

In many cases, these consultations were with people who previously could never afford to see a doctor.

In the militant neighbourhood of 23 de Enero, the brigade visited a Bolivarian School and a Mission Robinson class, where adults are able to learn basic literacy and numeracy.

They also visited a community radio station in the neighbourhood, one of many that have sprung up in communities across the country, and a community run infocentre that provides local residents with free internet and computer skills training.

Brigade participants were also fortunate to attend the first Extraordinary Congress of the National Union of Workers (UNT), the largest union confederation in the country. There they spoke to union leaders from the construction and automotive sector regarding workers' struggles in revolutionary Venezuela.

Leaders of the electrical workers federation, Fetraelec, told us the struggle that the workers, backed by Chavez, are waging to defeat the bureaucracy embedded in the electrical sector, which has driven the state company into crisis, and their alternative for workers' control of the industry.

Gonzalo Gomez, a delegate to the PSUV congress and a member of the Caracas regional leadership of the party, spoke to us about how the ongoing PSUV congress was progressing. He told us about the important debates among not just congress delegates, but also the local, grassroots units of the party, which each week for the next four months will receive report-backs from their congress delegates.

The delegation also met with representatives from the foreign ministry to discuss a number of proposals regarding ongoing solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution.

In all, the brigade was a fantastic opportunity to see first-hand how the revolution has touched the lives of ordinary Venezuelans. Everywhere we went, the people opened their doors and hearts to us.

The experience is one that none of us will forget. Fortunately, the AVSN is running two solidarity brigades from Australia next year, where others will be able to share similar experiences. The first will run from April 24 to May 2, 2010, and will coincide with celebrations to mark 200 years of Venezuelan independence as well as allowing participants to march with thousands of workers on May 1, International Workers Day.

For those who participated in the brigade, we know that the visit was just the first part. Having experienced such wonderful people and places, we all go home more committed than ever to the cause of building solidarity with the Venezuelan people and their revolution.

Heryck Rangel, from the PSUV-J, told us: "We need to fight for a better world today."