Nothing quite prepares you for a first visit to Venezuela ― especially when the country is polarised between two very different visions for the future.
This is how it was just before the October 7 presidential elections, which socialist President Hugo Chavez won with 55% of the vote in the largest turnout, more than 81%, in Venezuelan history.
The polarisation was marked by the fact that Chavez, who ran on a platform for a transition to socialism, and the opposition, whose right-wing candidate Henri Capriles ran on a platform that claimed to support Chavez's famous social missions, received their highest votes ever since Chavez was first elected in 1998.
The mood was electric. Everyone had an opinion and they were not shy about letting you know it.
There was the old man who spat at me at La Bandera bus station mistakenly presuming I was a supporter of Capriles. And there was the woman very moved that Australians were interested in Venezuela's process of change.
The atmosphere was like nothing I'd experienced in any election campaign in Australia.
The Venezuelan people are engaged in a huge social and economic challenge to the old capitalist order. Call it what you want: it is anti-capitalist, pro-socialist and profoundly democratic.
To live among it ― even for a few weeks ― was exhilarating, challenging and humbling.
Venezuela is also very loud. From the campaign anthems booming out from personal PAs in car boots and front yards, to the huge ones stationed at every major intersection of seven major avenues in central Caracas for the final election rally, to the fire crackers that awakened the poll booth workers at 3am to the victory fireworks that ended the day. The lack of any volume control takes some adjusting to.
But the assault on my senses was not only limited to sound. I joined one of the biggest international solidarity brigades to Venezuela, organised by Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network (AVSN), to witness the revolution up close and observe the elections.
A highlight was taking part in the most memorable election rally ever on October 4 ― along with 3 million other people who had traveled, in some cases all night, to be a part of history.
The AVSN brigade was co-organised by Coral Wynter, a retired biochemist who first visited Venezuela in the 1970s when Venezuela was ruled by the right-wing Carlos Andres Perez government. She recently became a star after two local TV stations repeatedly screened the documentary Chasing Chavez on election eve.
The film follows Wynter's attempt to present a copy of the book she co-wrote, Voices From Venezuela, to Chavez. After these screenings, Wynter couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed as the “Australiana” who supports Venezuela.
Mostly from Australia, the brigadistas included a Dane, a Greek, a Russian and a Mexican ― all with different political views, but all interested in the process in Venezuela.
Despite different takes, we all came away convinced that a very profound political transformation is taking place, despite difficulties and set-backs.
How else can you explain the huge reduction in poverty from 70% to 25% over the past 10 years? Or eradication of illiteracy and the leap from 25% to 75% secondary school attendance?
About 60% of the budget now goes to health, education and transport. A network of state-run, heavily subsided food stores ensures people no longer eat dog food, as many were forced to in the past. They no longer have to beg to survive.
Today, the poor living in shanty towns, barrios, are steadily being allocated new apartments: hundreds of thousands of which are being built as part of Mision Vivienda.
Gilberto Rodriguez, from the housing department, showed us some he had designed in central Caracas. All had been built on what were private car parking lots requisitioned on the basis that housing is a human right.
Victims of the devastating floods in December 2010 were given first choice. We met some families who had been rescued and were still living in the department of housing offices.
It is estimated Venezuela will need to build at least 300,000 apartments a year to satisfy demand over the next six years. This is part of the Chavez government’s plan for its next term.
We were invited to visit a new apartment block and met some of the happy first-time home-owners who were unpacking as builders put the finishing touches to the building.
A new owner had already struck a problem: her front door key wasn’t working and she had now found the closest person to officialdom she could to complain. Rodriquez heard her out and they talked about a communal strata group that could start to involve others problem solving.
For me, this small exchange was a metaphor for the Bolivarian revolution. Even at this micro-level, new collective organs of popular power are needed to solve problems ― in this case, a new owner-strata committee.
Rodriguez explained that the Bolivarian government had “quantified the social debt” and mapped out its forward plans accordingly. Investment in education, health, housing, public transport (including light rail and the cable car) are its current priority areas.
The Caracas metro certainly puts the Sydney train network to shame. It is a cheap, clean, modern train system, with trains that arrive at all stations every few minutes.
We trialled the new line to Cua, south of Caracas, where new apartments are being built along the line to house Caracas-based and local workers to reduce congestion in the dense, 5 million-person city.
We also took a ride on the Tereferico cable car up to the Avila National Park ― previously a playground for the rich. Today, the price having been slashed, ordinary families start queuing early for a day out in the cool mountains. And when up in the air you can see why.
Without Cuba’s help, it would have been a lot harder for the Bolivarian government to provide the free medical care to which Venezuelans now have access. The Barrio Adentro health clinics ― in their characteristic hexagonal shape ― provide all the services communities need from general practice medicine to diagnostic tests. Other levels of the service include more sophisticated equipment and expertise.
The Cuban doctors we met had given up a couple of years to assist Venezuelan doctors get the system working. When pressed, one young Cuban doctor, a father with a young family, admitted he was a little homesick. But he also spoke of his pride in having helped pioneer the new Bolivarian medical system.
A visit to a serum laboratory in the Central University, where scientists are hoping to produce enough vaccines to be able to immunise the whole of Latin America, is yet another example of this revolution’s approach.
Regional solidarity ― summed up by the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of our America (ALBA), which promotes pro-people trading policies ― is intrinsic to Venezuela’s revolution.
Uniting eight governments, it’s more than a trading block. It is a new, revolutionary alternative to US-pushed “free trade" agreements that benefit the huge corporations. ALBA promotes social, political, and economic integration based on international cooperation.
On October 4, 3 million people took over the streets of Caracas in the largest rally in Venezuela's history to support Chavez. Corporate media outlets implied many were bribed or coerced. That is not what we witnessed. People in the streets demonstrated their genuine enthusiasm for Chavez.
Support for Chavez is high because, for the past 14 years, the majority have been able to exercise rights previously denied them. Many have taken ownership of the political process from which they had previously been excluded.
The impact is definitive: people we met exuded a confidence about the future ― something in short supply in the West.
Venezuela has something profound to share with the world. It has not been, nor will it ever be, easy to create something new out of the old especially when the old elites still wield considerable power ― as the higher vote for the opposition indicates.
The next six years will be a big challenge, especially for the younger generation. They will have to deepen and strengthen the institutions of participatory democracy to take power into their own hands.
In a piece entitled “An Imperfect Victory” written the day after the election victory, Merida-based Venezuela Analysis journalist Tamara Pearson noted the high vote for the opposition indicated some serious challenges facing the process of change.
Pearson said: “There are concrete and legitimate reasons and also invalid and ridiculous ones why people voted against Chavez.”
“I would argue”, she said, “that there is discontent with the perpetual bureaucracy and corruption within the ranks of the PSUV and government institutions, and with the slowness in really addressing the issue of the malfunctioning justice system and of crime rates.
“There is a layer of Chavista leadership with a low level of consciousness and which doesn’t do its job, and people can see that and are frequently directly affected by it.
“Many who voted against Chavez however, did so as a result of the national private media’s intense campaign of lies against the revolution, with comfortable middle class people who have cars, wide screen televisions, and huge daily meals complaining about Venezuela being a 'disaster', there being 'scarcity' of food, the economy a “wreck” and so on. The massive international media campaign also helped boost Capriles.
“Other voters felt Chavez had taken the socialist project 'too far', beyond progressive social policies and into radical territory, while others had 'third term phenomenon'; that belief that a president shouldn’t be in power for 'too long' and that any kind of alternative ... is a 'necessary change'.”
“In fact,” Pearson concluded, “for a candidate running for a third term, Chavez’s lead was quite huge.”
There are clearly many challenges. But I am optimistic there is the will to overcome them ― and international solidarity can play an important role.
[Pip Hinman was a member of the Australia Venezuela Solidarity network-organised solidarity brigade to Venezuela to observe the elections. Hinman is a member of the national executive of Socialist Alliance.]