Impoverished and oppressed look to Venezuela

"How did it happen that the President of Venezuela reached out to help the poor and the indigenous people of the United States?", Tim Giago asked in a March 19 Indianz.com article. He was referring to the provision of cheap heating oil to the US poor, including a number of Native American tribes, by the government of Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez.

The article explained how a group of US senators had appealed to oil corporations to assist low-income families in the face of record oil prices: "Most major oil companies were coming off of scandalous profits because of the sharp rise in fuel costs." "Only one company heeded the plea", Giago explained — Citgo, the US subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil corporation.

Giago's article was a response to criticism levelled at tribes that accepted Citgo's offer of discounted heating oil on the grounds that Chavez is an outspoken critic of the US government. An anti-Chavez campaign was run by the US corporate media and right-wing politicians after Chavez joked at the UN last September that Bush, whom he has repeatedly condemned as a war criminal, was "the devil".

While latching on to the "devil" comment in a bid to paint Chavez as "anti-American", the media failed to report that while slamming the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chavez praised the US people, arguing: "If we walk the streets of the Bronx, if we walk through the streets of New York, Washington, San Diego, California, any city ... and we ask the people on the street: the people of the US want peace."

Pointing out that US federal and state government low-income energy assistance programs have been cut in recent years leaving "many indigenous people in dire straits", Giago argued: "When it comes to a matter of surviving, Indians and other impoverished people reach out to any assistance available." Noting that "major oil corporations like Exxon had reaped more profit last year than at any time in their history", Giago wrote that "if the profit mongering oil companies of this Nation had stepped forward when called upon, there would have been no reason for Chavez and Citgo to step up. There is a lot of respect for President Chavez among the Indian nations of this country."

The example of the revolutionary changes in Venezuela, an impoverished Third World nation, is inspiring those who suffer oppression inside the world's richest nation. The April 9 South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that while the Venezuelan opposition accuses Chavez of "destroying their countries economy and curtailing individual rights, influential black intellectuals in the United States instead see a Latin American leader who speaks up for blacks". (The paper refers to the opposition as "many Venezuelans", neglecting to mention that the opposition, based on the middle and upper classes, is only supported by a minority of Venezuelans — Chavez won the last presidential election with the highest number of votes in Venezuelan history.)

The Sun-Sentinel reported that Washington-based African-American organisation TransAfrica Forum has organised trips to visit Venezuela and see firsthand the process of transformation wrought by the Bolivarian revolution led by Chavez's government, as well as build links with the growing Afro-Venezuelan movement. The paper quoted Jamaican-born publisher Rovan Locke as commenting that "Blacks here [in the US] and in the Third World see [Chavez] as someone who cares about them".

An article by Venezuela's ambassador to the US, Bernardo Alvarez, posted on Venezuelanalysis.com on April 5, explains that since the cheap heating oil program began in 2006, Venezuela has "delivered discounted heating oil to close to 500,000 families in 16 states and in 173 Native American tribes, while sending an additional shipment of 2.5 million barrels of gasoline after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina".

Alvarez explained that such measures are part of Venezuela's "democratic revolution" that is seeking to create a new system based on social justice, described as "socialism for the 21st century". As a result of Venezuela's domestic pro-poor policies, "poverty has fallen from 40 percent in 2005 to 30 percent in 2006, according to the World Bank".

The corporate media tend to focus overwhelmingly on the role of Chavez, however the revolutionary process in Venezuela is based directly on the mass involvement of the poor majority, and one of the most important aspects has been the move to construct direct, participatory democracy. The most significant institutions being promoted to construct popular power are the Communal Councils, grassroots bodies based on no more than 400 families that exercise direct control over their neighbourhoods and administer the government's anti-poverty programs.

A March 2 article posted on the website of the People's Organizing Committee, a grassroots group organising the poor in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, headlined "New Orleans survival council turns to Venezuela for support", reported on "a truly inspiring and life-changing trip" by African-American activists to Venezuela. The delegation of six met with different Communal Councils, which are inspiring the attempt to construct "survival councils" among the poor in order to solve the dire problems they have faced in Katrina's aftermath.

Trip participants were "awestruck to meet people who had such solidarity in their hearts for the poor and working black people in New Orleans, the U.S. and throughout the world".

In an emergency appeal to Venezuela for assistance, the delegation explained that "we come to you as people who have been deserted by the government in our own country". The statement pointed out that when the hurricane hit, "The poorest and darkest skinned of working class people were left to die, and more than 6,000 of us did". The appeal describes how the US government has not rebuilt the poor neighbourhoods destroyed by the hurricane, with tens of thousands of people "living in trailer camps that are like concentration camps". The appeal also stated that the government "has not even built levees around [poor neighbourhoods] that would keep out the water in the next hurricane".

The appeal asks for the Communal Councils, in conjunction with the Venezuelan government, to provide 25 activists to work in New Orleans helping organise the poor, and support for 25 New Orleans activists to visit Venezuela to study the Communal Councils. It also asks for resources to help construct a demonstration levee to pressure the government to construct levees, as well as "resources to help our people take back our public housing communities and provide alternative energy sources for our people who are moving back in because the U.S. government has refused to reopen these communities or provide heat [or] light".

The article reported that as a result of the appeal, a delegation from Venezuela will travel to New Orleans to investigate what assistance can be provided, as well as the possibility of "setting up a sister-city relationship between the Caracas Communal Councils and the New Orleans Survivor Council".