Mision Vuelvan Caras, literally "about-face", is a social project — or mission — launched by the revolutionary government of Venezuela in 2004 to train and offer employment to thousands of people. It is changing the lives of a large number of the country's citizens, many of whom previously had no formal education or jobs to rely on.
The official objective of Mision Vuelvan Caras, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information website, is to "guarantee the involvement of the creative force of the people in the production of goods and services, overcoming the conditions of exclusion and poverty generated in the last four decades".
Specifically, this is to involve "Initiating the process for the Nuclei of Endogenous Development, which are centres for the formation, organisation and ongoing assistance to the new units of production [cooperatives]". The website also highlights the aim of the mission to develop "areas not favourable to industrialisation, in order to create popular power, well-being and at the same time decentralise the cities". It will also apply "ecological criteria, teaching methods and technologies that are in harmony with the environment".
The strategic lines to be followed by Mision Vuelvan Caras include "Converting — through work — the creative potential of the people into popular power".
Travelling through the regions of eastern Venezuela recently, we encountered a number of groups of people involved in Mision Vuelvan Caras. In the tiny village of Curimagua, in the San Luis Mountains near the historic town of Coro in Falcon state, we met a couple of groups who were engaged in open-air classes in the village square.
Nelson Hernandez, a Mision Vuelvan Caras facilitator, spoke to Green Left Weekly about the project his group was undertaking: "We are doing a class on [developing] tourist hostels (posadas). [Participants] are learning how to prepare meals, and how to run a hostel, to understand client service. There are two hostels being developed, one in Curimagua and one in Cabure.
"This involves social-political courses for two months, as well as training in hydroponic cultivation to grow organic food. This includes all the kinds of vegetables you need to prepare meals. The other part of the studies includes training in reception, how to make up hostel rooms, cleaning, laundry, cooking, running a restaurant — everything to do with providing accommodation for clients.
"We should finish this month [September]. The participants will then set up cooperatives, in Curimagua and in Cabure [to run the posadas]. Each group is going to buy a house, with credit [from the government]. They have places in mind. The money will be placed in a cooperative [account]. They are intending to start work from October 30."
Hernandez said that Mision Vuelvan Caras had a role in the Bolivarian revolution, "to allow people to obtain technical information, political knowledge and the opportunity to begin to work with the practical skills they have gained in the course".
"This is the first such course in these parts. It has been very effective, with most people quite satisfied. Many women are participating, with 30 women and six men in this course.
"It is a good opportunity for people to be productive, to learn. They want to produce and [earn a living].
"We [facilitators] were prepared through a three-month course in Churuguara, to put together the training for them. They will receive a certificate and credentials, and also the funding to set up their [operations]. People will continue to come and assist them, to ensure there is no failure."
Nearby, another Vuelvan Caras facilitator, Sara Hernandez, had just finished her class. "I am an agronomist. My work is to teach new agricultural production techniques, to understand the planting of seeds and growing of plants", she told GLW. "We are teaching new methods that they can implement that don't harm the environment. They currently have the practice here of cutting and burning, which is a problem.
"The people here have the capacity to produce food, but [have lost] the culture [for farming]. They tell me that previous generations used to grow [vegetables and fruit], but not now. They want to take it back. They want to use organic techniques. We use very few agro-chemicals, the least possible.
"In one area, there is a problem with the lack of water, and in another area there is plenty of water. They call it 'Ojos de agua' [springs].
"Part of the food they produce will be sold, and part they will use to feed themselves or the community. The work is hard, [due to the mountainous terrain]. There are many things that I don't know, but they know about. This is really a two-way process.
"[In my group], there are 29 people — six men and 23 women. They will need a lot of technical equipment, and ongoing support. Another major problem is [lack of] self-esteem. I needed to put a considerable amount of group dynamics into this area. It is as if there was a great barrier. They had to learn to express themselves.
"We started the course in March and will finish in November. The people will work in a cooperative. [As well as the other course in tourism], there are two other groups here studying carpentry and construction, and also mechanics."
Mision Vuelvan Caras is part of the Bolivarian revolutionary process: "There are very many people who have been helped. They are people who want to work, but this assistance is what was needed", Sara Hernandez said. "They talk with me a lot, and feel angry that they had previously been ignored, not taken into account. They now know that they are someone, that they are really alive.
"We talk a lot about the [role of the] cooperative: the principles behind it, how it is formed, the values involved, what they have to do, what help they will receive. They want to improve their quality of life, as a group. Without working as a group, they can't achieve anything. The road is difficult. I keep telling them they have to unite as a cooperative to achieve anything. They must realise that in unity there is strength.
"The major problems they face are the lack of water, and the bad state of the highway [to Coro]. Also, they still need more technical assistance. They will access funds from Banmujer [the Women's Bank]. We are organising that now.
"The cooperatives will have access to credit when they finish the courses. We will work out what sort of things they will need. Based on this, the project is almost ready. Funds from the Endogenous Zones will provide resources.
"If the participants want, they can continue doing courses, or private schooling. They now have support and capital available. And they will begin work shortly, and cancel the debt little by little, depending on how viable the cooperative is, and on the production of vegetables."
Later, when we visited the central-eastern city of Barinas (President Hugo Chavez's home town), we observed a big crowd of hundreds of people outside the Bank of Venezuela, and discovered that the bank was opening on the weekend of October 7-8 specifically to issue funds, on behalf of the Bolivarian government, to the participants in Mision Vuelvan Caras. Similar scenes occurred in towns and cities all around Venezuela that weekend.
One participant, Noris Victora, told us: "We did a course with Mision Vuelvan Caras. We are waiting for the bank to pay us for our project to make fishing nets for a fish farming [cooperative]. We are asking the government to give us access to some vacant land, which we will flood to make a lake to produce fish in.
"There are 38 of us altogether. We hope to have the resources to begin work [on the project] in November . We are happy because, thanks to President Chavez, we are able to eat and maintain our livelihoods.
"I am also going to the bank to receive my monthly pension, in return for my studies [under the Vuelvan Caras program]. I am a single mother, with three children, who are also students."
Another group, queuing outside the bank nearby, was involved in two projects. Eva Ribas explained that she and her associates were undertaking various courses involving sewing and weaving, in order to set up a clothing cooperative.
Eda Perez said that her group was doing courses in producing preserved meats and sausages, in preparation for establishing a charcuteria (butcher's shop) cooperative. She said that they had "come out of the literacy program, and have escaped from slavery".
"We are the 'lancers of Vuelvan Caras'. We are very emotional about all this. Thanks to [President] Hugo Chavez Frias, we are [now] producing and working as part of the Endogenous Production [system]", Perez concluded.