Solidarity brigade fosters links and forges friendships

In a country where the balance of power is tipping away from bosses and towards ordinary workers, Venezuela\'s annual May 1 labour celebration holds great significance. It has been declared a national holiday.

Last month, 12 Australian unionists and community activists on a solidarity brigade to Venezuela, joined by three others temporarily based in Caracas, took part in a march estimated to be between 500,000 and 750,000 people strong. The river of red t-shirts and caps, with flags and banners from many different workplace groups and grassroots organisations, was a stirring sight, and the brigade participants were proud to march under the banner of the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network.

This march was the focus of the AVSN 2008 May Day brigade to Venezuela, the seventh such delegation from Australia. Held between April 28 and May 7, its aim was to foster solidarity between those fighting for justice and socialism within these two countries. Ten hot and humid days were packed with inspiring meetings with unions, workers, community activists and other progressive individuals and organisations, giving the "brigadistas" a glimpse of the immense social changes occurring through the active participation of the Venezuelan people as they work towards the first socialist revolution of the 21st century.

Australian brigade participants hailed from unions as varied as the Electrical Trades Union, the Maritime Union of Australia, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the National Tertiary Educational Union, the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union and the Australian Education Union, as well as from Melbourne community radio station 3CR and the AVSN.

Union and worker meetings were held with Venezuelan delegations from the education sector, the aluminium industry, the public sector, the National Union of Workers (UNT) federation, and the health sector, among others.

Visiting the workers from Sidor — the giant steelworks recently nationalised by the government of President Hugo Chavez — was a huge boost to the already high brigade morale. Sidor's nationalisation in April capped an 18-month campaign by metal workers and their allies in the plant. Privatised in 1997 before Chavez was elected, the re-nationalisation is an immensely popular win for the Bolivarian revolution, so-named after 19th Century revolutionary Simon Bolivar's vision of national liberation and unity across Latin America.

Some of the most inspiring aspects of the brigade were visits to community organisations and projects run through the communal councils. An enthusiastic delegation from the Amazonas Community in Puerto Ordaz welcomed the brigade into their community, where they had been funded by the ministry of housing to build decent housing. Previously living in run-down shanty conditions, they proudly showed their new houses, built by community labour, which were solid, clean and large enough for a standard sized family.

Another barrio (neighbourhood) in Caracas has collectively run a community radio station for the past six years, reaching many of the 100,000 people in the El Valle area. Providing news, discussion of issues and events, it is constantly threatened by the political opposition, whose policies it criticises.

On one occasion during the recall referendum in 2004, when a shut-down occupation was about to happen, the call went out over the airwaves for the community to protect the station, which they did successfully, enlisting the immediate support of hundreds who came from all over the barrio to defend their right to broadcasting freedom. The station is part of a network of progressive alternative radio stations that is developing across the continent.

The brigade visited a computer centre — a pilot project in a poor barrio in Ciudad Bolivar. Servicing a community lacking many facilities, it provides school children (and adults) with extremely inexpensive access to the internet to help with their studies and for recreational use. Built by a community working bee, one of the women working there explained that it is so valued by the community that there are no problems with vandalism or theft, despite relatively lax security by Australian standards.

Other visits were to a t-shirt making cooperative run by women with start-up funding from the government; the Banmujer (Women's Bank) providing microcredit for community initiatives; and also to a Diagnostic Centre of Barrio Adentro, a collaborative project between Venezuela and Cuba that provides high quality free health care.

Brigade participant Damaris Baker from 3CR told Green Left Weekly: "Venezuela surprised me. The dynamism of a country struggling to rebuild itself politically with real participation from the masses, wrestling with the realities of co-management and cooperatives and workers' control, the push and pull of a dual system of capitalism and socialism running along side each other. Everywhere people would talk, discuss, argue about revolution and reform. They would critique issues and government policy, question corruption and bureaucratism and — despite the ever present personality politics — move forward toward solutions. Also, there was always a sense of loyalty to Hugo Chavez as the liberator of the Venezuelan people."

The next AVSN solidarity brigade to Venezuela is on November 20-30 this year.

[Margaret Allum was a participant in the May Day brigade. Public meetings are being held around the country where brigade participants are reporting back to supporters in Australia. See page 23 for details. For information about brigades to Venezuela, visit http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org.]

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