Venezuela: Building computers for liberation

A laptop produced by the Canaima Industries factory.
November 6, 2017

The Canaima Industries factory in Caracas is the assembly point for computers that are given to students for free across Venezuela. Its name comes from the huge Canaima National Park in the south of Venezuela, home to extraordinary landscapes and the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls.

We visited the small computer factory, located in the middle of a military base in the east of the capital, as part of the international solidarity delegation organised by Venezuela Analysis in August.

The president of the Canaima factory, Luis Alberto Diaz Luna, explained that 6 million computers have been given to schoolchildren since the factory started in 2009.

The children take the computers home, where other family members can also use them. These computers are sometimes the only item of advanced technology in poor households.

“None of the computers are sold to the public, they are given out free,” said Diaz.

The factory is just one of the many social gains that have been achieved as part of the pro-poor Bolivarian revolution that former president Hugo Chavez spearheaded. The factory came about as a result of a deal that Chavez signed with Portugal, in which Venezuela paid for the technology to assemble the computers.

Breaking dependency on Microsoft

When Chavez asked the Portuguese about the software they used for the computer, they responded that a US company had designed the content. In response, Chavez said Venezuela needed its own content and software.

The hesitance to use US software dates back to the December 2002-January 2003 management lockout in Venezuela’s strategic oil industry — an attempt by the right-wing opposition to overthrow the Chavez government.

At the time, a US company controlled the software used in the oil industry. It used this power to destroy the computer technology needed to run Venezuelan refineries.

In response, the Venezuelan government took out a lawsuit against the company. Chavez declared that Venezuela had to develop its own software and operating systems for computers.

The computers assembled at Canaima came without an operating system, which provided the opportunity to build a national operating system. “This has liberated us from Microsoft’s monopoly on computers,” explained Diaz. Our software is free.”

Educational content

The telecommunications ministry is responsible for importing computer parts, while the education ministry looks after the content.

“We have 4000 different educational programs,” said Diaz. “A group of teachers, IT experts, graphic designers and a pedagogical team put the programs together. It gives students the chance to do research or solve problems.

“These computers allow children to explore their creative capacity, to make their own software. They can show them to their friends and other kids in the street.”

There are a variety of computer models to cater for all students needs — from primary to university level education.

Versions 1.0 to 3.0 of the computers are directed towards primary school students. They contain more than 1000 programs between them. Students only have access to content on the computer, not the Internet.

Version 4.0, which is for high school students, has more content than the first three. Version 5.0 has a more flexible design with a camera, a mouse and keyboard, and content that helps students prepare for university.

Version 6.0, designed for university students, is a tablet with a keyboard and a solid protective casing.

Involving youth

One of the challenges the program faces is computer maintenance. Diaz explained: “IT are actually working on that now. The children are also working on how to repair their own computers. The computers need a lot of servicing and up-keep.

“The children are organising themselves into teams to do maintenance after some training from us, and they are also learning to use free software.”

Another problem they faced was the issue of parental control of material and ensuring students did not have access to offensive material. The software has a list of blocked websites based on their violent or pornographic nature.

Walking along the assembly line as they assembled Version 6.0 tablets, we watched as workers added a battery charger, screen, keyboard and the serial number. They have quality control to track production and verify that the keyboard, USB ports and all the buttons work, as well as ensuring the absence of dirty marks or scratches.

The Canaima Factory also has a program to generate youth employment and provide them with a career path in IT. Diaz said: “We provide youth with a work space inside industries like this. We also push them to develop their own ideas.”

The education ministry has developed new content that provides social and political history from a viewpoint that breaks from the traditional colonialist mold.

These computers provide students with a powerful tool to speak out. Diaz said: “The computers have cameras and microphones and they can talk to the entire world about everything that happens in their life.

“Can you call this a dictatorship if the first thing that generally goes in a dictatorship is access to the internet? A dictator normally cuts communications, phone, wifi, tablets etc.”

More than 60% of the population have internet access. The internet in Venezuela is very cheap, about $1 month for access on a phone. There are also 800 Infocentres across the country, where people can get free access to the Internet.

Socialist factory

During our discussions, a question arose regarding the difference between a factory operating according to capitalist logic and one that’s socialist. Diaz responded: “Here, there are laws to ensure that the workers at the factory can control their working conditions. There are no general managers.

“There is a worker’s organisation which guarantee each worker’s development, and to solve any contradictions or problems with productivity in the factory. The workers look for solutions to do things better or improve the speed of production.

“Under socialism, we are not looking for bigger salaries but benefits, better working conditions, the chance to go to university and study. Workers are part of the decision-making process. The industry can govern itself.”

Workers at the factory have been encouraged to join the Bolivarian militia, set up to prepare for any possible imperialist intervention into the oil-rich nation.

The factory was attacked by violent right-wing protests — known as guarimberos — who cut through the wire fence of the military base in May. They fired a bazooka at the base and tried to start a fire.

On the question of saving resources, Tulio Virguez, one of the organisers of the brigade said: “We want to use our resources efficiently. We are aiming to have a culture of zero paper.

“We are developing a program to scan music so that orchestras don’t have to use reams and reams of paper with different parts for each instrument of the orchestra.

“We are going to begin giving tablets with music to prisoners as well.

“Other projects we are considering are in the area of sports or games with an educational content. The Version 5.0 has a selection for games. We need more applications with Venezuelan content.

“We want to develop our own video games. Not to sell but to provide as free software. In Zulia, we developed a running game called Super-Bolivar [in reference to independence leader Simon Bolivar]. This game goes through the process of our forefathers’ fight for independence.”

In terms of copyright issues, Virguez said: “We had a problem with the old copyright laws concerning intellectual property. This blocked a lot of development for our scientific programs. We had to create new laws with policies that allow for the creation of new games while respecting copyright.

“Some 12 years ago, Chavez passed a law consolidating our independence in technology. In 2004, there was an executive order to introduce free software.

“The basis of the law was the liberation of technology. All institutions of the state had to use free software. In one blow, it dealt a huge blow to the transnationals that own and develop IT.

“The US technology attack on the petroleum industry in 2002-03 was the impetus for Chavez to create a consciousness that technology is fundamental to transforming society, to have a free society.”

“Ecuador and Argentina, even other continents, are following the example of Chavez with regards to technology. The Dominican Republic wants to implement our Canaima computer model.

“We don’t yet control all the technology we are using,” said Virguez. “We have to pay millions of dollars to foreign companies just for IT support and maintenance for some programs and for equipment and parts that come from abroad.

“We are starting to develop our own equipment, like satellites. Canaima is part of this. Some parts are being produced here and we are working towards making that more generalised.”

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