Venezuela: Revolutions brings big improvements to working-class neighbourhoods

October 21, 2013
Wall in Barrio 23 de Enero.

Jasmine Acosta and Hector Zabala are social activists from the Caracas neighbourhood of 23 de Enero (January 23). They come from a working-class neighbourhood with a strong tradition of community activism. This barrio of about 250,000 inhabitants has been part of all the major revolutionary moments in Venezuelan history.

Zabala is a militant in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and works as a sports instructor at Mission Barrio Adentro (which providing free health care) and belongs to the barrio's communal council. Acosta also supports the PSUV and combines his studies of political science at the Bolivarian University with fighting in the student movement and social work in the Frente Francisco de Miranda.

They were interviewed by Encric Llopis for Rebelion. The interview was translated for by Ryan Mallett-Outtrim and Tamara Pearson.

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What would you highlight about your present work and the grassroots movements in 23 de Enero?

Many community groups work in the barrios, carrying out their work through committees. Among other things, they focus their work on health, education, sports, housing, security and political work, according to needs.

There is an underlying idea to all these tasks: community participation in defence of the revolution. The challenge is to continue the communal councils and development projects that meet the basic demands of the population.

Fulfilling the right to health and education in poor barrios has been one of the great challenges. What progress have you experienced?

The first step was to achieve full literacy. Let's remember that UNICEF declared Venezuela a territory free of illiteracy in 2005, with Mission Robinson playing a very significant role.

The revolution has gone way beyond that, giving the young people of primary and secondary schools laptops for their studies. As well as this we must add text books, school supplies and free books.

And what about public health?

The turning point is marked by the election of Hugo Chavez as president in 1998. People in the barrio have free access to healthcare. A doctor 24 hours a day. And the great achievements of Operation Miracle [mission for free eye care].

Before, this was unthinkable. But I would highlight the advances in health in general; creating state-of-the-art hospitals, diagnostic centres, and comprehensive rehabilitation, or the most outstanding children's cardiology centres where people come to be operated on from different countries of the continent.

Another issue. The equipment and basic infrastructure in the barrios.

Again, the turning point was 1998. And the decisive difference was that it is the communities ― through the communal councils ― that are in charge of proposing projects and running them with technical and financial support from the state.

Drinking water, recreation areas, soccer fields and baseball in the parks ... there are very obvious improvements. We are also working hard with youth. Let's think, for example, of the Courts of Peace or the mission Negra Hipolita [a mission aimed at extreme cases of poverty, including the homeless and sufferers of drug addictions].

On the one hand, youth are more committed, they are part of the PSUV, the youth of Great Patriotic Pole or the Frente Francisco de Miranda, among others. But its also about plans that support leisure and culture for other excluded young people who are dependent on drugs or involved with weapons.

How would you define politically, broadly speaking, the barrio 23 de Enero?

It has always clearly been a revolutionary neighbourhood. First with Hugo Chavez (whose electoral support was above 70%) then President Nicolas Maduro. Chavez's remains rest in the the Montana Barracks, within the barrio. Here the right have never had political weight.

What is to blame for the problems of overpricing and shortages in Venezuela?

Basically, it's an “economic war” by the bosses, who also practice hoarding. And, it's a “media war”, as the right-wing media talk about shortages for a purely political purpose: to cause panic in the population.

In 23 de Enero and other neighbourhoods, the shortages have been alleviated thanks to the work of the communal councils, and products are available at subsidised prices at the [government-funded] Mercals and the Bicentenarios supermarkets.

It is a political strategy of sabotage so that supplies do not arrive in the stores. Or, so that employers stop producing some foods, which they prefer to export.

Venezuela has also been considered a great “laboratory” for the “media war”. The media has emerged as a political actor, which in a way, exceeds the traditional parties of the right, including helping organising a coup. How do these patterns affect 23 de Enero?

You only have to leaf through the newspapers. Or watch programs by Globovision, Televen and, in a more subtle way, Venevision. 23 de Enero is branded a “red zone”, full of “criminals”, where laziness and delinquency reign. They insist on this slogan, but the reality is the opposite.

Also, they magnify every problem that may occur in the barrio. It's a constant campaign. I already mentioned that they also encourage compulsive shopping, to crush the population with shortages and stock-outs.

And, they practice “psychological warfare”. For example, there are people who the revolution has granted housing in the city centre (a middle class area) and believe that this is because “they deserve it”. Their living standards improve, they forget their past, and they become petty bourgeois. And also vote for the right. The media also has an influence on that.

You highlight the value of the mission “Efficiency or Nothing”. For what reason?

This mission began with Chavez in October last year, and Maduro has continued it. It has achieved something very important: jailing people with positions of responsibility and trust who have stolen.

It's this that allows the government to be effective and efficient and, above all, perceived as such on the street. In short, politicians come to the people and no one “infiltrates” in order to act in a corrupt manner.

How is the relationship of the presidency with the grassroots movement?

We believe that Maduro is with the people. He runs a government “of the street”. This isn't a person who abandons himself to theory. He visits the public works and projects and also is very responsive to the demands of the people.

He governs with the communities. All this is very bad for the right-wing opposition.

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