Before Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela in 1999, the barrios of Caracas, built provisionally on the hills surrounding the capital, did not even appear on the city map.
Officially they did not exist, so neither the city nor the state maintained their infrastructure. The poor inhabitants of these neighbourhoods obtained water and electricity by tapping pipes and cables themselves. They lacked access to services such as garbage collection, health care and education.
Today, residents of the same barrios are organising their communities through directly democratic assemblies known as communal councils ― of which Venezuela has more than 40,000.
Working families have come together to found community spaces and cooperative companies, coordinate social programs and renovate neighborhood houses, grounding their actions in principles of solidarity and collectivity.
And their organising has found government support, especially with the Law of Communal Councils, passed by Chavez in 2006. This has led to the formation of communes, which cover larger areas and are made up of elected communal council representatives. These can develop social projects on a larger scale.
You will not hear about the self-governing barrios in Western reports of protests spreading across Venezuela. According to the prevailing narrative, students throughout the country are protesting a dire economic situation and high crime rate, only to meet brutal repression from government forces.
Yet the street violence that has captured the world’s attention has largely taken place in a few isolated areas ― the affluent neighbourhoods of cities like Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia, San Cristobal and Merida ― and not in the barrios where Venezuela’s poor and working classes live.
Despite international media claims, the vast majority of Venezuela’s students are not protesting. Not even a third of all people arrested in connection with the demonstrations since early February are students, even though Venezuela has more than 2.6 million university students (up from about 700,00 in 1998) ― thanks to the tuition-free public university system that Chavez created.
A look at recent arrests reveals that the “protest” leaders are really a mixture of drug traffickers, paramilitaries and private military contractors ― in other words, the mercenaries typical of any CIA military destabilisation operation.
In Barinas, the southern border state with Colombia, two heavily armed barricade organisers were arrested. One was Hugo Alberto Nuncira Soto, who has an Interpol arrest warrant for membership in Los Urabenos, a Colombian paramilitary involved in drug trafficking, smuggling, assassinations and massacres.
In Caracas, the brothers Richard and Chamel Akl ― who own a private military company, Akl Elite Corporation, and represent the Venezuelan branch of the private military contractor Risk Inc. ― were arrested while driving an armoured vehicle in possession of firearms, explosives and military equipment.
Their car had been equipped with pipes to be activated from inside to disperse motor oil and nails on the streets, not to mention tear gas grenades, homemade bombs, pistols, gas masks, bulletproof vests, night-vision devices, gasoline tanks and knives.
After Chavez’s death in March last year, Venezuela’s opposition politicians saw an opportunity to win presidential elections, perhaps assuming that the public merely cared about Chavez’s famous charisma.
However, the opposition’s leading candidate, Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, lost to Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro. Having been defeated in 18 of 19 elections since 1998, part of the opposition decided not to hold out hope for electoral victory any longer, but instead to destabilise the country and violently oust its elected government.
Most often the municipalities where the riots are taking place are governed by anti-Chavista mayors who support them. They do this by either taking part in violent actions themselves or by ignoring the barricades defended with petrol bombs and firearms, instead of sending in municipal police. They also neglect to collect trash so that the relatively well-off are stirred to revolt.
Struggle for a new society
What the wealthy in Venezuela are afraid of, and what mainstream media channels won’t show, is that a different world is possible ― and Venezuela’s working classes are trying hard to build it.
This is the real reason why the country is under attack. And make no mistake: this is a vicious attack on Venezuela, its infrastructure and its very sources of hope.
On April 1, a group of rioters set the housing ministry on fire with Molotov cocktails while 1200 workers were inside the building. The fire was started close to the ministry’s nursery school and 89 toddlers had to be evacuated by firemen.
This lethal act is no anomaly. During the past several weeks, a university has been burned down, as have nurseries, subway stations, buses, medical centres, food distribution centres, tourist information sites and other civic spaces.
In Merida, the drinking-water reservoir was deliberately contaminated with fuel. In Caracas, the nature reserve on the north side of the city was set on fire to destroy the power lines that supply the city with electricity.
These attacks follow the same logic employed by the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s: assail easy targets that symbolise the improvements to living conditions achieved by the government or organised communities and thereby spoil any hope that there is an alternative to the rule of capital. Yet there are ample reasons for such optimism.
Through nationalising its oil and gas reserves and investing most of its budget in social programs, Venezuela has become the only country in the world that achieved the UN Millennium Development Goals set for 2015. It does not look as if many more countries will achieve them.
The poverty rate in Venezuela has been more than halved since 1998, and extreme poverty has been cut by 70%. Today, inequality is lower than anywhere else in Latin America and the Caribbean (not to mention the US). Most people in Venezuela are far better off today than they were before Chavez was elected.
There is no doubt that Venezuela is now going through a difficult economic situation; it has suffered high inflation and acute shortages of food and electricity during the last year.
Mismanagement and corruption are problems, but as the government itself has admitted, the shortages were caused mainly by speculation, smuggling and intentional reduction of production and hoarding by the private sector, just as before the US-backed coup in Chile in 1973.
Even so, during a visit to Caracas earlier in April, a representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) underlined the admirable efforts of the Venezuelan government to deepen the impact of social programs.
Last year, the FAO officially recognised Venezuela as one of 18 countries in the world to have achieved huge progress in cutting malnutrition, which dropped from a rate of 13.5% in 1990–92 to less than 5% in 2010–12.
That’s why millions of Venezuelans continue to live their lives normally even if the effects of economic crises always hit the poorest first. The protesters behaving violently and getting international media coverage identify with or are beholden to the classes least affected by the shortages and inflation. Most of Venezuela’s students are decidedly not protesting.
But in truth, hardly anyone in Venezuela is protesting: they are waging war.
[Reprinted from Creative Time Reports. Dario Azzellini is an artist and filmmaker who has made a series of documentaries on Venezuela with Oliver Ressler.]