Solidarity Brigade to Caracas

Friday, July 29, 2005

Frenetic activity

Hello all, we finished our itinerary early today, so I thought I´d drop in and write you all a quick note to let you know what´s going on before it gets too dark (things round here get a little scary after dark - remind me to tell you the story about our drunken bodyguard and the starter´s pistol over a beer some time).

We´ve been having an absolute blast since we arrived. On the second day, we got taken up to one of the barrios (poor semi-squatting neighbourhoods) that ring Caracas on all sides. We met some of the local leaders of the coalitions of groups that support the government and organise all the new government programs - fantastic people. We also sat in on our guides English lesson - James is a English teacher at the British consulate, but he also volunteers on his days off to teach at one of the Mission schools.

The missions have been set up using oil revenues reclaimed from the old corrupt public servants (Venezuela´s oil has been nominally nationalised for years, but until Chavez, most of the money mysteriously kept ending up in private accounts - no wonder the rich locals can´t stand him). I keep getting the names confused, but there´s Missions to teach mature age people to read up to primary school level, then another mission to help them get to a high school level, and there´s a new set of missions giving people university level, and the mission to teach people English.

It was quite exciting sitting in on something that new, even if both we and the students had to sort of stumble around our complete lack of Spanish - but we think that we taught them something new. We hope. We think that they´ll forgive us in any case, because the women in the class were all madly in love with James, and flirt with him outrageously.

I´ve visited two community radio stations, and the offices of a community TV station and some locally produced papers. The local commercial media here is apparently worse than the Australian media (no, I didn´t think it was possible either), and there´s been a concerted attempt by a lot of people to get a good community media section going for some years.
We´ve also been to two new health clinics and an older clinic for HIV positive people. The HIV clinic has been around for a while - apparently even the last president was prepared to subsidise anti-retroviral medications, but the two other clinics were brand new, again, financed using reclaimed oil revenues. One of them is staffed by Cuban volunteers, although they were too busy to meet us in person.

Today, we also visited a house that feeds the poor - another new program set up by the government. People in the barrios use their houses to cook food for some of the local poor, and use it as a sort of registration centre, so that they can find people with drug or health problems and try to get them in contact with the relevant missions and programs. The food and small subsidies for electricity and water come courtesy of oil revenues (canny readers will spot a theme developing), but the people in the kitchens seemed to be mostly volunteers. We sat down to lunch with some of the locals, and distributed little koalas to the kids.

Last night, our guide took us out to a hip-hop concert, being held out at a local performance space on the edge of the city. We met the organisers, who said that they´d been given the space by the local Chavista mayor, and were trying to turn it into a kind of autonomous cultural area, for art, music and social programs. We watched a few performances from some break dancers (very cool), and listened to some music from some of the local rappers. I didn´t understand most of it (being in Spanish and all), but the little bits that were translated for me were very intense - there was lots of lyrics angry about being mistreated by the police, having people they know being killed by cops, poverty, and so forth.

The area it was in was a bit rough (our guide kept telling us to walk fast), but once we were inside it was fantastic. The locals all wanted to say hello and look after us, and even though the dresscode and surrounds reminded me of scenes from Boyz in the Hood, we felt very welcome and safe.

And that´s probably been the thing that´s struck me the most here - it´s a scary place from time to time, but we´ve found literally dozens of people who´ve welcomed us and wanted to look after us. Despite the scariness of the city, I´m feeling really lucky to be here and to see a part of it all.

But after all that, I´ve got to go and do some mundane things like eat (love the locals, but their food is mostly fairly bland stuff) and buy some shaving tackle (some bugger from the brigade has nicked mine - and there I was expecting to get robbed by the local constabulary), so I´ll sign off and write again soon.

Have fun, y´all,
ST

PS Actually did manage to bring a transfer cable this time, but the computers are set up so that you can attach the files onto hotmail emails. Photos will be forth coming soon, I promise!

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