Solidarity Brigade to Caracas

Thursday, August 11, 2005

My first time in the back of a divvy van

Hola compañeros y compañeras,
just thought I`d sneak a few hours in the press centre here at the Festival to let you all know how things are going. I would have written sooner, but the last week or so has been so chaotic that it´s been impossible to get to a computer.

Anyhow, things here continue to be exciting. We finished our brigade nearly a week ago out at a paper factory thát´s been taken over by it´s workers. Apparently the old owners weren´t finding it profitable enough, so they closed it down, but the staff occupied it and applied to the government to make it into a cooperative (the new constitution here has a section in it that gives workers in closed industry the right to a process whereby they can take over the facilities in cooperation with the government - I`m not sure how the nuts and bolts work, but it´s the staff out at INVERPAL thought it was a fantastic thing). Apparently the whole thing is nominally majority owned by the government, but the majority of people on the management committee are elected from among the staff.

They appear to be doing great things with it - they´re using the money that they´re making to fund a new medical clinic, a free canteen for all the workers and their families, a new cinema, some social and cultural programs, and they´re even buying new equipment so that they can employ an extra 200 people.

Prior to that, we met up with some people at the headquarters of the Frente de Francisco Miranda, which seems to be a kind of bridge between the government and the people who run the various health, nutricion and education programs. Again, I´m not sure how the nuts and bolts of it work, but it seems to be a way for the top levels of the government to make sure they can bypass a lot of the old public servants (many of whom are anti-Chavistas, and who sometimes seek to block the workings of a lot of programs).

We also spent an afternoon in the Barrio de 23 Enero, which is considered to be the most militant and politically advanced area of Caracas. The locals there were lovely, but they´re very hard core dudes - apparently they´ve managed to kick out the drug gangs, and the more or less control the streets. They´re even considering forming their own police force (President Chavez is considering disbanding one of the police forces - there are 6 in Caracas - because they´re so corrupt and violent). While we were there, they put on a bit of a show of force by gathering some locals for some chanting and waving their guns in the air. (There´s a few comrades wandering around with souvenired spent cases after one of them fired a whole clip into the air in the excitement.)

After our brigade wound up, then the chaos has really started. We´re into the fifth day of the 16th World Festival and Youth and Students (the slogan for which is `Por la paz y la solidarad luchemos contra imperialismo y la guerre` - for peace and solidarity we struggle against imperialism and war. I helped record one of the TV ads, so I heard it over and over and over again.)

The festival is a huge, sprawling, exciting and utterly chaotic affair. I´m not sure how people are here, but I´ve heard estimates as high as twenty two thousand. This is a bit of problem for the organisers, who were expecting thirteen thousand, and who have been somewhat overwhelmed by the numbers. There´s people here from over one hundred countries, and the contingents range from four people (New Zealand) to fifty people (us) to thousands of people (Cuba, Argentina, Colombia). At most venues you can barely move for all the people.

We´re being billeted out at a new government funded housing estate in Miranda state, which is about an hour from Caracas. There´s thousands of people out there - Angolans, Colombians, Germans, a dozen Finns and a few lonely looking Brits) mixing it with the locals who already live there. I´m not sure what the locals make of a town full of backpackers, but they´ve been very friendly and very helpful so far. I just wish I spoke more Spanish so I could understand them....

The festival opened with a big opening ceremony that was a little bit like a stripped down opening ceremony at the Olympics. We all marched into this parade ground out at the main military base called Tiuna el Feurte (past the presidential stand with Chavez and a group of government ministers), and were led to the middle to hear the opening speeches. The march lasted a lot longer than people had planned, and the Chavez didn´t take to the microphone until nearly midnight, but everyone was on their feet in anticipation nonetheless. He gave quite a fiery speech that would have been even more exciting for me if I had enough Spanish to understand more of what he was saying, but I got the gist of it, and the crowd went absolutely nuts over it.

It seems that while Chavez is either unknown or distrusted in Australia, he´s become a real hero for Latin Americans in particular (no wonder the US loath him). It´s also been really interesting seeing just how enthusiastic the Latins are about Cuba as well - there´s been heaps of chants about `Viva Cuba` and `Fidel, Fidel...`

Unfortunately, the bigger than expected turn out has stretched a lot of the organisation of the festival, and we´ve had some problems getting the stuff we need. We only managed to get our accreditation yesterday (I´m accredited as a journalist, so I´m in the media centre pretending to write an article - shhhhh!), we got pillow slips but no pillows, there´s often no translation of the sessions, and sometimes no food. (We had to get some of the local cops in Miranda to take us out of the estate to go get some Chinese on the first night because we were all starving. It´s embarassing to admit, but after nearly 8 years on the far left, I had never been in the back of a paddy wagon until then - but hey, how many Australian activists can claim that there first ride in the back of a divvy van was in Venezuela?)

Last night, the army even closed the street bars they´d been running, and we had to make to with buying black market beer from the Colombians.

Nonetheless, we´ve managed to maintain our popularity with most of the organisers - not only do we keep the whingeing to a bare minimum, but we get the dancing started at the parties. (I have a feeling that the locals kind of feel sorry for us because of our complete lack of salsa skill, and they join in to give us a hand and show us how it´s done.)

Anywho, I´ll stop being your ears (or your eyes), `cos I´m off to the next session on Western Sahara. I went to one yesterday, and I´m not sure what was said (again, the lack of translators), but it was certainly interesting - there was a group of Moroccans and Algerians showed up and got into a series of arguments).

Have fun y`all, stay safe, and I´ll speak to you again soon, ST


  • Great stuff. Keep it coming.
    This is the kind of "glue" knowledge which cements all that other more formal stuff we read every day into something more fleshed out, multidimensional and real.

    I really wish I were there. Or in Oz.

    By Blogger Comandante Gringo, at 2:05 am  

  • I'm getting into the swing of this brigade front from my room here in downtown brisbane. Good feel from your posts for the day to day.
    I have the site linked to my own LOR blog and fortunately the brigade's one is linked to Blogroll so each new posts gets flagged at any blogs that list you-- like mine.
    Great way to rush to the ltterbox and check the mail each time you lot blog.

    By Blogger Dave Riley, at 9:52 am  

  • Thanks for the updates - its almost like being there. I would be there except I no longer qualify as "youth" :( But enjoy and keep the updates coming. I think I'll link to you so my readers can stay in the mix of what is happening there. And say thanks to Stuart for his incredible account of Barrio Adentro.

    By Blogger ow, at 10:35 am  

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