Contributed by Joe Montero as the third in a series of Articles of an eye witness account of Venezuela
We left Santa Barbara and the state of Barinas, crossed the border into Apure.
Apure is somewhat different. It shares a long frontier with Colombia, and you are never more than an hour or two’s drive from the border. Nor is there a clear-cut separation between the two countries. Only a line imposed by politicians. It matters much less to those who live there, and Venezuela and Colombia merge over a distance, rather than respect an arbitrary line.
It is this that has made this the perfect place for the cocaine trail and other forms of contraband. Contraband is so prevalent, that it has become a significant part of the local economy.
This is a frontier region where life can be tough, basic and different to what outsiders expect, and outsiders can easily feel a little vulnerable.
Our day, of course, didn’t begin in Apure. It is better to go to the start to tell the story.
At the same time, there is much more to Apure than this. Most of the people there are are not only taking part in the momentous events that are shaping the new Venezuela. Apure is at the leading edge. We saw it.
We learned more when we had a long meeting with the Alcalde (major) at Guasdualito Paez municipal offices. jose Maria “Chema” Romero provided detailed accounts of the extensive municipal organisation and the parallel colectivo network, which ensures massive participation and that power in in the hands of ordinary men and women.
All are drawn into a network, ensuring that home, local and regional needs are met. none of this would be possible without a widespread conscious will and shared vision.
Let’s go back to the beginning. We had began the day in Santa Barbara, searching for petrol. Our tank was almost empty, and the further you are from Caracas, the harder it is to fill it. Fortunately, our driver was driver is from this area and knew the right people.
‘We were scheduled to meet up with another rural comuna a little out of town, at a place called Tachiraand the arrangement made was that they would provide us with fuel. This meant avoiding the need to spend the day lining up outside a service station.
Like the previous comunas, Comuna Ali Perimera deLa Perera, we also found well organised. Collectively producing a wide range of food and providing for many of their other needs. Here too, much of the output is shared among the members, with other portions going to the neigbouring comunas and the broader community
As we approached the common area, where school was being held under a thatched, but open at the sides structure structure, we got a small opportunity to witness what was going on, before moving to a part where a group of adults were waiting for us.
Aswe arrived more adults joined. Each introduced themselves. We found that every part of this big comuna was represented. Others had come in from other nearby comunas to see us. There must have been a good 50 people there.
Some worked on the land. Others did other kinds of work. There was a teacher or two. Some else was involved with health. A couple said they represented the militia, the volunteer armed force that protected the comuna from physical attack by enemies. Others represented the women’s organisation. One said she was responsible for political education.
Many took part in the discussion that followed. We heard that they re taking part in the national effort to defend their country from attack, through hard work and contributing to building the economy. we heard about the hardship imposed by the United States led sanctions and the critical shortages that this has created. We heard about the war on the currency, which has pushed up process through the roof. We heard about the frustration over red tape, inefficiencies and the corruption of some officials, which are making matters more difficult than they should be.
We also heard the optimism about the future, the successes they have had to date, and the deeply held confidence that they and Venezuela are going to win.
After this, we paid a special visit to a cheese maker. The private owner turned out to be another of those characters, motivated less by making money, than by a wish to make a contribution to community and being part of the revolutionary changes being made in Venezuela. He collects the milk produced in the comunas, and turns it into cheese.
A type of mozzarella is made here, which saltier than the Italian version. Salt is added to make the cheese elastic. It’s the way mozzarella is made. But the local version has more of it, and this comes out in the taste. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. We did and loved it.
In other places around the region, we had tasted uncooked and aged cheese that is also salted. It is the local style. I can honestly say that we have been won over.
As the conversation continued, the cheese maker kept on handing over more pieces of cheese, and ended up presenting us with a more than two kilo block.
He took us around to explain the process. proudly showed his special automated curd mixing and steam cooking machine. The steam comes form an ancient looking boiler, which despite all appearances, continued to keep on working.
before this, everything was done by hand.
More important than anything else, this was another example showing the positive symbiotic relationship emerging between the collective movement and the small and medium sized private sector, creating the best conditions for national unity and a shared destiny.
After saying our goodbye’s we were on our way, had a good lunch at a roadside spot along the way, and headed across the line to Apure, and ended up in in Guasdualito, which is in the Easternmost part of the state.
An idea of the feel of this frontier town, comes via a little experience. We had a prior arrangement for a meal and meeting that evening. There was a little time to go off and have a beer. So we did, and ended up at an intersection between fairly narrow streets, where clusters of people hung around talking and drinking into the evening.
On one corner, a car was fitted with a loud sound system, belting out a Latino version cowboy music. The beer was sold at a distribution point. The pub was the street. A vendor on another corner was busy making hamburgers.
The crowd was mainly young, dressed for the night, to do what young people dress and go out for anywhere in the world. There were some older ones there too.
We did not really fit in. We were obvious outsiders. It also dawned that most of these people are Colombians. We were hearing Colombian cowboy music in Venezuela. It highlighted the two societies aspect of the region.
The other face is quite different. It may be a little rough in some respects. There is also a very revolutionary political history, which from time to time, has involved armed conflict. The tradition is engraved in the local character.
Paez and the rest of Apure is an epicentre of the Venezuelan revolution, and the people’s power movement is very strong.
This is also is a major stronghold of the Corriente Revolucionaria Bolivar y Zamora (CRBZ), which is one of the major constituents of the Partido Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), founded by Hugo Chavez and dominates the Venezuelan political landscape, with more than 6.5 million members out of a population of 32 million, and growing.
Much of what we had seen to date was rural. There is also a great deal of urban organisation. Although we took part in discussions with many groups and individuals, there was not enough time to see a lot of the on the ground organisation in the urban centres.
An exception was a comuna, which among other activities, is setting up an operation to manufacture natural and healthy grain-based food for cattle, pigs, poultry and fish.
Like the other comunas we had seen, their main motivation is to contribute to the local and national effort, to resist the economic war imposed on them and to build a brighter future for all.
Like we found so often, these people are also proud of what they are doing. After having overcome many difficulties, the plant was ready to go into production within days.
There are three other places deserving a special mention., and another, which we visited on our way back through Barinas.
One is a primary school. It is run as a comuna and strongly influenced by the Corriente. There is also a secondary school, but we did not have the time to see this.
We got to meet commune members and teachers. We were fed a hearty meal by the kitchen staff, to whom we donated our block of cheese. We were then shown around the school, had a discussion and got ot ask questions, and were given honest answers.
We learned that the school is under the control of the community that it serves. It pays a great deal of attention to the health and social needs of the kids.
The curriculum is based on learning to participate as a member of the community, and learning about the history of the nation, principles of equality, fairness and sharing, as well as well as the standard subjects.
The kids are provided with healthy food in the mornings, lunchtime and after school. Much of this is given by the government. But since the food didn’t come in on this day, the kids were let off at lunchtime. This happens occasionally, we were told.
Classes are kept at a reasonably small size. no bigger than they are in Australia. The teachers we met, came across as enthusiastic and competent.
The biggest challenge they face, is ensuring that the school has enough education supplies to meet its needs. They could use more books and basic stationary. It was suggested that perhaps Australians could help a little in this regard.
The next place we saw is a largish hospital, run as another comuna, and also under the Corriente influence.
We were met by the deputy hospital administrator and then the administrator. The first part we saw was the pharmacy, and although it is open around the clock and every day of the year, we only saw one paid staff member. The rest are community volunteers. Together, they do great job keeping this and three other pharmacies operating and dispensing free medicine.
It is the trade embargo that holds them back. One of the main objectives ofthe embargo is to prevent medicines from entering Venezuela. This means that they are in short supply. People die sometimes because of this. accordingto the hospital staff we met, this is a crime against humanity.
If they hadn’t found ways to access some of these medicines through the back door, the situation would be much worse. It is remarkable that they do as well as they do.
despite everything they do, the medicine shortage remains a reality and a major problem. We were asked if we could help. And we had no hesitation in saying that we would.
The hospital runs a dialysis unit and needs insulin for diabetics. We saw the work they do, and were told that some of the machines at the unit are no longer functional, because of the lack of spare parts and shortage of technicians.
The ban on spare parts also makes the electricity supply uncertain, and other uses must be curtailed. to ensure power is there for critical functions. Although the hospital has its own backup own power plant, the difficulty in getting spare parts means that it is not fully functional erither. Nor are there enough technicians with the the specialised knowledge to keep the generator functional at all times.
We agreed to investigate the possibility of sending skilled volunteers to Venezuela.
We saw other parts of the hospital, talked to doctors, nurses, other staff, and a few patients. We were amazed at how well they do in very difficult circumstances. The level of care is first rate.The staff know what they are doing and they care.
We headed to Barinas yet again. This time, it was to see the Paulo Freire Latin American School of Agroecology. It is guided by the the principles of the Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, was that there is no such thing as neutral education. It either world to transform the world or to hold back this transformation. Education is a road to freedom.
We stayed overnight. Teachers and students live there. They teach and study for diplomas in agriculture and degrees in agricultural engineering. The college is also a working farm, enabling its courses to have a serious practical content to back up the theory.
As we saw everywhere we went, the focus is on sustainability, and looking after the soil and dealing with pests by natural means. Looking through their textbooks and references, I found a broad range of relevant thought and science dealing with society, agriculture and economics in general.
Part of their mission is to train students from other countries. To help improve on this, they want English language teachers. We took on the extra task of promising to investigate this further in Australia. They are prepared to offer placements to Australian students.
We left Apure, headed back to Barinas and ended up in a town called Sabaneta.
This is where Hugo Chavez grew up. There is no way of failing to see that this is a thoroughly Chavez town. Signs of it are visible everywhere, whether it is the many murals that adorn the walls and streets, or the conversations you hear.
We saw a local sports stadium where they were getting ready to sign up new United Socialist Party of Venezuela members.
This, the statue of the late leader donated by Russian president Vladimir Putin in the central square, and the homes of Chavez’s parents and grandparents, which have been converted into museums are interesting and worth seeing. Nevertheless, they are not the most important of what we saw there.
We saw a cultural centre built by the Russians, but run by the community. It does a lot of work to promote participation in culture, from music to drama, painting, sculpture and writing, in a set of modern buildings.
Indigenous culture is nurtured as an important part of realising a national identity and the development of Venezuelan culture, instead of being flooded by the commercialised and disposable culture, coming from the empire to the north.
The other is the Hugo Chavez Thought Institute. It’s mission, we were told, is to champion the Bolivaran tradition of striving for national sovereignty and building a better future for all Venezuelans.
To do this, the centre holds classes and publishes books and other material on the nation’s history, the contributions of a range of thinkers, including of course, Hugo Chavez.
We had quite an intense discussion as to what this means. At the end of it, we came out agreeing to arrange the translation two new works of theirs into English.
The next and final part of this series of articles based on eyewitness accounts will concern a broader interpretation of the direction in which Venezuela is heading, its gains and challenges, and what both can teach all of us.