This is the first of Joe Montero’s articles from the frontline in Venezuela, delayed because of an attack on the country’s electricity system, which has left most regions without power, water or communications for days. It has made life considerably harder for everyone.
While on my Way to Venezuela, among all the good wishes and desire to know more of what is going on there, there were a handful of vitriolic counter reactions.
Somehow, I am complicit in “murder.” I am also “accepting Maduro’s dirty money.” And I’m apparently an “agent of the Venezuelan government’s propaganda machine.”
Silly accusations aside, the reason for the visit, along with companions Lucho Requelme and Federico Fuentes, is to get an eye witness account of what is going on, and to get it from those who are affected the most.
We are also all against the intervention. But this does not mean we are anyone’s tool, or incapable of seeing what is happening on the ground.
The first part of our journey was the capital Caracas. Then we headed west towards the frontier with Columbia. where the recent confrontation took place.
Before leaving Australia, we had heard a lot about the shortage of food and that Venezuelans were going hungry. It turned out that in Caracas the supermarkets, the shops, shops and and street stalls were full of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and other things. When we left Caracas, we found the same in the towns and countryside.
The food crisis that we’d heard about does not exist.
It does not mean that life is easy in Venezuela. It’s not. The high cost of some necessities is a major problem. The blockade means that important medicines are scarce. A day to day irritation is a shortage of currency with which to buy things. The economic crisis is mostly financial.
A further indication of how things are going, is that we have been staying in people’s homes and not hotels. They share what they have and we haven’t gone hungry.
There were shortages three years ago, after the United States imposed stiffer sanctions. People did do without then. This was overcome through increasing the production of food and importing more from certain countries. Most important, is that all households are provided with a box of staples, like oil, rice flour and other necessities once a month, generally through local community organisations. It has made a huge difference. So has the fact that electricity, gas, water and public transport are free.
Everywhere we went, we learned about the emphasis being put on local political power. In Venezuela, there exists the usual political structure of a parliament and the executive, and this operates at the national regional and local levels.
The difference in Venezuela, is that this is paralleled by an emerging community political power. People are elected onto committees which supervise the provision of government services, such as power supply, education and health services.
This is a major sticking point for opponents of the Maduro government, because in their eyes, this is mob rule, or under the influence of pro Chavista political parties. and it lies at the heart of the accusation of dictatorship.
For supporters of this new emerging political power, it is critical to developing real participatory democracy.
Another important issue is the armed forces, national guard and police. They are openly Bolivarian. It is in their titles. Opponents of the government point to this. Left out of this narrative, is that this
is not new and is rooted in the history of the birth of the nation. The difference now, is that it has a Chavista interpretation, the effect of which, has been an impressive integration of the armed forces, national guard and police, with the civilian population.
Consequently, whenever we came across soldiers, members of the national guard or police, they were also pretty laid back, polite and ready to engage in friendly conversation. They are not out there stomping on the population.
A civilian militia is being built at the local level, is now more than one and a half a million strong, and trained by the army. Some of the detachments are of mixed sex and others consist of women only.
The government is actually arming the civilian population. The said purpose is to defend the nation from external invasion.
At the recent confrontation on the Colombian border, it was the 500 strong local civilian militia that played the central role, stopping what they saw as a vehicle to smuggle in armed operatives,l as well as create an incident, and not real humanitarian aid.
How do Venezuelans really feel about Maduro?
From what we can tell, the biggest part of the population is behind him and this is most obvious in working class and poor neighbourhoods, and in the countryside.
The opposition had gained some traction during the hard times three years ago, and this resulted in its electoral victory in the Congress elections of the time. Since then, improving conditions for most of the population, and the politics of democratic participation on the ground, has translated into raising the extent of support for Maduro.
There are critics of Maduro as well, besides those lined up with the opposition. For now, they have put this aside, for the higher priority of defending Venezuela’s national sovereignty.
This movement for national sovereignty is bringing together a broader range of political forces in the Patriotic Front. And it doesn’t only consist of pro Chavista forces. Sections of the opposition are moving into it, because they consider Guaido’s actions a national betrayal.
This first instalment will be followed by further articles on what it’s like at the frontier, how Venezuelans are responding to the present situation and the prospect of war, and more on the present political situation, national unity and aspirations for the future.