Venezuela Sessions at the Midwest Social Forum

Submitted by marc on Mon, 2006-07-10 12:12

Marc Becker Community Action on Latin America (CALA) marc@yachana.org

[Image] Activists held a series of information and strategy sessions at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee the weekend of July 8-9, 2006. Out of the meetings emerged a commitment to collaborate and share information on Venezuela solidarity work in the Midwestern United States.

The series of meetings began with an information panel “Venezuela: Throwing Off the Post-Colonial? Chains” organized by Community Action on Latin America (CALA) that discussed the problems and promises of the Bolivarian Revolution. We began the session by laying out a series of themes, questions, and images that participants had of Venezuela and its president Hugo Chavez. Is Venezuela moving toward the model of an authoritarian socialist state? Is Chavez likely to promote democracy? Is he in the process of consolidating power? What are the implications of these political and social changes?

These themes led to a broad-ranging discussion of representative versus participatory democracy, with the U.S. attempting to equate elections with democracy while Venezuela increasingly moves toward a model that desires to empower and mobilize people. The government has implemented a series of social programs called “missions” that provide education, health care, food, housing, and land. At the same time, the opposition has largely collapsed while Chavez’s popularity has risen which increasingly gives the impression of a lack of political diversity.

John Peterson, the national coordinator of Hands Off Venezuela (HOV), provided an overview of labor movements in Venezuela, building parallels with the United States. Similar to the AFL-CIO in the United States, the Venezuela Labor Federation (CTV) historically developed close relations with the neo-liberal state and subordinated itself to imperialism. When Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998, the CTV moved into opposition to his progressive reforms and allied with a 2002 military-business coup and an employer lockout in the state oil company PDVSA that sought to evict him from power. As a result, workers moved from a personal economic consciousness to a desire to defend their trade union and finally to a national consciousness to defend the Bolivarian Revolution. Due to failures to democratize the CTV from within, workers created a new progressive national labor federation, the UNT. These labor struggles are representative of, and key to, broader political shifts taking place in Venezuela.

Babette Grunow and Gary Grass from the Bolivarian Circles Milwaukee described how most of the media in Venezuela is very reactionary and takes a strong anti-Chavez position. Both reporting in Venezuela and in the United States twists reality in a propaganda war that beats down the Bolivarian Revolution and seems to be aimed at regime change. Attacks from these types of so-called “low-intensity warfare” are more prevalent and potentially more damaging than an overt military intervention. Because of this, it is important to look for alternative sources of information on Venezuela.

Rebecca Trotzky-Sirr?, a University of Minnesota medical student, and Sarah Langford, a Johns Hopkins University nursing student, led a second workshop “Health Revolution: Lessons from Venezuela.” They began with an overview of how under the Chavez administration Venezuela has transformed its health care system to prioritize primary care in low income communities. Of particular importance is the Barrio Adentro (“Into the Neighborhood”) program that with support of the Cuban government provides free health care in poor neighborhoods. They discussed the difficulties of realizing profound changes in the health care system without the support of the vast majority of health care practioners who are from the wealthy classes and are antagonistic to the goals of the Bolivarian Revolution. In particular, Trotzky-Sirr? and Langford were eager to draw lessons from the Venezuelan experience for the United States, and asked whether the health care system in this country can similarly be transformed to put people before profits?

The series of panels ended with a Venezuela Solidarity Strategy Session. The group of gathered activists discussed activities that they are already involved in, and plans for future actions. Community Action on Latin America (CALA) in Madison organized a Witness for Peace (WFP) delegation to Venezuela in March and presented a series of educational programming during the spring. Bolivarian Circles Milwaukee is organizing a sister city relationship with Carora, Lara that has a very progressive local government. They are planning a trip this fall.

Activists in Minneapolis are discussing holding a regional conference on Venezuela in the spring, although those gathered at the meeting questioned who was organizing it or what its purpose would be (education or mobilization). Some participants wondered if rather than bringing activists together in a regional meeting whether it would be more useful to dedicate resources to a speaker tour and focus on education and activism in each of our communities.

These actions led to a wide-ranging discussion about the promises and pitfalls of different solidarity strategies. Long-time activists shared lessons they had learned while working on El Salvador, Haiti, Cuba, and other solidarity projects. Delegations are a good idea and provide direct contacts to counter negative propaganda, but they tend to exclude low income and people of color. It is also important to bring people from Venezuela to the United States, but not just big name leaders but also grassroots activists who can often provide a more direct voice and legitimacy in propaganda wars. Sister city relations are similarly useful to build direct contacts with Venezuela, but caution must be taken that the relationship remains one of political solidarity rather than degenerating into charity with the unfortunate side effect of fostering dependency. We discussed building a sister region relationship between the Midwest and a similar region in Venezuela, but did not make any specific plans.

Participants also discussed the importance of responding to disinformation in the media with letters to the editor. The State Department, in particular, uses wire service reports to broadcast their line. Even when letters to the editor are not published they can have a cumulative effect of shifting how the media reports the news.

The one concrete action that came out of the meeting was a commitment to share information between activists in the Midwest on our activities. In particular, we set up a new email listserv to coordinate and collaborate in these efforts. To be added to the new midwest regional listserv to coordinate solidarity efforts on Venezuela, send a message to with “subscribe venmidwest” in the subject line, or contact Carol Bracewell at .

The Midwest Social Forum (MWSF) is an annual gathering of grassroots organizations, community activists, workers, educators, students, artists, and others committed to making a better, more just world possible. The MWSF provides an open space for exchanging experiences and information, strengthening alliances and networks, and developing effective strategies for progressive social, economic, and political change. For more information on the Midwest Social Forum and pictures from the Venezuela solidarity meetings, visit http://www.mwsocialforum.org/. (external link)