Venezuela!What a whirlwind of a trip! Nineteen Dickinson students and six faculty/staff/friends of Dickinson spent 2 ½ weeks in Venezuela this January studying the Bolivarian process. From the capital city of Caracas to the coast and cacao plantations of Barlovento, from the mountain town of Sanare and the coffee plantations of Monte Carmelo to the beach town of Choroní, these Dickinsonians had the opportunity to talk with internationally- known speakers and authors as well as with townspeople and workers. Students took advantage of home stays with families in the village of Monte Carmelo and Barrio San Juan in Barquisimeto . They interviewed a range of people working in the education, health, media, women's, and cultural missions and cooperatives; picked coffee beans and made chocolate from cacao beans; and danced to the beat of Afro-Venezuelan drums on the Day of the Three Kings. Below we would like to share some of what we experienced on this amazing trip.
January 3, 2007
¡Bienvenidos! As of 6:45 this morning we have been in Caracas, Venezuela . We have been traveling since 3pm yesterday! After months of preparation, it's hard to believe we are finally here. As we travel through the city, there are three things that I see everywhere: the Venezuelan flag, signs about Chávez (good and bad), and Christmas decorations. Venezuela does know how to celebrate Christmas! In the airport there are Merry Christmas banners, on poles and billboards in the streets, inside hotels, stores, museums. It's everywhere and I love it! It's absolutely incredible.
After settling into the hotel and having lunch we visited an organic farm in the middle of the city. The Chávez government provided this land and the equipment but everything else since has been done by the people. They work the land and sell the produce at the same location therefore cutting out the middleman. The man we spoke with told us that even the people who are against them working there come and buy from them.
Later that night, Charlie, our guide, introduced himself to us, giving us some background on his life. 20 years ago he came to Venezuela , from Wyoming , as a priest and he knew no Spanish. He was placed in a barrio to live and his home was literally made out of cardboard. That's where he met Ledys, a native Venezuelan, who will also be traveling with us. Charlie has experienced the revolution where it all began, in the barrios, the homes of the poorest of the poor. He's told us about the curfews that used to exist and people “disappearing.” He has a newspaper in which entire pages are blank because the government censored it. He has lived in such horrible conditions for so many years. He's no longer a priest and no longer lives in the barrio, but now he is able to look back with his sanity and sense of humor still intact. Charlie is a really strong person. I don't know what the next two weeks have in store but it should be an adventure…
January 4, 2007 : Caracas, Venezuela
On our second day in Caracas , we went on a historic tour of the city. This included the house where Simon Bolivar was born and the museum dedicated to his life and death. At the museum we were able to see clothes, letters and medals all belonging to Simon Bolivar. We learned about the six countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia) that Bolivar liberated during his career as a general, the Venezuelan national anthem, during which it is unnecessary to put your hand over your heart and after which it is inappropriate to clap, and the newly redesigned flag, where the face of the horse was recently changed from looking backwards, over his shoulder to the right to looking straight forward to the left. In the room dedicated to “Pensamiento y Muerto” was a picture of Bolivar on his deathbed. Someone pointed out the difference between American heroes, where vulnerability is rarely revealed because it is seen as a sign of weakness, and this Venezuelan hero where the painting of Bolivar only makes him seem more human. We later ventured to two of the City Halls in Caracas , across the street from each other. One was decorated with flags and a courtyard, and the other had a museum with displays of Che Guevara and U.S. involvement in Latin American affairs. In the room detailing the U.S. involvement was a mural of magazine clippings and words comparing the privileged American lifestyle that is taken for granted to the lives of many of the struggling adults and children in Venezuela . While the display did not specifically direct its comments to Americans, its positioning made a clear statement about the difference between our two worlds.
Before we left for Venezuela we saw “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” (an Irish Film Board Production) which documents what actually happened during the Coup of 2002. In it we saw a particularly graphic scene that Opposition channels showed over and over again of Chavez supporters standing on a bridge who appeared to be firing at innocent opposition members in the streets below. This was the picture broadcast around the world at that time, but in reality when the camera zoomed out you could see that the people standing on the bridge were being shot at from snipers in a building across the street and had drawn their weapons in attempted defense. We were able to walk to the site of this tragedy and see firsthand where the battle took place in April of 2002. Although the Miraflores palace was heavily guarded and photography was restricted we were also able to walk past that and see the balcony from which Chavez gives his speeches. We also made a quick stop at the site of the beautiful building that hosts both Bolivar's and Paez's burial site, ironically because they were enemies during the latter parts of their lives. Even though we had only been in Venezuela a short time, this day was able to make what we had been studying come to life and made me appreciate the struggle and history so much more.
We made our final stop at Catia-TV, a small community TV station that is dedicated to presenting a viewpoint that reflects a change in the political, social, cultural, and economic aspects of the country. The station has legally existed for five years, illegally for ten, and broadcasts news to western Caracas that has been filmed by the people of the community. Their slogan is “No vea television… Hágala!” (“Don't watch television… Come, let's do it!”).
The story of struggle that inspired those currently involved in the station to want to create something that would get their voices heard began in 1951 with their parents. As people were being pushed by the government between shabby shacks and barracks in an abandoned psychiatric hospital, they began to rise up in a fight for land. When the next generation came they were equally revolutionary and created a newspaper and a cultural center in which they had debates and watched movies. The name of this group called themselves the “Crazy House Cinema Club.” They decided that it was important to learn the history of their barrio so they went around their community with a camera and tried prying information out of the older generation, only to come up against stubborn silence. In order to get people to talk they decided to start their interviews by asking for a comment about the 1962 baseball game between the Leones of Caracas and the Magellones. People had no reserve about discussing this, and from a natural flow of conversation, the young students of the cinema club were able to piece together the history of their barrio. Eventually they had a final product called the “Magic Lantern.” They advertised for it and people came to watch the baseball game with the clips of history during the commercials. Everyone in the community was fascinated by the movie and the students who had created it began to dream of a next establishing a small community television station. A few of the students went to a press conference with Chavez and stood out by asking Chavez to “greet the people of Catia.” Chavez requested a meeting with them and was so impressed by their efforts that he gave them 47 million bolivares to continue their struggle to get across an educational and cultural message to the people of Caracas . They now get financial support from France , Belgium and Cuba . Because they existed long before the 2002 coup they were able to provide truth to nearby barrios during the media blackout. They would film the happenings and then travel between communities with a handicam to show the footage for other people.
After a very long but interesting and insightful day, we made it back to the hotel and were greeted with the familiar choice of a ham, cheese, or ham and cheese sandwich.
January 5, 2007
Today we drove up to the last barrio constructed in Caracas called Nuevo Horizonte, or New Horizon. From a distance, the shacks covering the mountain seem like a picturesque landscape; however, upon driving up and up, steeper and steeper, over the potholed roads, it's hard not to notice the trash cascading down the hills, the holes in most of the shacks and their flimsy walls collapsing. As we stepped off the bus, guided by police carrying rifles and wearing bullet-proof vests, children playing on the streets immediately stopped and lined up against a wall to gape at us, smiling and enthused. We visited a "casa de salud" or house of health which provided free healthcare to the inhabitants of the barrio. The workers greeted us warmly, proudly showing off their facility, excited that we came to learn about it. The Caracazo of 1989 woke people up to the problems they faced in the barrios and generated the idea and action for this center. Although initially there was some trouble financing their project a Belgian businessman agreed to help out. The center began with dental and general healthcare--today it has added ultrasounds and in the upcoming year will add x-ray technology and gastro-intestinal practices. The woman talking to us, Julieta Calterón, said "la casa del salud es la luz para nuestra comunidad."
We then visited an endogenous center which took land that was no longer being used for its purpose of petroleum production. Chavez stated that the space should be devoted to the people of its surrounding barrios and so there now exists a laboratory where the people learn how to form cooperatives and a mini-hospital. The workers there even cooked us a lovely lunch, made from vegetables grown in the organic garden they had also set up on the land.
Next we traveled to PDVSA, the national oil company of Venezuela ,where Dester B. Rodriguez spoke with us. He spoke charismatically but somewhat controversially, incriminating the "giant of the north"and comparing President Bush to Hitler in the sense that he is committing genocide against Iraqis and Mexican immigrants. However, Rodriguez spoke with pride of the success of the missions and how the money from the oil was being used truly for the people. It was surprising and interesting to note the fury with which Rodriguez regarded Bush and the kindness with which he welcomed us, laying out presents and food for us. What struck me was the intensity and passion in the way he spoke, completely convinced and engaged in his cause.
In the evening we listened to Eva Golinger speak about her experiences regarding the US government's treatment of Venezuela and how Venezuela has changed as a country under Chavez. She said that between 1993-1998, before Chavez, "people were athletic towards politics, much like a lot of the US today. Where you now see a poster of Chavez you would have seen a Beverly Hills 90210 poster. Venezuelans loved American culture more than their own." Today, however, this is not the case whatsoever. The streets are lined with posters of Chavez and Venezuelan music is heard everywhere. Golinger also talked about the private CIA documents she received, affirming the Bush administration's involvement in the coup to overthrow Chavez carefully planned out, even though they denied it. (She outlines this in her new book Bush vs Chavez: La Guerra de Washington contra Venezuela , 2006) .
The day, like always, was an eye-opening experience to how others live, how much a country can change in a short period of time, and how important it is to find something you are passionate about and act on it.
January 6, 2007 Saturday
Today we left Caracas and arrived in Barlovento, a town known for its Afro-Venezuelan population. After a relaxing afternoon at the pool, we listened to Louis speak about the Afro-Venezuelan movement and the role the current Chavez government plays in the movement. Louis discussed his concern about the lack of recognition of the African presence in Venezuela . The movement's main concerns include adding Afro-Venezuelan history into text and history books and restoring Afro-Venezuelan pride. He discussed the example in which several Afro-Venezuelan elementary school children were asked to draw pictures of their families. Instead of adequately depicting their parents with dark skin the children drew their parents with light skin. After discussing this curious tendency with the children, the difference was attributed the children being ashamed of having dark skinned parents who were clearly of African descent. Luis used this example to demonstrate the growing movement to restore pride in the Afro-Venezuelan community and to demonstrate the feeling that racism still exists in Venezuela even though it's “under the table.”
That evening we attended the FIESTA DEL REY in the town square. A procession paraded through the town ending in the center of town where live music was being played. The atmosphere of the festival was amazing; people of all ages dancing everywhere, street venders littering the sides (selling everything from overloaded hotdogs to cervezas ), and a number of people dressed to represent the religious figures the festival honors (The Day of the Three Kings). (We also discovered that our group had some amazing dancers!) We finished the night with the longest dinner known to man. It literally took more than 3 hours to be served and eat. Thankfully, we had already grown very fond of Venezuelan schedules (or lack there of) so it ended up being great group bonding.
Darcy Mc Donald and Rachel Finan
January 7, 2007 Sunday
Today, we left our hotel at 9:30 to head out to a cocoa plantation forty-five minutes from Barlovento. The plantation is located in the middle of a forest with no cement road. The house around the plantation is brightly painted in colors ranging from yellow and pink to blue. We learned later in the tour, that the house belonged to old Spanish family who owned African slaves.
We were welcomed by Javier Marquez, our tour guide. He greeted us, introduced himself, and gave us a brief history of the plantation. Chocolate was first cultivated by the Mayan and the Aztecs. First seen by Christopher Columbus in 1502 , he did not see any profit in developing cocoa. Cortez, a Spaniard, was the first to cultivate cocoa, in the 17 century. He attempted to “civilize” the indigenous by supplying them with food, clothes and education; he also enslaved them. In the 17 th century, African slaves were imported to cultivate cocoa fields. Cocoa was initially exported to Mexico , and later to Spain and Italy , and finally Switzerland . Today Switzerland is known for being the best quality producer of chocolate in the world. Venezuela produces only 1% of the cacao in the world, but 10% of the world's finest quality production.
In Javier Marquez's plantation, there are 6 hectares of land with 18 workers. The plantation mission is to preserve the culture of cocoa plantation rather than create a massive cocoa production.
Once Javier Marquez briefed us about the history of cocoa, as a class, we produced our own chocolate. He explained us the different steps needed to create chocolate.
Chocolate originates from a flower. The flower blooms exactly for one day.
A tiny insect (smaller than an ant or mosquito) has to pollinate during that specific day.
Once the flower is pollinated, a fruit grows and within the fruit there are chocolate seeds.
One needs to open the fruit, take out the seeds and dry them.
Every two hours, the seeds need to be raked until they are fully dried.
Cook the seeds
Peel the skin off the seeds.
Grind the beans.
Prepare the chocolate.
After we completed all the steps, we had the privilege to be introduced to Afro-Venezuelan music. They served us hot chocolate as they explained the different instruments. We saw dozens of different types of drums made out of wood and bamboo. They sang tradition songs whose lyrics typically described life during slavery. As they were singing, we were taught how to dance. At the end of the performance, we were able to buy chocolate from the plantation.
January 7, 2007
Adversity shows all. Putting people in situations foreign to their usual experiences reveals inner tensions that might never have otherwise surfaced. It is fair to say that each of us in our group of North Americans, diverse in our own ways, has felt out of place at least once on our trip so far. Some were able to identify more and some less with Afro-Venezuelans who are descended from slaves in the region of Barlovento. The music and the dancing last night at the Festival of Three Kings were amazing – though scary to some who have never before experienced being a minority.
Traveling to the town of Barlovento today, we were introduced to members of the Afro Venezuelan community who operate a cacao plantation. While their presentation about the details of owning and operating a cacao plantation, as well as the making of chocolate, was fun and informative, these details were not what I remembered the most from the visit. What I did remember most, was the vibe I got from the workers themselves. With the drums pounding out their clicks and clacks, the smell of steaming chocolate wafting from our cups, and the sun drying the cacao seeds on the cement floor, hard work and play synthesized with ease. But this synthesis was centuries in the making. Before this family (and families and communities just like them elsewhere in Venezuela ) could own and work the land they currently inhabit, they struggled for basic recognition of their rights as human beings. As slaves in the fields, it was, in fact, the cacao plantation itself that trapped them in their role as laborers. Today's visit was particularly interesting because it afforded us the opportunity to share with a group of Afro-Venezuelans who are finally taking ownership of something that had formerly oppressed them, making it theirs and being proud of that.
However, the AfroVenezuelan community is not done with their push to be recognized as significant members of Venezuela 's population. With the onset of the country's socialist revolution, many previously ignored groups within society are finally gaining recognition. For example, both women and indigenous groups are being included in the movement. While progress has been made, AfroVenezuelans still feel as though they deserve to be more included in the process- the same struggle that marginalized groups everywhere are also still going through. But, like many Venezuelans, AfroVenezuelans support President Chavez's efforts because they see more positive than negative changes. And while they are still hoping to see the advancement of their own cause, they are willing to work with the "greater cause." As with the revolution in general, only time will tell whether the AfroVenezuelan community will ultimately feel adequately incorporated in Venezuela 's peaceful revolution.
Monday January 8, 2007
We woke up before 4am to start our long bus ride to Sanare. For breakfast, we stopped at a roadside restaurant and had arepas for the first time. A few hours later, we reached an the Felix Ribas Endogenous Center. This agricultural cooperative has only been in use for a year and a half, but they have already made much progress. After only 4 months of construction on houses, they anticipate being finished at the end of January 2007.
The coop was very interesting to learn about. All the land used to be owned by the Vollmer family who owns Santa Theresa Rum. They were not using all of the land, and 160 people came to petition to work on the land. At first, the family was not happy, but they understood the reasons behind the petition and agreed to give up some land. Now 88 people are involved with the coop.
With help from Misión Vuelvan Caras, workers learned how to harvest fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers, eggplants, carrots, sweet onions, tomatoes, green peppers, and black beans. This year, the coop hopes to raise cattle, rabbits, and chickens, as well as have areas as for lay hens and finish all 90 houses.
Everyone has the right to work here. There is no sense of “retirement” like we have in the US . Instead, every person who wants to work can do a job according to their age and ability. When someone no longer wants to work on the coop, they can simply leave. However, while working on the cooperative, the workers and their families live in houses owned by the cooperative. These houses are fully furnished, and even if only one member of the family works with the coop, the rest of the family is invited to stay live there.
We stopped very briefly at the Vollmer owned rum plantation, Santa Teresa. It is known to produce the best rum in Venezuela , and within the last 5 years, it has been called the best liquor in the world. You can find articles on the interesting development of a major industry working with people on social reforms that benefit everyone.
Finally, we arrived in Sanare at 9pm, where we met Lisa Sullivan who will become our guide during our stay in Sanare. We ate dinner at the restaurant at our hotel, Posada El Cerrito, and afterwards went directly to bed.
January 8th sticks in my mind as a day marked by lots of travel, endogenous development, and delicious food. We started the day at 4 AM to begin our cross-country journey from Barlovento, a beautiful coastal city, to the mountain city of Sanare . The lobby of the hotel was our meeting area at 4 AM , and I feel the group of zombies who arrived that morning is best summed up by the fact that I couldn't even get Professor Koont excited about Cuba . The bus ride was silent as no one had trouble getting back to sleep. We drove for several hours before stopping for breakfast at a roadside breakfast stop where we ate arepas . This provided us our first experience with the pastry, which would become a staple of our diet and have such a profound effect on us we would later name our beloved dog after them. Having climbed into the bus, the ride remained silent after breakfast as we all seemed to adjust well to the sleeping conditions.
The second stop on our bus ride was at the Felix Ribas Center for Endogenous Development, which was focused on creating a massive cooperative farm complete with housing for all employees. This stop provided us the opportunity to see the direct effects of some of President Hugo Chavez' policies first hand. Mision Veulvan Caras, “Mission About Face,” is an economic policy seeking to redistribute wealth and power to the lower classes. The farm we were visiting was part of this plan. Here, “endogenous development” meant the purchase of a massive plot of land from a wealthy land-owner and the creation of a cooperative farm on previously fallow land. The project is tremendous as over 90 homes are being constructed, complete with access to medical care, education, and other necessary infrastructure. The project shows the unlimited potential which Mision Vuelvan Caras has to empower the poor. This Endogenous Development Center has brought everything from landownership to access to schools and medical facilities to a group of people who had next to nothing. Our trip to a seemingly average farm enabled us to see the revolution unfolding before our eyes, alerting us to the important differences between our previous experiences with capitalism in the United States and the unique nature of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela .
After visiting the farm for a couple hours, we piled back into our bus en route to Sanare. We had planned for a tour of a rum distillery owned by the Vollmer family who had negotiated with people in the area to begin the Felix Ribas Center but our very busy schedule allowed for only a quick stop of 15 minutes. The power tour involved a walking explanation of the history of the company, followed by a stop at the company's own railroad system. The proud company of Santa Teresa Rum produced the world's the top-ranked rum a few years ago, and has worked with local gangs and health clinics, and invested in cooperatives in the community, representing well the solidarity among Venezuelans. Our stay was very brief and we scurried back to the bus to continue our cross country trip.
After the rum distillery, we got back on the bus to continue our journey. Venezuelan highways run from city to city, but unlike American highways, they involve actually traveling through the heart of urban areas. This makes the trip significantly longer as we waited at stop lights simply trying to travel through. The long bus ride was broken up by a delicious rotisserie chicken lunch/dinner at 4 PM . When I asked why we waited so long for lunch, Professor Rose responded she didn't feel our body clocks were sufficiently out of whack from waking up at 4 AM, thus we needed to wait unbearably long for lunch. ( and the previously planned stop for lunch was being renovated). However the wait was well worth it as the rotisserie chicken served with Cokes provided a welcome reminder of eating at Boston Market back home in the States. The dinner was quick as we had much driving left to do. The rest of the trip was very pretty as we climbed the foothills of the Andes to the mountain town of Sanare . We arrived at the hotel at 9 PM to meet our guide for the next stage of the trip, Lisa Sullivan. Lisa is an American who has lived in Venezuela for thirty years, she stays very active in politics as she organizes a Latin American ban on the School of the Americas . The school trains war tactics in America , and has been cited as the cause for countless war crimes. Lisa briefly introduced herself over a delicious spaghetti dinner and then everyone crashed after our long day. The group which had seemed so beleaguered at 4 AM that morning was even more tired upon arrival in Sanare that evening. Everyone went to bed early knowing another action-packed day was awaiting us tomorrow.
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
Today was our first day in Sanare. I'm not lying when I say that I hated it here upon our arrival last night. There was freezing cold water coming out of the shower and there were bugs everywhere. Naturally, I was cranky. However, after breakfast of eggs, beans, arepas , a plate of fruit (fresh pineapple, papaya, and melon), fresh juice, and coffee, I calmed down and was ready for the day.
We started off the day by traveling by jeep to Monte Carmelo and then hiked up the mountains to La Alianza. At the top, we would be visiting an organic farm and eating lunch. We learned about organic farming in the area and in Venezuela . There is a need to spread the importance of organic farming in order to make Venezuelans more appreciative of their environment and to protect it for the future. We saw the process with red worms, which gives rise in the production for organic farming. Following this, we ate lunch, which included some amazing homemade yogurt for dessert.
After lunch, we walked down the mountain to the small village of Monte Carmelo . This town was such a cute community! You could tell that they all looked out for one another. Another thing that was very visible was how well the missions were doing for their small village. Cooperatives gave them more jobs in the area. Also, you can see how education has improved the lives of these people.
We went to a women's cooperative, MonCar, where Gaudi and other women discussed the workings of the cooperative, how they produce jams and jellies to sell for money, and the ways in which social movements were giving power to the people. Upstairs, there were classes being held for high school. We discussed women's issues at the cooperative and learned how this has helped better the lives of these women. Eventually, we ended our discussion and continued it with local teachers of an education mission, Mision Sucre and Vuelvan Caras .. These women saw great improvements in education and are excited for the future, as more people become educated.
After all of this, it seemed like the entire community came to their plaza to talk with us. Everyone had a million different conversations with people in the area. Our group dispersed between the many people and stores in order to take in Monte Carmelo. I bought some jams and talked to a grandmother and her granddaughter for a little about the village and the people in it.
At the end of the evening, we went to the backyard of Gaudy's house to have dinner. There was soup that had been cooked over the bonfire in the yard, chicken salad, arepas , and hot chocolate. All of it was great. Everyone sat around the fire and chatted with one another. Eventually, a small band came and everyone got up to dance to the traditional music. It was a great time, and I really enjoyed my time in Monte Carmelo.
Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at La Alianza
Today we visited the Alianza organic agriculture cooperative in Las Lajitas, about a 15 minute drive from Sanare followed by a 15 minute walk up the surrounding hills. A few men from a French religious order, Jesus' Little Brothers of Charles de Focault, established this group over 30 years ago by. Though these pioneers were missionaries, they were respectful of local traditions and worked with the community. By organizing landless campesinos from nearby Monte Carmelo, the young cooperative members were able to buy the land outright and begin farming using conventional methods. When visiting medical students found that the residents had dangerously high levels of agricultural chemicals in their blood, the cooperative decided to work towards organic methods, a transition they have almost fully completed by now.
Besides their mixed vegetable gardens and small dairy herd, the cooperative profits from selling the high quality compost they produce here. Over the years they have developed an exacting technique for producing the compost, including a specific mixture of animal waste and cacao hulls for a proper chemical balance, a worm processing stage to improve the soil's structure, and a draining off of the liquid compost to be sold and used as foliar plant feed. Though they use a good deal of both the liquid and solid compost, they sell the majority to local farmers and other cooperatives. Most interesting about Alianza, as well as a number of the Monte Carmelo co-ops, is that they do not receive the petroleum-generated money that Chávez has recently been redistributing throughout the country. They belong to a regional organization called SECOSESOLA, which any group or individual can become a member of by paying dues. The organization withholds 10% of their yearly profit as a fund for startup credit and emergencies. As Padre Mario Gripo, one of Alianza's founding members, put it, “Chávez is now spreading what we've had here for many years.” In other words, Chávez's misiones and credit programs work to establish nationwide the types of sustainable organizations that citizens of Monte Carmelo have worked at perfecting for years. Though a government official's 2002 visit did result in a loan, which the cooperative used to expand the worm composting program, the members insisted on paying it back, which they now do by hosting educational workshops to train other farmers to set up their own composting systems. In this case, a functional cooperative model facilitates healthy food for the local community, a clean and safe place to work, and the ability to spread the knowledge they've developed throughout the agricultural community.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
This morning we were fortunate enough to spend several hours at the Barrio Adentro clinic of Sanare, in which a Cuban doctor shared his impressions of the integral diagnostic center. Established as an early intervention center, the clinic is composed of Cuban doctors and Venezuelan nurses. An impressive feature of this particular clinic was the ability of the doctors and nurses to keep the clinic running twenty four hours a day. Even more so was in a time frame of two months the clinic had served over 9,000 patients, (21% of the local population.) The clinic was additionally structured to contain a nursing station for small procedures, an observation room, and an intensive care center.
The Cuban doctor spent a considerable amount of time explaining the structure of Barrio Adentro and the differences between I, II, and III. Barrio Adentro I was established to provide small assistance to patients, where as Barrio Adentro II was created to provide further medical assistance such as small surgeries. Barrio Adentro III has been established to address the needs of those patients who need more significant surgeries. When patients need surgeries that this Barrio Adentro II cannot provide the clinic has an ambulance that will bring patients to either the local hospital or to the nearest Barrio Adentro III.
We also spent additional time learning the process by which the Venezuelan students are trained by the Cuban doctors. The process is quite unique as the Venezuelan students learn from videos and then are able to ask the Cuban doctors specific questions pertaining to the videos. Additionally, the students are in the classroom three days a week and then are at the side of the doctors three other days of the week. Venezuela is in the process of providing computers to all Venezuelan medical students who complete their first year of medical training.
An interesting area the eye doctor touched upon was his frustration with the United States embargo on Cuba and the effects it has on limiting advancements in health. First, the embargo limits the doctors from purchasing technology from the United States , which forces Cuba to purchase their medical equipment from Europe and Asia . Additionally, he spoke of Cuba 's efforts to provide free medical assistance to other nations during times of need. However, I became frustrated when I learned Cuba had over 3,000 doctors ready for deployment to the United States after Hurricane Katrina hit but were turned down by the United States . It was hard to not make the conclusion that the United States and all other countries should work together in the name of universal health, rather then limit possible advances in health.
January 10, 2007 The Afternoon
The afternoon began with a visit to our tour guide's, Lisa Sullivan's, house in Palo Verde, a fifteen minute drive from the Posada. Her house is a traditional one in Venezuela , made of mud. After arriving to her house, we moved the chairs to her porch which overlooks beautiful mountain scenery.
The afternoon lecture began with Lisa sharing her “story” with us. She described how when she was 20 years old, she first experienced Latin America through a study abroad program with Earlham College . After finishing the program in Mexico , she eventually hitch hiked to Guatemala during some of the bloodiest years of Guatemala 's history and was welcomed by nuns at a Catholic Church. After listening to a bishop from El Salvador speak out against the violence occurring in Latin America every Sunday, Lisa decided she wanted to work in Latin America . Following her adventures in Guatemala , she eventually hitch hiked from Colombia across Latin America, including Chile under Pinochet's rule. When in Colombia , she visited the grave of her favorite singer, Victor Jara, who was killed by Pinochet after urging Chilean soldiers through his music to stop killing people. At this point, Lisa knew that she wanted to be involved with music. For 21 years, Lisa worked for a Catholic Mission as a Mary Knoll missioner in Venezuela , teaching children in the community to play the cuatro, was married and raised three children in the barrios. During these years, the percent of people living in poverty in Venezuela increased from 30 to 80 percent. However, she wanted to raise her children where there was a strong sense of community, which she found in Latin America .
Lisa continued to describe the change in Latin America since Chávez. She claimed that Chávez restored the dignity of the people. She attributes 2002, following the coup, to the first time the people of Venezuela showed commitment to change when they demanded Chávez's return to power. Lisa ended her talk by describing her involvement in trying to convince other Latin American countries to withdraw their soldiers from training through the School of the Americas , which many times after training Latin American soldiers, uses those soldiers from Latin American to attack Latin American countries. Lisa and her friend Roy, have been successful in convincing both Argentina and Uruguay to withdraw their troops from training in the School of the Americas , while Morales has greatly reduced the number of troops receiving training from Bolivia .
Following the presentation by Lisa, Luz, Sandino, and Mariela, members of the Francisco Miranda Youth Movement joined us to describe the work of their organization. Francisco Miranda was described as a wealthy man committed to equality for all. The current movement, according to Luz, is a dynamic front trying to create a just society for all of Venezuela . Sandino described his commitment to the organization and revolution, stating (translated by Lisa): “It's like when you fall in love, and you want to spend all your time with that person” (1/10/07). After completing training in Cuba , the members of this organization not only spread the word of the revolution, but they also serve the community as a part of the ‘House of nutrition' program and visit homes, providing 120 families with containers of food. They also help to refer these families to appropriate missions. One girl stated that she is motivated when she sees children that are hungry and knows that her work through social missions is helping families provide food for their children.
After dinner at the Posada, we heard a presentation from a combination of about 15 students and teachers of the Mission Sucre program, an educational mission that is responsible for continuing the education of adults. Students reconfirmed much of the information that I had already heard from talking to people in other educational missions. Common themes in the student's responses included that the students felt they were becoming protagonists in their own education. Mothers who had dropped out of school to work and care for a family now have the ability to continue their education. Many of the teachers spoke about their attempt to break down the barriers between the traditional role of a teacher as a dominant figure teaching through oppression, as outlined by Paulo Freire. They also reiterated that the students are not only learning from the teachers, because the teachers are constantly learning from the teachers. One student elegantly described this educational process as a process in learning to be more human and love oneself and his/her culture. Overall, the students and the teachers expressed their thanks to both God and Chávez for the opportunity to continue/resume their educations.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Starting today we broke into small research/service-learning groups: Health Care , Education, Women's issues, Cooperative and Sustainable Agriculture, and Music & Media.
This was the first day we spent separated into the groups of interest. The women's group went to Monte Carmelo and visited the women's cooperative MonCar. During the morning, we co-worked with MonCar workers, peeling onions and leeks, washing cans, stirring the sauce, etc.. In other words, we tried to place ourselves in those women's shoes, doing the work they do every day. That, however, wouldn't help us fully understand what working cooperatively means, since, as we learned, that implies a way of living rather than a way of producing.
Around noon, we had the opportunity to interview one of the workers in the coop called Gaudy García. Among the things she talked about:
- The way she lived all he life, with very few opportunities to study as a child and young person; and how she struggled to keep studying later on.
The way the coop works: how it was created (before the Bolivarian Revolution) and how it started functioning; plus the problems the found in that way (especially the lack of financial support).
The change that the coop experienced upon Chávez took up power. The governmental support for the improvement of MonCar and Monte Carmelo in general. The role of MonCar and the community in the Bolivarian Revolution.
After that, we moved on to interview Luz (a young activist in the Frente Francisco de Miranda) together with her grandmother and two of her cousins (one younger, the other older). That trans-generational experience was enriching in many different ways: first, helping us have an idea of how life was years ago, through the testimony of the grandmother about her childhood; second, giving us the opportunity to know the perception of a pre-teenager about the social and political situation in Monte Carmelo; third, providing us with testimonies and opinions about the role of women in contemporary (Bolivarian) Venezuela, how it has shifted from that same role in the past, what are the positive things about that change and what re the things to be changed in the present and the future. Another interesting see to observe was the grandmother's glasses that had been provided by the Misión Milagro: this was the first demonstration I saw about the government investment in the needs and health of old people.
Finally, I had a simple but generous dinner at Gaudy's house accompanied by a simple but generous conversation with some other Dickinson students and Gaudy's family after the dinner, where language barriers were definitely overcome on behalf of the willing to understand each other and discuss about political and social issues. I spent the night at Gaudy's house, waiting for the next day of study focused on women's issues.
Music and Media Group
This morning we hopped aboard a public bus to meet the lovely Ledys in the city of Barquisimeto . I asked if the buses had a schedule, but no, they just leave whenever they are full. To me, this really demonstrated their values, de-emphasizing efficiency and focusing on patience and waiting for everyone.
In Barquisimeto we spoke with Alvaro, who worked at an alternative radio station. He explained that this is a radio station for the people, anyone can speak on it, in any language or with any dialect. Their purpose is to give the people a voice and present un-biased news. They recently had a debate concerning which type of music youth identify with: reggaeton or llanera and Afro-Venezuelan music. The outcome of the debate was that musical tastes and preferences differ from the native music that defines you.
We then visited LaraTV, a TV station with similar ideals of the aforementioned radio station. They broadcast the most important topics of the time, whether these shows will make money or not, their goal is to inform the people of their communities. Our guide gave the video camera to one of the girls saying, " Para usted, es de la gente." They rent out special cameras that weigh less to facilitate filming and make it accessible to many people.
The most poignant part of the day was when we were able to visit San Juan Cultural Center , a product of all the hours that Ledys and Lisa so assiduously worked. The center began as an idea to create a library, because the community had never had one. Ledys and Lisa acquired a plot of land, covered with rubble, and from that constructed a beautifully decorated library, a room with instruments and an open room for dancing. The center provides free lessons to children since they do not learn music in school and are not often taught native songs.
We got to learn songs, dances, and their drumming techniques. The children filtered in and greeted Ledys with an enthusiastic, sincere kiss and hug. It was apparent they really respected and admired him. We collectively sang and danced and played the drums. The best part was afterwards when the young girls got the courage to talk to us and we all got to chat. They were so eager and excited to talk about everything from their teeth jewelry to Chavez (who they brought up) to if I was married and had children. It was wonderful to see how dedicated they were to learning about their culture and music and how much they enjoyed it.
Friday January 12, 2007
Today we split into groups and I was in the Women's group. We went to Monte Carmelo to investigate what women's lives are really like now in Venezuela . Judith, Gabi, Professor Rose, and Jessica were all in my group. We took a Jeep to the town, which is when we found out it only costs two dollars to fill the entire Jeep up with gas. Our first stop was back at MONCAR.
MONCAR is a cooperative of women who work together preserving different foods. When we walked in there were five different women working. They gave all of us aprons and hats so that we could get to work. Judith and I had to cut up leeks. We laughed as we cut up the leeks because the odor made us cry. When we were finished cutting everything up we got to watch all of the ingredients be added into a kettle to make the sauce the ladies at MONCAR preserve. The ladies cooked us rice, beans, cheese, eggs, and plantains for lunch. It was delicious and more than enough food. In between lunch our group was able to interview Gaudy. Gaudy is a lady who seems to be in her late 50's or early 60's. She is very friendly and has an extremely warm smile. She has traveled a lot because MONCAR has won numerous awards for its success as a cooperative. Gaudy discussed how her grandmother provided her with inspiration to do something as a woman and not just sit back and watch the world go by. Additionally, Gaudy's father gave her a lot of support. She said that life has changed now because there is participation within the country. I did not get a lot of her comments because most of the conversation was not translated.
When we were finished interviewing Gaudy, our group went to Luz's grandmother's house to interview some of Luz's female family members. Luz's grandmother spoke first. She talked about how her brothers had many other opportunities while she was forced to stay at home and do chores when she was young. She did not have the same freedom that women are now getting. The grandmother elaborated that there was a lot of machismo throughout the country. This causes women to be enslaved to the male figure and it was this way until the beginnings of the revolution. Now even if a woman is pregnant she can pursue her education.
Next Luz spoke about opinions. Before discussing those I am going to explain who Luz is. Luz is a nineteen year old girl. She helped our group around while we were in Sanare and Monte Carmelo. She is part of an organization called the National Front that supports the revolution and spreads the word about what policies Chávez is enacting and how people can take advantage of them. Now Luz explained that domestic violence was never spoken about before the revolution. Women were forced to keep it a secret because the communities would talk about them if they said anything. Since Chávez, there are organizations that will help women when they are in a situation of domestic violence. Luz also said that women now have access to contraceptive methods. She went into great detail about the relationship of women and families. Luz said that now women do not have to get married at very young ages. Women are now able to get an education. Furthermore, even if women are married already men are forced to complete some of the housework. More interestingly, in Latin America Luz explained that women view the word feminist as the opposite of machismo. Therefore, the women we spoke with did not consider themselves feminists and did not want to use the word. They do not want to be more dominant than men.
After a day of discussions I had the absolute privilege of spending the night in Monte Carmelo. I got to stay in Luz's grandmother's house with Raquel. Our family cooked us dinner and stayed up until 9:30 talking to us about the revolution and their views. Their lives have really changed for the better because of what is going on in Venezuela . It was a wonderful day.
Today was day two of our individualized group research. We divided into our respective groups and carried on with our agendas.
The women's issues group visited Irlanda Espinoza's home. At first glance, it was a place out of the ordinary, with a feeling of spirituality and comfort, decorated with candles and fabrics depicting colorful designs. Over some delicious Venezuelan coffee, the group conversed about the past and current situation of the Venezuelan women. Espinoza shared that as a person who has worked with women who have been victims of domestic violence, she has come to realize that there are certain steps required for a women to coup and take charge of their lives once again. She said that women must get to know themselves, to enter their soul and value what they are able to provide the world. Once they recognize their attributes, they can begin to resolve their problems and thereby any economic conflicts that typical Venezuelan women must coup with on daily basis.
Throughout the conversation, we began to see that her unique outlook on women's issues stemmed from a childhood surrounded with natural supplements and rituals practiced by the women in her life. She shared recipes utilized by her grandmother to help with cervical dilation and cleansing after childbirth, which relied on different herbs and natural supplements, but use was prohibited by medical doctors. Espinoza even shared with us a ritual that her grandmother practiced when the atmosphere within the home felt unbearable and unbalanced. She told us that all the women in the home would jump over and around some herbs centered out in the garden without wearing their underwear, ultimately bringing back the feeling of balance and harmony. Interesting, huh?
At the conclusion of the conversation, Espinoza reminded the group that as women, we must fight against that idea that was embedded in our minds that others come first and instead recognize that we deserve the bigger piece of chicken. To remember that there is always another woman out there that can help us, who has experienced what we are going through, a woman who is not that enemy that we have grown to believe over the years, she is a friend with much to offer to us. To recognize that the problem is not the partner that comes and leaves our lives, it is their failure to value what we women can offer. Lastly, to learn to deal with the psychological effect that stems from abuse and the feeling of inferiority because a lot of the time, the psychological abuse is greater and more painful than the physical abuse.
January 12 th 2007 for the Health Group started off in the town of Monte Carmelo . Although plans had been made for the individual groups for that day, plans changed due to the tragic death of a young teacher in the town of 800 people. After hearing this news many of us were unsure of our place in the town and we went back into Sanare, not knowing whether we would be going back to Monte Carmelo, or if it was appropriate for us to be there while the entire town mourned.
The health group collectively decided that since we couldn't visit the Barrio Adentro that day in Monte Carmelo, we would tag along with the education group and visit a school just outside of town. This was one of the most rewarding experiences I had during the trip. While the education group learned the ins and outs of the school and interviewed teachers and students, the health group spent the afternoon talking to and playing with kids during their recess. The kids were all excited to have us there and to ask us questions as well as answer ours. After talking to one 6 year old and his mother she offered me an invitation to her oldest daughter's birthday celebration. This was one of many isolated incidents that really made me appreciate the openness and warmth that the Venezuelan people have to offer. We finished the afternoon with a soccer game and said our goodbyes to the school children.
After our days concluded and we all met back with the entire group we were informed that the people of Monte Carmelo wanted us back to conclude our home stays. We arrived back to the center of town where just about the entire population of the town was in a state of mourning at the church. It was a process that involved the townspeople paying their respects to the family and then staying at the church through the entire night. Although this experience made me very uncomfortable I thought it was important for us to be there with the families that were providing for us for those two nights. We finished the night in the home of a man known as “the anthropologist” where we were well fed and told stories from his lifetime. We went to sleep by ourselves as “the anthropologist” returned to the church for the remainder of the night.
Education Reform in Venezuela
One of the focus groups in Venezuela studied the different education missions currently in place under Chavez. First we visited “La Pastora,” a Bolivarian high school. It was a one-room building in which students ranged in age from about 13-19 and studied levels 1-5 of high school. The older students were not necessarily in the higher levels due to many of the students' inability to afford an education pre-Chavez (for example, there may be a 15 year old in year four of high school, while an 18 year old has just entered year one). These schools, commonly referred to as being a part of “Misión Robinson,” give children the opportunity to continue their education without having to pay, as the government provides all the necessary supplies and the teachers' salaries. When asked about their intention to continue education after high school, every single student (in my particular group) showed immense interest in doing so and pursuing careers ranging from doctors to teachers to chemical engineers.
Another educational mission of the Bolivarian Revolution that our group visited is “Misión Sucre.” This program is made up primarily of adults who were forced to stop their education because of their inability to cover the costs of college. With the mission in place, this level of education is now available to everyone free of cost. We visited one school and had the opportunity to talk with a class which was studying to become social workers. Generally, the classes meet at night to accommodate the reality that many of the students are also employed full-time. Additionally, the classes are lenient about mothers (or fathers) bringing children to class if they are unable to find childcare.
The group also visited a private catholic high school, the Zaragoza school. The Zaragoza school is not a Bolivarian school because it is private and does not receive government funding. It was also started before the Bolivarian Revolution; however, it harbors many of the same ideals of a Bolivarian school (for example it focuses on a positive and more equal teacher-student relationship). This type of school is obviously not free.
After hearing high school and adult students alike talk in such a positive light about their new opportunities for education, it is not possible to criticize at least this aspect of the Bolivarian Revolution. It has opened many doors for people who were denied access to higher education simply because of financial need. Great enthusiasm toward education is obvious within the walls of the new schools, ensuring future success.
January 14th, 2007
Everything in Venezuela is revolutionary: from school to community center to culture. It's all about defying the traditional boundaries and limits set by the exclusively wealthy.
Yesterday we visited el Centro de San Juan in Barquisimento. It is where Lisa, our guide in Sanare, and Ledys work. We were privileged to have the youth of the center perform Afro-Venezuelan music for us. The girls were wearing their traditional outfits and danced while the guys played different drums. I surprised to later see some of the girls also playing the drums. Ledys later explained that they are purposely teaching girls to play the drums at the center. Traditionally, girls are only allowed to dance and not show strength. They want to change that belief.
Ledys himself is pretty amazing. He has been dedicated to the center and teaching drumming and culture to the youth for so long. During the construction of the center he w as electrocuted and in the hospital for three months from burns all over his body. Before returning home he stopped at the center to see the progress.
The kids there are great too. Afterwards, one little girl taught me how to play one of the drums. We also had the opportunity to dance to their music and to try out the different instruments. They also showed us their library on the second floor. It was started because the kids in the neighborhood could go to school for free but they couldn't afford books. Now they have a library to go to and do their homework after school.
Sunday January 14th , La Divina Pastora Procession
Today, we went to Barquisimeto for the Divina Pastora procession, the largest procession in Latin American that draws some 2 million people. My grandmother from the Dominican Republic had told me about it so even though I wasn't really sure what this was about, I knew it was a very important time for Catholics in Venezuela . We started the day by beginning to walk with the procession. You could never imagine the number of people who participate in this event. The streets were filled with people. and everyone was very excited to see the statue of the Divina Pastora.
Eventually, we were able to see the statue in the distance. The amount of people in the streets was overwhelming and we held onto one another in a human chain, linked arm in arm. There was pushing and shoving as the statue made its way through the crowd; people were praying and reflecting. You could sense the feeling of community surrounding this event. The procession includes the entire city of Barquisimeto and the surrounding areas to join together to celebrate this religious holiday. We all had an enjoyable time walking with this procession. We couldn't believe that we were able to see this statue! After a long day, we made it back to Sanare and enjoyed a peaceful night.
Monday-Wednesday, January 15-17, 2007
After two intense weeks of studying, listening, discussing and learning in different parts of Venezuela , the entire group had the chance to relax for two and a half days at the beautiful beach town of Choroní . A beautiful colonial style town founded in 1616, Choroní is located 40 minutes away from Maracay , one of the most important cities in Venezuela . The town is also the starting point to many surrounding beaches only accessible by boat, which some of our students got to enjoy as well.
We arrived at Choroní on January 15 th in the afternoon after a long bus ride from Sanare, which took us through a very interesting road that went into the middle of the rainforest. After being accommodated at the very beautiful Posada Casa Pueblo, we were given the afternoon off to relax and go to the beach, which was only a five minute walk away. Most of the group went to the beach, though others chose to wonder around the town, which was also very interesting in itself.
While at the beach, we got to interact with different people that either lived in Choroní or were on vacation there. There we met Lara, who worked taking care of the umbrellas and rented them out for a reasonable price. He was a retired athlete who now placed his entire hope on his only son who, only being 7 years old, was already a prodigy playing baseball, the national sport. He told us that Choroní is a nice place to live, but that because there wasn't a complete high school program, young people would have to leave to study in Maracay , where they stayed after high school and went to college or got a job. He said that was changing because of the social missions, which allowed for people to study without having to leave their communities. He also talked about his life. In Choroní, they love working with tourism; they get lots of Europeans, mostly Germans.
After the day at the beach, we went to dinner and then back to the hotel to hear a small introduction from Susana Gonzales, the director of an independent newspaper called “Resumen Latinoamericano.” She was one of the most interesting activists we met on our trip. She had been involved in many different social currents and organizing for thirty years. She started her militancy in the Socialist League at age 17 and has ever since devoted herself to the struggle for a better Venezuela . As a radical activist, she had her strong critiques of the current Bolivarian revolution and she was willing to discuss them with students. However, she still felt compelled to be a part of the process and was very excited about the future of her country. She said ¨I am not a Chavista, I am a revolutionary¨. Being very active in Consejos Comunales (communal councils), she believed that within them lay the future of the revolution.
After Susana's presentation, the night ended, as we were all exhausted from both the trip and the beach. The next day many people woke up early to get to the beach before noon. Some chose to stay in Choroní while others took boats to other beaches. At 5pm, we met back at the hotel, where we had a passionate and interesting discussion about what we had experienced so far. Regardless of certain disagreements about the different paths the current political process could take in the following years, there was a general consensus that the trip had opened our eyes to different realities, and that the different social programs were really affecting positively the lives of the people in Venezuela.
So what is there to be said— how do you put this experience into words?
Right now I'm on the plane from Caracas to Houston and it's so hard to say goodbye. Charlie told us that during his training he was told not to leave for at least two years. Here we are leaving after two and a-half weeks! What a shock our return will be.
Either way, I'm so grateful to have been a part of this trip. I've learned so much about not just Venezuela , but myself, friends, Dickinson and what it means to engage the world. This experience, as Susannah emphasized, is about so much more than this one country. There are many other realities that exist besides the one we live and we need to open our minds to as many of those as we can.
Last night, Charlie invited to his home for a farewell cookout (pumpkin soup, chicken and potato salad, grilled chicken, and tres leches cake. He told about a woman he knew when he was living in the barrio. It was Christmas Eve and she was babysitting another woman's baby. She needed someone to help her get the baby medicine and because she was unable to the baby didn't live The police later arrived and questioned where is the baby's mother, no mention of the father, no other questions asked. A few years later, under the Chavez government the same woman with her own children needs to get medicine. However, now she is able to walk down the street to Barrio Adentro , a clinic staffed by Cuban doctors, and get the necessary help. Venezuela is changing. However, Charlie has warned us not to go back and tell what Venezuela is like. I can only tell you what I have seen…