By: Christopher Helali
I had the great privilege and honor to travel to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela from March 15th to March 23rd, 2019 to support the Bolivarian Revolution and show my solidarity with the Venezuelan people against U.S. imperialism. Upon my return, I published two articles about my experiences in Venezuela as well as the resilience of the Venezuelan people faced with the leviathan of U.S. intervention, regime change, and war.1 This short piece is comprised of my unpublished notes and commentary on Venezuela as well as pictures I took during my stay in the capital, Caracas.
Venezuela today is the main anti-imperialist force in the world. Venezuelans see themselves at the very center of the international tensions, contradictions, and conflicts expressing themselves not only in their country but in others like Syria and Ukraine. While the government is unable to build the commune it envisions, having to defend its gains, the resistance is forging a new generation of revolutionaries. “The problem is not the rich in Venezuela,” my comrade Carlos remarked, “but the capitalist class on a world scale. Without this international vision, we breed xenophobia, nationalism, and chauvinism.”
Political education along with ideological formation are critical components of the Bolivarian revolution. Thinkers like Paolo Friere are discussed by teachers and activists on the ground. With the help of Cuba, the Venezuelan government under Chávez launched a massive literacy campaign known as Misión Robinson. Over a million people were taught how to read and write and Venezuela virtually eliminated illiteracy in the country. Today, the fact that Venezuelans are well read people, can be seen on the streets which are lined with books, newspapers, and periodicals. Journalist and activist María Fernanda Barreto reinforced that fact saying that books, which are subsidized by the government, cost less to purchase than a coffee.
Venezuela is a deeply religious country. Both Chávez and Maduro are religious, speaking of socialism in Christian terms. Liberation theology has contributed to the revolution, synthesizing the message of Jesus with the politics of the poor and the oppressed. Religious iconography including Catholic statues and icons are found in government offices, military bases, stores, restaurants, bars and homes.
This need to have a spiritual component to the movement, is deeply rooted in the need to forge a new cultural dimension to Venezuelan society. This comes from not only liberation theology but from indigenous and women’s struggles both in Venezuela and across the region. “Mass mobilizations of women are at the forefront of liberation struggles around the world,” Carlos explained. “The struggle for humanity’s very survival is at stake.”
“Revolutions are cyclical,” Carlos continued, looking deep in thought at his son playing in the park. “They are never ending, never complete. Once we are emancipated, there emerge new oppressors, new struggles.” This, for Carlos, was not a negative. “We accept this as the reality.” He went on to explain how the concept of cyclical revolutions is at the very core of Latin American history.
In the 16th Century, Túpac Amaru I revolted against Spanish colonial rule and was executed. Two hundred years later, Túpac Amaru II led another uprising against the Spanish. Dismembered, his body parts were divided as a warning to others. Two hundred years later, the continent gave birth to Che, Fidel, Allende, Chávez, Evo Morales, and the millions who fought against imperialism. This is the cyclical history of revolution in Latin America according to Carlos.
Caribbean culture, of which most Venezuelans identity themselves with, is not merely a culture that is warm and festive, filled with singing and dancing. It is a culture of resistance, marked by such leaders as Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti, Simón Bolívar, and Fidel Castro. This was very apparent in what was conveyed to me when I spoke with locals.
While in Caracas, I was able to tour around the city to various neighborhoods from the poorest barrios like Catia to the elite neighborhood of Chacao. Strikingly, it was the poorest neighborhoods that had set up communes in defense of the revolution, with their own militias to protect against a possible coup that would oust the legitimate government of Nicolás Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) from power.
María took me on a journey from my neighborhood of Candelaria to one of the barrios that was very supportive of the government. When we finally arrived at our metro station, we exited and took a small bus for less than $.10 to the socialist commune of Simón Bolívar near the 23 of January area of Caracas. Portraits of Che and Chávez loomed on the buildings. Many of the houses and apartment complexes had painted the eyes of Chávez, not as “big brother is watching you,” but rather as the eyes of a man with indigenous, Afro-Venezuelan, and Spanish heritage who served the people.
We then went up to visit the Cagigal Observatory which overlooks the capital. It serves as the headquarters for the Bolivarian Militia. Upon reaching the observatory, we were greeted by officers of the Bolivarian Militia. After warmly greeting us, they promptly resumed their meeting regarding making journals and printed materials higher quality and more accessible to the people. Later, we distributed food, known as CLAP boxes, to those in need.
One of the generals I met, one sun (one-star) general Jose Alvarez, said the following to me in an email: “Saludos Chris, el honor fue nuestro, gracias por visitar mi pais el cual a pesar de las adversidades y coyuntura actual , saldremos adelante, somos un pueblo con dignidad y estamos resueltos a ser libres y a construir nuestro propio destino.”
Youth from the PSUV invited me to one of their meetings where I was welcomed with great hospitality as an internationalist comrade. Multiple young people from the various communes they represented spoke about issues of machismo, patriarchy, feminism, homophobia/transphobia, and the building of the new person in socialism. They stressed the importance of arts, culture, education, and internationalist solidarity.
Later, we attended a lecture of the solidarity brigade to the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. I noticed the intergenerational student body, where young, middle age and older people mixed and mingled talking about various issues in the region. Students spoke about their experience traveling to see the Sahrawi people and highlighted their plight given the ongoing occupation of their homeland by Morocco. Chávez was very supportive of the struggle of the Sahrawi people, building the first ever high school named after Simón Bolívar in one of the refugee camps.
One evening, in the plaza at Candelaria, there was a feminist concert where women spoke about issues related to machismo, abortion, sexual orientation, indigenous rights, history, and capitalism. The banner read “El machismo mata. El capitalismo mata. Socialismo feminista ya!” A group of women performed a cleansing ceremony with the burning of herbs, enacting a ritual in which they reclaimed being brujas or witches. I asked some of the comrades around me if they were familiar with Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch? They enthusiastically said yes, speaking of the importance of reclaiming the autonomy that capitalism had stripped from them.
The economic crisis is largely a manufactured one, due to sanctions and the economic war waged by the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. While the price of oil certainly had an impact on the economy, sanctions have greatly impacted the most vulnerable Venezuelans. Compounding the economic issues are the remittances sent by Venezuelans working abroad to their families in the country. This, as Carlos explained to me, leads to hoarding by those who receive the money. Nearly 30% of Venezuelans receive money from people outside Venezuela. This money is sent to third party accounts where the U.S. dollars are converted to bolívares which is then deposited into the accounts in Venezuela.
Vast amounts of unregulated money have therefore been transferred, creating an enormous electronic surplus of bolívares, with no actual hard currency dollars to back them up, leading to a monetary crisis. Pressure from this has exacerbated the economic crisis, forcing the Venezuelan government to propose alternatives like a move to a cryptocurrency. Presently, all payments are done electronically through bank cards. Due to this situation, I was unable to transfer US dollars into bolívares which required me to make all payments in cash using US dollars.
Along with the metro, electricity and internet are practically free for the people. Carlos explained that this has meant that private individuals and groups are mining for cryptocurrencies due to the cheap operating costs to run the computer equipment in Venezuela. Additionally, the government has no laws which address cryptocurrencies, leading to no regulations and oversight.
While the Venezuelan elite shed crocodile tears for those who are starving, the government they seek to overthrow provides for the poorest and most in need. Most people don’t know that Juan Guaidó’s political party, Voluntad Popular, is actually a member of the Socialist International, which of course is reactionary and neoliberal. There are even two small Trotskyist political parties that are against Maduro which are holding talks with Guaidó. Many of the activists and locals I met emphasized that any group that is not in solidarity with the government could not regarded as leftist.
Flying from Caracas in the late afternoon, I gazed upon Caracas below. The sun bathed it in its warm light from a brilliant blue sky. The water glimmered as we flew over the Caribbean Sea. In the internationalist spirit of proletarian revolution and anti-imperialist struggle, the solidarity shared over the course of nine days deepened our commitment to building a new world. The dignity of the people of Venezuela is found in their struggle to build a commune that serves the many, not the few. While liberals like Bill Maher proclaim that Venezuela “is our backyard” invoking the Monroe Doctrine, the people respond with ¡Ya basta! We must continue to stand up and say, “U.S. hands off Venezuela!” No to sanctions! No to war! ¡Chávez vive, la patria sigue!
1See: Christopher Helali, “The Venezuela I Saw: No rat-eaters, no ‘crisis’ – just people dedicated to building a different world,” Valley News, Vol. 67, No. 308. April 14, 2019, E1, E3; Christopher Helali, “Hands off Venezuela!,” Tehran Times, No. 13360. April 9, 2019, 1, 7.