We Came Upon Bolivar…
by Nancy Gwin and Doug Igelsrud


Paul Driver, a retired firefighter from NYC and a woman from CODEHVA, a local community organizing and human rights organization in La Guirda. CODEHVA was one of a number of grassroots organizations that met with the WFP delegation. Photo: Tom Driver

I came upon Bolivar one long morning, in Madrid, at the entrance to the Fifth

Father, I said to him, are you, or are you not,
or who are you?

And, looking at the Mountain Barrack, he said:
'I awake every hundred years when the people awake.'

From Pablo Neruda,
"A Song for Bolivar - Un Canto Para Bolivar"

Nancy's Report:
We came upon Bolivar in the month of January - Doug and I - journeying with a Witness for Peace (WFP) delegation to that country now so often in the crosshairs of the current US administration. Our delegation focus: "Venezuela - Another Way! Allocation of Natural Resources and U.S. Foreign Policy."

What is Witness for Peace (WFP)?
WFP is a politically independent grassroots organization. We are people committed to nonviolence and led by faith and conscience. Our mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing US policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean. We stand with people who seek justice.

With six delegations to Venezuela since February 2006, and several more scheduled, Witness for Peace seeks to help curb further overt and covert US intervention there. Following in-country nonviolence and cultural awareness re-training and a refresher course on Venezuelan history and current politics, our intense eight days of meetings and interviews began.

We "came upon Bolivar one long morning" in meetings with Marino Alvarado, Director of Provea, a progressive human rights organization, and with Luis Lander, an oil expert, engineer and professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. They framed our time in Venezuela with the oft-recurring themes of national sovereignty, the internationally-recognized fair and free election, the need for open space for discussion and the quest for new ways to address old issues.

We "came upon Bolivar" - his image and words were everywhere - in the Venezuela government's use of petrodollars during this opportune window of booming oil profits to creatively address the needs of the marginalized and poor. Critics warn these Petrodollar programs are paternalistic - and that oil prices will tumble again. But in the meantime, we saw "another way" for Venezuela.

Micro-economics: We learned that over 100,000 cooperatives have been formed in the last two years, part of the government's determination to narrow the huge gap between the rich and the poor while creating jobs. We spoke to a bakery-owner, a taxi-business entrepreneur, workers in a clothing factory, owners of small stores, a daycare center and soup kitchens.

Housing: We saw newly-built apartments in Charallave for those displaced from a landslide and small houses in La Magdalena and Vargas, complete with running water and baths. Critics say the housing projects are not enough - not fast enough - but in the meantime, "another way."

Education: We visited a Bolivarian school and learned from educators and students of three levels of literacy programs, Misiones Ribas, Robinson, and Sucre.

Healthcare: We witnessed healthcare programs and facilities funded by nationalized oil money, new approaches and attempts to reach those who've never had healthcare before. We had discussions with Venezuelan and Cuban medicos/doctors about the absolute need for the basics everywhere - clean water, nutritious food, and immunizations already available to others.

Program for homeless and displaced: At Mísion Negra Hipolita, named in honor of the African-Venezuelan woman who raised Simon Bolivar, we observed public information inviting participants to a program which includes job training, healthcare and housing.

We "came upon Bolivar" as people talked of food sovereignty. Venezuela currently imports 60% of its food. The Chavez government is developing new markets, new trade partners, and some unused government land is being redistributed for cultivation of food crops.

If you buy your gas at CITGO, you’ll know that rather than enriching oil profiteers and kings, much of it will help people in Venezuela.

Seeking independent analysis, we met with the labor party CTV/Venezuelan Workers Central (a union responsible for the national oil strike which resulted in the nationalization of the oil industry) and with Primero Justicia/First Justice, an opposition political party. CTV is backed by the AFL-CIO, but we learned some US branches support the Chavez government and the reorganization of Venezuelan labor.

On January 19, the final day of our delegation, we met with Islena Medina, Director of Multi-lateral Affairs of Venezuela, and with Robert Downes, Political Counselor of the US Embassy. That very morning a Venezuelan newspaper carried the story that the Bush administration would be increasing funding for covert CIA intervention in Venezuela.

As returned Witness for Peace delegates we seek to remind ourselves and others to research the "rest of the story." We must alert others that Colombia, Venezuela's next door neighbor, is a US foothold in South America - a potential base for violating the sovereignty of the current Venezuela government. We must retell the long history of US intervention in Latin America and share sources of where the "people awaken." We in the United States must awaken!

Doug's Report: This past December, 63% of the voters re-elected Hugo Chavez President of Venezuela. Prior to the election, the Bush administration was prepared to discredit the election as fraudulent. Because of the margin of victory and the fact that the election was certified by over 700 international observers, the results have been widely accepted.

The Bush administration's hard line on Venezuela is motivated in part by the fact that Venezuela has good relations with Cuba and is supplying it with much needed oil. Cuba, in turn, is providing thousands of doctors for free clinics in poor neighborhoods in Venezuela. By trying to change the leadership in Venezuela, the Bush administration is pleasing anti-Castro elements in Florida who make significant campaign contributions. Anti-Chavez activity is rife in Miami.

For me, a highlight of our trip was meeting with members of the Presbyterian Church in Caracas. For more than 30 years, the Presbyterian Church USA has been advocating for social justice in Latin America and for a humane US foreign policy.

About 15 people from the Church community spoke passionately about the current situation in Venezuela. Some expressed concern about Chavez and his intentions, but most strongly supported what Chavez was doing for the poor. Although the Church itself had remained neutral, many of these people felt it was important for the Church to come out in support. One woman, a retired doctor and church leader said if this didn't happen she might have to leave the church - but she wouldn't be leaving Christ.

One person stated that just because Chavez was supporting the indigenous, people of African descent and the poor didn't mean that this was a struggle between whites (Spanish) and indigenous/African, or between rich and poor. This encounter was deeply emotional. The community clearly stated that the last thing they wanted was for the US to invade or intervene in their internal debate and struggle for a better Venezuela. They, as Venezuelans, had to work this out among themselves.

A very important aspect of the Chavez administration has been its strong effort to unite the countries of Latin America in their struggle to be more independent of the United States and to construct economies that meet the needs of the majority. Venezuela has helped Argentina and Brazil with loans that have freed them from the draconian policies of the World Bank and IMF. The presidents of numerous South American countries recently met under the leadership of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales to discuss the idea of a South American parliament modeled after the European parliament.

Nancy and Doug are long-time local Latin America solidarity activists. They can be reached at ngwin@twcny.rr.com and digelsrud@twcny.rr.com.