by Mark Ostapiak
Eli Smith, a young socialist and an accomplished musician, recently journeyed from his home in Berkeley, Calif., to Venezuela. There he joined over 300 representatives from every continent for the World Forum of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity, hosted and funded by the government of
President Hugo Chavez.
When the formal conference was not in session, Smith traveled around Caracas and the neighboring state of Vargas to get a better sense of Venezuela’s cultural, political, and social needs. He encountered people
from vast poor sectors of Venezuelan society, much overlooked in the past. These encounters helped shape his contribution to the Dec. 1-7 forum, whose
conclusions were entitled “The Caracas Declaration.” During an officially organized trip to Vargas, Smith met with participants in the government’s Mission program, which aims to provide the poor—the vast majority of the country—with health care, education, food, and shelter.
Cuba has contributed much material and technical support for several of the programs. Throughout Venezuela, Smith explained, “there’s somewhere around 15,000 Cuban doctors running free medical clinics and physical education instructors running exercise and sports programs.”
However, there are still many privately owned and operated clinics throughout the country, highlighting the fact that their health care system falls well short of the fully nationalized system in Cuba. In regard to Venezuela’s education program, “people are doing everything from learning how to read to going to free Bolivarian universities that they’ve established,” Smith pointed out.
“Illiteracy is a huge problem in Venezuela—as it is in the U.S. and throughout the world—and it’s one that they’re addressing rapidly. They’ve received a lot of aid in figuring out how to do a literacy campaign from the Cubans,” who have virtually wiped-out illiteracy in their country.
Considering what an education means to the goal of a truly egalitarian society, Smith added that “for real democracy people need to be educated; they need to be informed.”
Mission Housing receives funds from the government to develop housing projects in various parts of the country, and Smith saw how in Vargas they are “taking steps to shore up mountainside barrios,” since the 1999 flood, which devastated the neighborhoods and killed thousands of people.
Given the chance, Smith seized the opportunity to break off from the official tour and talk with people in the capital city of Caracas. At a Mission Mescal
food kitchen, he spoke with unemployed workers, who told him stories about the tumultuous days of the April 2002 coup attempt and the more recent August 2004 referendum, both organized by anti-Chavez forces with the collusion of the U.S. government.
One man “organized a bunch of the other guys from his neighborhood,” explained Smith, “and they marched all the way from the outlying areas of Caracas to the capitol building to demand the return of Chavez.” One of the reasons why some of the anti-Chavez referendum rallies were so sizeable, according to an unemployed soda-pop factory worker, was that her employer and many others were drafting their employees to fill the ranks.
Upon returning to the conference, Smith and his Cultural Revolution group, comprised of people from all over the world, were challenged “to find ways to
combat American cultural and informational imperialism,” that takes the form, among others, of the ubiquitous U.S. television news giant, CNN. With his encounters still fresh in his mind, Smith suggested that the government should buy audio and video equipment so that people in the countryside and barrios could make their own movies, documentaries, and comedies about each other.
“When people see themselves represented, they feel empowered,” said Smith. His Cultural Revolution table and the conference as a whole resolved that the government should create what they called TV/Radio South, “a pan-Latin American TV and radio network patterned on the Arab-world network, Al-Jazeera.” At the conference President Chavez made reference to important Marxist leaders like Lenin and Trotsky, marking a general left turn in his rhetoric. However, when he had addressed the UN in September 2004, Chavez put his faith in plans to relieve poverty and hunger based on “formulas that entail no fundamental changes to the current world economic order,” according to Smith.
In the final analysis, an empowered and organized working class, together with their allies among the poor and oppressed, will be decisive to the fight for further reforms in Venezuela—and ultimately for a workers’ government there.
Smith’s appraisal of this fact was telling of how youth today are beginning to understand what is necessary to make a better world: “When the ax falls,”
he said, referring to the possibility of imperialist military intervention if Venezuela, under pressure by the working class, takes steps to nationalize key
industries and establish a planned economy, “they’re going to need to make a socialist revolution.”