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31 January 2008 Edition

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INTERNATIONAL : Martina Anderson MLA in Venezuela

Witnessing the Bolivarian Revolution

VENEZUELA has become an example of how a “developing” country can use its natural resources to improve the living conditions of the population. The Chavez government is also an example of how, when there is a willingness, governments can fulfil their obligations to the citizens and offer efficient public services. Sinn Féin’s MARTINA ANDERSON MLA had an opportunity to experience the Bolivarian Revolution first-hand when she visited Venezuela in January to attend the founding congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. SALLY GALLAGHER spoke to her soon afterwards.

What took you to Venezuela?
The delegation follows our participation at a European conference on Venezuela, held in London last December, which myself and Raymond McCartney attended.
The conference sought to build positive links between Europe and Venezuela and to encourage a more positive engagement between European countries and Venezuela, and in particular to exchange information about the huge social and democratic advances going on there.
There is an interest because the achievements of the Chavez government around providing millions with free healthcare, opening up education to those previously excluded, extending equality in general and increasing democratic participation from the grassroots is something that is worthy of attention and support.

During your visit you attended the founding Congress of the PSUV, the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela, which was established after the last presidential election in December 2006. What were your impressions?
Over five million Venezuelans have applied to join the new party which has now established a representative democratic structure and delegates to the founding Congress. It will continue to meet to determine its programme. The level of participation from the grassroots upwards is very impressive. Around 1,600 people attended the Congress, with over 60 per cent being women. We were there as part of a wide international delegation, which included MPs, political parties and community groups and social movements from Europe, Latin America and North America.
President Chavez explained that this is the largest political party that has existed in the last 150 years of Venezuela’s history and that such political participation is important as social change in Venezuela “cannot depend on one person or an elite, rather it must be based in the people”.
Continuing on this theme, he also stressed the importance of the PSUV working with social movements, social missions, community groups, trade unions and others.
The visit gave us an opportunity to have some discussions with the new party and  more widely to have some direct experience of what is taking place in Venezuela.

Can you see any mutual advantages if a link was created between this new party and Sinn Féin?
It is useful to develop dialogue internationally and exchange experiences.

Did you have time to see first-hand the changes that are taking place in the country?
Yes, we were able to visit some of the social missions established over the past nine years, since President Chavez was first elected. It was explained to us that, given the huge task of addressing the poverty experienced by the majority of the population, the key task is to come up with big responses quickly.
The establishment of the social missions and redirecting some of the country’s massive oil wealth is a way to do this. As a result, educational advances mean that illiteracy has been eliminated and free healthcare established for the poorest sections of society. We were able to see this at first-hand, and witness the real difference to people’s lives – especially women. We visited the Fabricio Ojeda centre in Caracas.
This ‘endogenous’ (‘development from within’) centre brings together a hub of co-operatives, social programmes and community programmes located in Catia, one of the poorest areas in Caracas.
It was created to meet the needs of the people of the area, as a source of income and public services. Funded by the state, and in particular the oil company PDVSA, it is one of the many social programmes initiated by the government. The land was previously used as a petrol station but disused since 1992. It was identified by the president as ‘misused land’ and, in consultation with the local community, it was decided to use the area as a space to meet their needs.
We visited the projects there which include a textile factory, run by the mainly women workers themselves, a health centre (part of Barrio Adentro mission), an elderly centre, a price-subsidised supermarket (‘Mercal’), an organic agricultural project and other community buildings. Work is underway to extend this and to construct a school, daycare, college and educational facilities and to develop existing sports facilities and other co-operative initiatives.
The textile co-op, for example was very striking as an example of how the government’s policies have changed people’s lives positively. It is run by women who explained how, as well as running the factory, the women are undertaking education and studying for the first time.
The health centre and other facilities are all free and established to guarantee healthcare to the most marginalised, poorest communities who now have had access to this as a result of the Chavez government. It was very inspiring to meet the people there and see all of this at first-hand.
 
What was the reaction of the people to your visit?
It was met very positively. There is identification with Ireland and a lot can be gained in both directions from greater dialogue and understanding. There is also a greater degree of openness and the Venezuelans are very keen for people to visit and see for themselves the kind of changes which are taking place.
 
The Venezuelan Government is presented by the global powers as a rogue administration that should be stopped. What is your response?
The policies of the Venezuelan Government seem primarily to be one of equality, improving people’s lives through social changes, ensuring the right to health, education and to live free of outside interference. There is also an increase in democratic participation – they have held 11 elections in the past nine years.
There is a general principle that countries should be allowed to do this without outside interference. Clearly the right to self-determination is an important one that we could identify with. The Venezuelan electorate have made their views clear that they, in their majority, have re-elected the government, so this should be respected internationally.
President Chavez was re-elected with over 60 per cent of the vote in the last election. Obviously there is right-wing opposition to this, including in the privately-owned media and a lot of misinformation both in Venezuela and internationally.
So international links and dialogue are important in order to overcome this, and going to Venezuela to see at first-hand what is happening is very important. From what I can see, the Venezuelan Government is keen to have international co-operation on the basis of parity, equality and mutual benefit (that is, a social co-operation), and supports self-determination, particularly of smaller nations who can benefit the most from the upholding of international law and so on.
 
Did you learn anything that could be applicable to Ireland?
Issues of self-determination are obviously of common interest and there are common lessons and experiences. The history of Venezuela shows similar struggles for independence and self-determination with which we could identify. Also, the kinds of policies which advance equality and economic and social justice are ones which we could all support.

Would you go back?
In a heartbeat!

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