Venezuela on the move: Breaking dependency on oil profits
The part of society organized in movements to defend territories is the dynamic factor in making change, and in weaving a new kind of social relations. These efforts are the seeds of a more egalitarian and democratic social order. With its ups and downs, and more criticisms than unconditional praise, it is here where something like a new world can be found.
“The rentier and clientelist culture generated by oil has gotten stronger. We couldn’t free ourselves from that inheritance—that’s why the cultural battle is so important,” says Maria Eugenia, a thirty-something psychologist and member of the women’s group Voces Latentes (Latent Voices). “Since there was always resources from the government, productivity doesn’t matter. It’s never made a priority,” adds her colleague María Claudia, engineer and social activist.
“Access to oil rents was limited to a few. Although we continue to import everything we consume, the redistribution of wealth to the poor established the fixity of the productive model,” María Eugenia continues.
These women, dedicated to the “creation of spaces for popular discourses to confront the discourse of knowledge-power” to support emancipatory practices, created their group in 2005. Young professional women and women from working-class backgrounds together do community work in communications, popular education, and social psychology.
Among their specific tasks are the Libreparlantes, which seeks to create new social practices through programs with adolescents behind bars. Together with the Urban Arts Lab, part of the hip-hop collective Tiuna El Fuerte, they have helped young people –who grew up around criminal and violent activities–get in touch with artistic communication and creation to initiate a new life. Let’s say, a revolution.
Art for emancipation
A twenty-something brunette by the name of Doris meets us just as we pass through the Tiuna El Fuerte gate. The place is next to an eight-lane highway–the noise is deafening–and an avenue replete with somewhat decadent buildings, populated by a lower middle class that feels a few symbolic steps above their neighbors in the hills. Those hills rise just a few blocks away but fade into the horizon above, its mottled lights easily mistaken for Caribbean stars.
“Before, this was an abandoned parking lot. There wasn’t anything here, just a popular market over there,” Doris notes, dropping words at a rate that rivals the endless drone of the highway. “Piki, Ernesto, Aquiles, and Claudio founded the project. They occupied the property in 2004, as musicians that had always lived here in El Valle, and they formed Son Tizón, a fusion band.”
My expression of disbelief compels her to explain. “Sangueo, salsa, guaguancó, hip hop, bolero, and parranda are some of the fusion rhythms,” Doris says, somewhat amused by the imperturbable ignorance of the visitor. Ernesto Figueroa, one of the voices of Son Tizón, wrote, “We’re musicians and when we toured Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, and Cuba, we realized the need for the Venezuelan movement to investigate roots and build on them to make music. Since acculturation was really strong, self-denominated ‘Venezuelan culture’ had taken on the task of uprooting all cultural expression.”
A political task, but from another place, closer to the coarseness of everyday life than the carpeted halls of power. “We use music as a tool–to research, share, resist, understand, and spread what we know…we also recover the labor of people who, like us, know the importance of collective historical memory.”
When they returned from their tour, Doris continues, “they brought together a network of street artists, rappers, and urban tribes, and with them they took this space. They decided not to wait, and converted some busses into offices and then began building the space.” It is a group of sheds made from containers folded into each other, recycled into enormous dwellings that comprise a whole.
There are three parts. The first space consists of three containers with a central area that includes a bar (with exquisite Mexican tacos), the administrative office, a store that sells prints and spray paint to make murals, and a place for eating, dancing, listening to music, and doing performances. The second space is suspended over an amphitheater for dance. A printmaking workshop, an information center with dozens of computers, and in front, a people’s library and a research center. A boy explains that they turned over all they had earned in a job to build the workshop, which consists of a rotating device that allows eight shirts to be screen-printed at the same time. “Art should be transformative,” someone says.
The complex also has a sound recording studio. Also housed in a freight container, it is equipped with the latest generation of digital equipment, well lit and with air conditioning. There’s a print studio, and an open space that still serves as the weekly market. The design was the collective work of young architects from LAB.PRO.FAB, headed by Eleanna Cadalso and Alejandro Haiek.
The name of the collective was taken from the military quarters located just across from the highway, but inverted. “Their sign reads ‘Fuerte Tiuna, Military Zone;’ our says ‘Tiuna El Fuerte, Cultural Zone,” Doris explains.
Asked how the space is managed, she elaborates, “We have the general assembly every two weeks, attended by members from each of the ten collectives. And we have a mini-cumbe, inspired by the African cumbe. It’s a space of resistance, where we come to together in our areas of work and address the most concrete questions.”
There are four areas of work. The Urban Action Lab is the main educational project, offering three-month courses in urban art (hip-hop is the most successful) and technical formation–both creative and political. “The rappers appropriated this space, but we saw that they have violent lyrics linked to illicit practices. And to work through that issue with them, we decided to open the space to women and children,” Doris continues, adding that it serves as an experimental circus school for the youngest children.
In event production, they organize concerts, cultural performances, street theater, breakdance, and now also a dance hall so that more women attend. Last trimester more than twenty women turned up to the dance classes. The third area is research, encompassing two lines of work that link young people and popular sectors with violence and culture respectively. The fourth area is related to what they call “productivity,” which consists in gaining resource autonomy through the bar, the print workshop, and the recording studio. A lot of the kids from the hills that study in Tiuna El Fuerte finish by recording their own CD, something they never could have done without this space. Keeping it going is a major challenge.
Various institutions support the “cultural park”, from the construction to maintenance, but the members make all of the decisions. “The biggest expense is security. Some guys from the barrio that formed a watch group do it now, because we encourage the barrio to organize itself,” says Doris.
In May the Parque Cultural Tiuna El Fuerte won the International Public Art Prize from the University of Shanghai out of 140 urban art experiences in the world. “This award affirms our architectonic, cultural, and political commitment to building a city for good living, a city that places human relations above mercantilist expansion,” says the Tiuna El Fuerte website. They had already won various international awards, but it never occurred to anyone to mention that. It must be another sign of their collective identity. Across the country, there are eleven similar groups in six states that coordinate through their artistic action and distribution network, la Redada.
From housing to an urban revolution
The Plaza Venezuela exit spits out human pills–emerging from the Caracas metro–at a frenetic pace. We cross a street, tilt toward a market, and enter one of the buildings occupied by the Residents Movement (Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores). “There must be some 300,” Hernán Vargas and Juan Carlos Rodríguez reply asked how many occupied buildings there are in the city. In the Plaza Venezuela, thirty one families have lived together for a decade, forming what they call a “pioneer camp.”
The camps are one of the six parts that make up the movement: the Tenants Movement organizes to resist arbitrary evictions; the Urban Land Committees created in 2004 are the largest organization of the urban social movement; Residential Workers groups janitors and their families around labor rights; the Occupant Movement claims the rights of families to occupy abandoned buildings and convert them into housing; and the Organized Front for a Good Life (Frente Organizado por el Buen Vivir) brings together families left homeless by natural disasters. Finally, the pioneer camps organize families for the occupation and self-management of abandoned buildings.
A keystone of the urban movement, the Land Committees were born in 2002 when Decree 1.666 was signed, initiating the processes of regularizing self-constructed urban settlements. They organized the barrios through elections, carried out a popular survey, and handed out 500,000 property titles. In November 2004, they held the First National Gathering to move beyond specific actions to fight for housing and the right to the city.
Over the years they built bridges to other sectors, proposing three clear lines of action: democratize the city in the fight against the urban landholders and real estate speculation, transform the barrios and the city under the logic of “territorial justice” and the power of the people, and build housing for the people–what they call the “socialist production of the city.”
Just as the debate dissolves in the camp, Sandra proposes they march to one of the fourteen urban communities the movement is building. As if to encourage those who should go along with her, she slyly explains something that’s true in the strict sense, “We take inspiration from the cooperative model we learned in Uruguay.” We head off.
The trip to the periphery is long. On the way, she points to the huge buildings of the Housing Mission, which plans to build three million dwellings in six years, delivering standardized, simple family apartments. The complex looks problematic, and Sandra gets angry. “The people don’t get to know one another, and when so many come to live in such a small space, problems of violence arise.” The resident movement does the opposite–groups of less than 100 families get to know each other across a long period of time, they occupy the premises, design their housing, and help with its construction.
The neighborhood Sandra leads us to is under construction. It is four blocks square situated at the foot of a slope. Some ninety families will each have a solid, seventy-five square meter dwelling. “The biggest difference with the Uruguayan experiences is that here the majority are single mothers with children.” The crew list taped to the wall leaves no doubt–there are eight women for every man in the community.
There is another notable difference: they have land to grow food and an area in which they plan to build things like a bakery and other services that have not yet been defined. “We aren’t building housing, we are creating a community,” Sandra states with pride.
Sociologist Alexandra Martínez, who walks with the residents, explains that the greatest challenge of the movement has been “move from being a state-sponsored organization to building a social movement, with autonomous spaces of our own collective construction and orientation where the relationship with the state is a dialogue between political subjects.” She says that the Housing Mission is a source of friction because it functions through “a paternalistic welfare state.”
Private foreign companies from China, Russia, Belarus, and Iraq carry out the construction of the huge blocks, and future inhabitants don’t participate in its design, construction or maintenance. Although she doesn’t enter into the discussion of the need to resolve the housing problem, she argues that the movement is reaching farther than the state since it “isn’t limited to building housing, but rather, building communities” that can be the anchor of new social relations.
Andrés Antillano is part of the movement. He holds a psychology degree with a specialization in criminology, and lives in the barrio. The problem, he insists, is that “the momentum of political participation from 1999 has weakened, precisely because of the state’s response [to it]. I think the central element is returning to trust in the capacities of an organized community. An essential demand of the people is participation, that is, to have the power to decide things about their life.”
On the move
Luisa, Yolanda, Juan, María, Lenis and Minerva are members of the National Network of Barter Systems. They came to the Romulo Gallegos Center to participate in an exchange on the relationships between social movements and the state, organized by el Thematic World Social Forum and thirty collectives. They exchange products that they themselves created, and knowledge and services too. Each group uses its own currency.
Yolanda is concerned with “making it so that social movements can build collective power without being destroyed by the power of money or the power of government officials.” The youngest of the truekeros (barterers), Juan, considers the networks “a process of building self-governance that can overcome oil rentierism and state paternalism.” The strategy, he clarifies, consists in ” operating alone once we have obtained resources, to prevent the state from imposing certain ways of doing things.”
Many voices take turns in the conversation. Indigenous Amazonian and Yukpa people speak. Arlén explains that the model is wreaking havoc, and narrates the assassination of their chief, Sabino Romero, in early March and communities devastated by the extractive model. Ileana, Oriele and Guillermo of the Revolutionary Urban Cyclist Movement, César of the Afro movement all speak. Feminists and a brigade form the Landless Movement in Brazil too. Edis, Jorge, and Teófilo (three men with a bit of gray hair) represent Cecosesola (Central Cooperative of Social Services in the State of Lara), a cooperative experience that warrants dozens of pages of writing. It has more than 20,000 members with projects ranging from agriculture to a mortuary, passing through six health centers that tend to 190,000 people every year. In Barquisimeto, the capital of Lara, their three weekly markets supply a quarter of the population with food.
All of the experiences shared by the more than thirty collectives in the Celarg meeting have something in common. They seek to overcome the extractive model. They speak out against it, but more importantly, they act to overcome it. They produce, exchange and live collectively. Without a doubt, in Venezuelan there is a society on the move.
Raul Zibechi is international relations editor at the magazine Brecha in Montevideo, adviser to grassroots organizations and writer of the monthly Zibechi Report of the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org
Translation: Paige Patchin
 Entrevistas en Tiuna el Fuerte.
 Entrevistas en Tiuna el Fuerte.
 Los fab labs son laboratorios de fabricación de objetos físicos en base a ordenadores con fuerte acento social. La primera experiencia nació en 2000 en el MIT (Massachussets Institute of Technology), en base a los principios de que cada uno debe aprender por sí solo y debe compartir el uso del laboratorio con otros usuarios. Ver http://colectivosarquitecturasa.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/lab-pro-fab/ – See more at: http://www.americas.org/es/archives/10131#sthash.oE9JOalg.dpuf
 Alexandra Martínez, ob cit. p. 268.
 Conversatorio en el Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores.
 Conversatorio “Movimientos sociales y Estado: autonomía y poder popular por la construcción de alternativas al desarrollo”.