An antidote for apathy

Venezuela's president  has achieved a level of grassroots participation 
our politicians can only  dream of
Selma James
Friday August 13, 2004

The  Guardian
Increasing numbers of people, especially the young, seem  disconnected 
from an electoral process which, they feel, does not represent  them. 
This is part of a general cynicism about every aspect of public  life.

Venezuela has many problems, but this is not one of them. Its big  
trouble - but also its great possibility - is that it has oil; it is 
the  fifth largest exporter. The US depends on it and thus wants control 
over it.  But the Venezuelan government needs the oil revenue, which US 
multinationals  (among others) siphoned off for decades, for its efforts 
to abolish poverty.  Hugo Chávez was elected to do just that in 1998, 
despite almost all of the  media campaigning against him.

Participation in politics especially at  the grassroots has skyrocketed. 
A new   constitution was passed  with more than 70% of the vote, and 
there have been several elections to  ratify various aspects of the 
government's programme. Even government  opponents who had organised a 
coup in 2002 (it failed) have now resorted to  the ballot, collecting 
2.4 million signatures - many of them suspect - to  trigger a referendum 
against President Chávez, which will be held on  Sunday.

For Venezuela's participatory democracy, which works from the  bottom 
up, the ballot is only a first step. People represent themselves  rather 
than wait to be represented by others, traditionally of a higher  class 
and lighter skin. Working-class sectors, usually the least active, are  
now centrally involved.

Chávez has based himself on this  pueblo  protagónico - the grassroots 
as protagonists. He knows that the    changes he was elected to make can 
only be achieved with, and protected by,  popular participation.

Chávez has understood the potential power of women  as primary carers. 
Four months of continuous lobbying got women the  constitution they 
wanted. Among its anti-sexist, anti-racist provisions, it  recognises 
women's unwaged caring work as economically productive, entitling  
housewives to social security. No surprise then that in 2002 women of  
African and indigenous descent led the millions who descended from the  
hills to reverse the coup (by a mainly white elite and the CIA), 
thereby  saving their constitution, their president, their democracy, 
their  revolution.

In a country where 65% of households are headed by women, it  is they 
who are the majority in government education and health campaigns:  who 
are users as well as those who nurse, train and educate. Again, women  
are the majority in the land, water and health committees which sort 
out  how the millions of people who built homes on squatted land can be 
given  ownership, how water supplies are to be improved, and what health 
care is  needed.

Despite oil, 80% of Venezuelan people are poor, and the Women's  
Development Bank (Banmujer) is needed to move the bottom up. Unlike  
other micro-credit banks, such as the Grameen in Bangladesh, its  
interest rates are government-subsidised. Banmujer, "the different  
bank", is based on developing cooperation among women. Credits can only  
be obtained if women   get together to work out a project which is  both 
viable and what the local community wants and needs.

As Banmujer  president Nora Castańeda explains: "We are building an 
economy at the  service of human beings, not human beings at the service 
of the economy. And  since 70% of the world's poor are women, women must 
be central to economic  change to eliminate poverty."

In this oil-producing country 65% of basic  food is imported. President 
Chávez has placed much emphasis   on  regenerating agriculture and 
repopulating the countryside, so that  Venezuelans can feed themselves 
and are no longer dependent on imports or  vulnerable to blockades which 
could starve them out. After all, you can't  drink oil.

Most importantly, the oil revenue is increasingly used for  social 
programmes as well as agriculture: to enable change in the lives of  the 
most who have least. People feel that the oil industry, nationalised  
decades ago, is finally theirs. The oil workers have created committees  
to work out how the industry is to be run and for whose benefit, even  
what to do about the pollution their product causes. The government has  
turned the referendum, regarded by Venezuelans as an imperialist 
attempt  to oust Chávez, into an even wider expression of the popular 
will. The small  electoral squads, again mainly women who know the 
community and whom the  community knows, are checking identity cards to 
weed out the names of those  who have died or are under age, and 
register all who are entitled to vote,  so that this time there will be 
little opportunity for electoral fraud. The  turnout is expected to be 
85%. Some, especially the well-off, see the  political engagement of the 
whole population as a threat to the status quo.  Exactly. But since, 
increasingly, people find representative government  doesn't represent 
them, it may be the wave of the present.

·Selma  James coordinates the Global Women's Strike; she will be one of 
the  international observers at Sunday's Venezuelan  referendum

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