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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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