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Solidarity in Caracas: Friends of PODER

Fernando Martí and Chris Selig
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006
    Over a weekend-long community work party in January, a mural was born onto the Rómulo Gallegos community center in the Caracas neighborhood of Catia: A sun rises over crowds of people coming down from hillside barrios with banners and flags held high, flanked by humble houses, parks, fields, corn, and bananas. In the background are symbols of sport and health, and across the top are local medicinal plants. A collaboration of the health committee of the Nueva Caracas sector of Catia and Bay Area activists of “Friends of PODER” (FOP), the mural is a concrete expression of international solidarity.

PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights) is a community-based organization that organizes with Latino immigrant families in San Francisco for environmental and economic justice. Friends of PODER includes organizers and artists from PODER, as well as St. Peters Housing Committee, Mission Anti-displacement Coalition, SF Print Collective, Critical Resistance, and other activists attending the 2006 World Social Forum (WSF) with Grassroots Global Justice, an alliance of US people of color organizations. At the WSF, FOP organized workshops on the role of art in social movements, policing in the Americas, and housing and land use justice.

We wanted to see the reality of Venezuela’s social changes since the beginning of Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, as opposed to the messages we got from mainstream media. We also wanted to continue the solidarity between the communities of San Francisco’s Mission District and Catia, building on the work of the Venezuela Solidarity Group to create a “sister-neighborhoods” project.

Revolutionary process

Behind the mural wall are the clinic, community center, and sports fields. The clinic, created as part of the Chavez government’s new health care program Barrio Adentro Mission, develops preventive medicine programs in poor neighborhoods with Cuban doctors. As part of the program, health committees are made up of community residents so that they may develop their own healthcare system, making it a participatory political project.

Through our interactions, it was clear that the consciousness of socialism was widespread among the people. A woman selling car oil next to the mural said, “It’s very important that you are working with our community and see what we are doing … I’m a socialist and I support this process.”

Venezuelans use the word “process” to describe the Bolivarian Revolution. They understand it as incremental; figuring out what their socialism will look like as they develop it one step at a time. Residents said that socialism is a long-term process of organizing and raising consciousness in the community, which began long before Chavez. For some, like Corina and Germán, our main contacts in the neighborhood established through the Venezuela Solidarity Group, it was the 2002 coup attempt that made them activists of the revolution.

“I was a supporter,” Germán told us, “but I wasn’t really involved. But when they took the president, we couldn’t just stay and do nothing. We came out of our houses, all of us, walking from here down to Miraflores, joining the others from the other barrios. One neighbor came out in his slippers and didn’t stop walking till he got to the palace. We weren’t going back till Chavez came back…”

Painting solidarity

Chilean-born Bay Area muralist Gonzalo Hidalgo arrived in Caracas early to develop the mural ideas with Catia residents: a new dawn for the community in the context of Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, people coming down from the barrios to surround the Miraflores palace demanding the return of their President, and healing the tensions caused by the construction of the new clinic that took some space previously used as the neighborhood sports fields. The mural’s sunrise—alba in Spanish—has a double meaning as it also refers to Venezuela’s counterproposal to the FTAA, called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas or ALBA.
Revolutionary songs blared through the weekend, and local musicians created a Caribbean jam session. Residents and visitors worked shoulder to shoulder on the mural, and children filled the base of it with flowers and butterflies. Our new friend Efraín had tears in his eyes as he painted. He thanked us for creating this opportunity to transform his neighborhood.

One goal of the mural was to bring brightness to the street, complementing the hope that the clinic brought to the community. After much discussion with community members, banners saying “Viva la Integración” and “Viva la Revolución” were added to the nearly finished piece.
For some, bringing the neighborhood together was as important as political statements. Others wanted to be explicit that despite opposition, there was no going back to the way things were like before Chavez. We asked one resident what she thought would happen if Chavez lost his second-term election. “We’re peaceful,” she said, “but we know they (the opposition) have guns—I would fear for our lives. But he won’t lose.”

We ended with dinner at Corina and Germán’s home, where they insisted we take back the truth that this revolution is making people’s lives better, and share with others the experience of a socialist country as not a distant utopian dream, but something real, messy, democratic, and hopeful. We talked about future exchanges, bringing Venezuelans to work on projects in the Mission District, the building of a Casa de la Amistad in Catia, and developing community recycling programs in Venezuela.

We talked about how to support our friends in Venezuela and build our own work at home—a place so important to make change, not just for us but for everyone around the world. In knowing that the people of Venezuela are moving something—against all of the challenges of the media, opposition, and outside intervention—we know change must also be possible within the US.