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The great divide

Like India, Venezuela is a nation with a wide chasm between the rich and the poor. S. ANANDALAKSHMY writes on her visit to the country, highlighting its growth and development.

IN the first fortnight of December 2001, I had an opportunity to be in Caracas. After getting through an airport more chaotic than most Indian ones, we traversed a long route including two tunnels inside a couple of hills, to reach the capital city of Caracas. The traffic seemed to be inching along for the first 30 minutes and there was plenty of time to look around. The first thing that caught one's attention was the sparkle of electric lights on the hills, as dusk was falling. When I exclaimed at how decorative it looked, I was told that the lights were from the slums of Caracas, the favelas, (or ronchos as they were also called). In Venezuela, the urban poor live on the hill slopes adjoining the cities, in makeshift houses. Literally and metaphorically, they are on downward slopes! The wealthy generally live in the valleys and plains. As we realised later in the week, there were a few homes of the affluent, on the slopes of select hills near the green belt of the National Park. We drove on one hill and saw sprawling haciendas, with very high walls enclosing them and enormous gateways. Ferocious looking dog-faces were painted on the gates.

When one entered the city, the metalled roads and high-rise buildings conveyed the feeling of universal city. The road signs were in Spanish, so I knew that we were not in Singapore! When I got into the hotel, where the Conference was to be held and the delegates housed, I was handed a set of instructions intended for all residents. Most of these were cautionary: not to go out on the street alone, always to leave word as to where one was heading, not to be out very late and so on. It made me feel that I had inadvertently stepped into a danger zone, though not quite Kandahar!

When we met, everyone was talking about the General Strike called on Monday, December 10. More formal warnings and cautions came our way. When I tried to find out the reason for the strike, I was given vague replies, like ``Chavez (the President of Venezuela) is crazy'', meaning, of course, that his policies were not acceptable. One of the facts, given as evidence of his ``madness'', was that Fidel Castro was his best friend! A little probing about the strike revealed the following details: the strike was being called, in protest against some of the President's new policies, by the leading business concerns in the city. One major policy was his plan to acquire unproductive land and redistribute it to the poor; the other, was the new requirement that any new investment in the energy sector had to have major government participation (51 per cent, at least). The rich Venezuelans and the entrepreneurs from the U.S. and Europe, their partners in business, were clearly not happy with these measures. Chavez had already proved to be a very competent President of OPEC. Any further increase in his power was seen as a potential threat, by the Venezuelan elite and their associates.

As we remarked to each other, one thinks of a strike as the collective voice of labour, demanding fair wages and decent working conditions. Here, the strike was being called by the rich, to make sure that the benefits promised to the really poor, were not granted. In effect, it was a lockout rather than a strike! But with jobs being difficult to get, those already employed did not wish to rock the boat.

We had decided to continue our meetings in the Conference Room of the hotel, on the day of the strike. We were disturbed intermittently by loud noises. We soon found out that the middle classes, which also supported the strike, had made a decision, that whenever Chavez appeared on television, they would disrupt his speech. They would bang out pots and pans or make a noise as they drove around on motorbikes and cars, indicating to the public, their disapproval of the President. Throughout the day, there was a din, both metallic and mechanical! We guessed that President Chavez must have made a long speech on the local television, because the noises persisted for quite a while. We scanned one of the newspapers in English, the next day for reports of what had transpired. The strike was declared a ``success'' by the business class. On another page of the paper, there was a news item that Fidel Castro had been in the city to express his support of Hugo Chavez and had said to the businessmen, ``You should have heart stoppage, not work stoppage'', which, translated from the Spanish, carried the inelegant headline, ``Drop dead, says Castro''.

As part of the conference schedule, we had the opportunity to visit one or two of the programmes, coordinated by a voluntary group. This programme was a good example to bridge the chasm between the rich and the poor. It was a wonderfully vibrant collaboration of the Education Department at the University, the Education Office of the Municipality and several funding agencies, including the UNICEF and the Kellogg Foundation, with AFIN, the Fundacion Apoyo a la Familia y a la Infancia,( the Foundation for the Support of Families and Children). The first stirrings of AFIN were felt in the year 1992, in the Primary Education Department of the Catholic University of Venezuela, where an idealistic young Professor, Leonardo Yanez, was teaching. Along with five of his enthusiastic colleagues and with the support of an enlightened leadership in the University, he approached the Municipality. The proposal was to let students do their work projects among the neglected families on the hill slopes, at La Vega, an extension of Caracas.

In 1993, the UNICEF helped with the publication of the manuals to be used by the University students and the officers of the Municipality, to provide extra-curricular and homework help to the deprived children.

AFIN was registered in 1995, with Arelys Moreno as its moving spirit. She provided the energy and the intelligence for it to flourish, in the first five years. The Ministry of Family and Social Development was the concerned ministry. Today, the Catholic University is still actively involving University students in the several schemes. In 2001, there were four other organisations that work at La Vega, under the coordination of AFIN. They work on a variety of issues, including libraries for children, clubs for mathematics and language, inclusive education for children with disability, legal counselling, training for teachers on innovative methods, getting fathers involved in the nurturing of children, focus on an integrated approach to health and nutrition, and eco-friendly herb gardens and agriculture. The main strategy in all of these activities is to use the strengths within the community.

To realise the importance of this particular intervention, one must understand the startling dichotomy of the poor and the rich, in Venezuela, the communities who lived on the hills and those in the valleys and the plains. Of course, many of the poor men and women who lived on the slopes came downhill to work as wage labour, in a great variety of tasks. But as a group or a category, they were considered, by the wealthy and the middle classes to be violent, dangerous and lawless! In this context, AFIN was perceived as being almost heroic! Good work provides its own credibility. In the period of the last three years, we were told, there has been a considerable development of the schools and other institutions set up or helped by AFIN. For Arelys, who had been away, and who arranged to bring us there, it was a special homecoming.

We visited a school, called CANAIMA, where any child could come, irrespective of age or ability level. Those with disability were welcome. A number of children, who had discontinued school earlier, felt confident to come back. When we arrived there, some children were gardening vigorously, others were making sandwiches for a Christmas get together down the hill and a third group was picking up the basics of computers, with one PC for every child in the classroom. This was not an affluent school, by any means, but a school that had impressed the donors with the sincerity of their purpose under a dynamic and committed Principal. Parents were also invited to visit the school and to help with the activities. The children, who took us around, and other children, who were organising various details of the Christmas celebration, carried themselves with dignity and confidence, as they went about their tasks.

We were also able to visit one other school in the neighbourhood and to attend a Christmas fair organised by an NGO called RECLAVE, which worked for child rights. During the visit, we met an activist from the NGO. Her name was Bonita Gova Rodriguez. She had a face that spoke of strength, with a history of suffering. On interviewing her, I found that her life was a saga of courage. It was a privilege to have met her.

Our week's visit was about to end. There was a plethora of images and faces, that one would recall ``in vacant or in pensive mood''. The National Museum was a treasure house, beautifully designed and maintained and free. No entrance fee was charged from anyone. But the lasting visual for me was the city centre's Nativity Tableau for Christmas. It was set in a jungle with flamingos and wild tropical birds of painted wood, elegantly carved wooden figures for the angels and for Joseph and Mary and an empty crib (to be filled only at midnight on the 24th). There were the three kings on one side, balanced by Simon Bolivar and his two associates on the other. A folk song was playing, about Jesus being a brown baby. It was as totally Venezuelan as possible. That's the feeling I left with: that it might be a society with problems, but the people are proud of their culture and their country.

The writer is a consultant in Child Development based in Chennai.

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