REPORTER: Aaron Lewis
This is ‘Gasolina’, a nickname this folk singer picked up after writing this famous song.
He’s singing about living in a country rich with oil, and still having nothing to eat or drink.
SONG (Translation): We’ll drink gasoline in this refined democracy. We can’t even buy anything at the corner store, you see.
GASOLINA (Translation): It’s a protest song that I wrote about 15 years ago. It incites people to rebel, to revolt, to drink gasoline. And then ‘Gasoline for me, gasoline! Gasoline for you, gasoline!’ What it’s saying is “Let’s burn this whole thing.”
Venezuela’s revolution took off in 1999 when the charismatic Hugo Chavez became President. In a country that had long been ruled by a rich and powerful elite, Chavez won a landslide victory by promising to deliver social justice to the nation’s poor. Dateline was with him in 2002 when he described his hopes for the future.
HUGO CHAVEZ (Translation): Today’s peaceful and democratic Venezuelan revolution is the only way to restore the life of the country, to restore the dignity of the country, to lift the living conditions of the majority who were impoverished and marginalised for a long time.
Gasolina lives in the maze of desperately poor neighbourhoods, or barrios, which cling to the hills above the capital city, Caracas. Life here is a constant struggle with terrible violence and poverty. The barrios are growing more crowded, and the problems are getting worse, not better. In an attempt to turn things around, the government is now recruiting people like Gasolina to form community councils like this one. The councils are made up of ordinary people from the community. They are encouraged to create their own proposals for how to improve life in the barrios.
GASOLINA (Translation): It’s important to make sure that everything we do doesn’t just improve roads, for example. But if a cooperative is involved, they should be generating employment in the community.
Each project that is approved by the council receives up to $15,000. For the last seven years, President Chavez has been promising to put power in the hands of the poor. These councils are one attempt to make good on that promise.
MAN (Translation): Whether it be plastics, or milk production, or sand-making, or whatever. I’d like you to start thinking about what might be a productive macro-project which will generate employment for locals and non-locals.
PROJECT LEADER WOMAN(Translation): W need to work out which are the projects we need.
Some people want better roads, some want new factories. Gasolina is focused on even more basic needs.
GASOLINA (Translation): How to stop going hungry. How to have a roof over your head. How to be able to deal with health issues. How to send all of your children to school. And where? And when? And how?
Funding welfare projects is key to Chavez’s popularity. This government-supported cooperative produces the shirts that have become the unofficial uniform of the revolution.
WOMAN (Translation): It’s better to be in a cooperative. That way you get motivated. Everyone works together.
The Chavez Government has built hundreds of free medical clinics in the barrios and set up a chain of subsidised supermarkets to help people afford staple food items. But perhaps the government’s greatest success has been in education. Across the country, people of all ages huddle in little classrooms, learning to read and write, studying maths and Latin American history.
TEACHER (Translation): To make it easier to understand, if this is an odd number, I will make it an even number. That is, the following number 3 then becomes 4.
Two years ago, Gregoria DeSado saw the President talking about the importance of education to the revolution. So, at the age of 60, she went back to school.
TEACHER (Translation): Let’s take a good look. Which number comes after? What number is this? 4.
GREGORIA DESADO (Translation): I couldn’t really read before. Now I can read a lot better. I couldn’t write either. And as for numbers, I knew absolutely nothing. But now I’m much happier because at least now I’m a bit better at maths. I’m not wonderful, but I get by. After all, I’m nospring chicken.
Since 2002, over 1.5 million people have learnt to read and write. One of the first books Gregoria read was an instruction book for boxing technique.
GREGORIA (Translation): I used to really like boxing. So I’d put on my gloves, my other one is missing. And I’d practise in front of the mirror, see?
Gregoria has always lived in fear of the violence in the barrios. The revolution gave her something to fight for.
GREGORIA (Translation): As far as the revolution goes, it’s like people have woken up to a new life. People get together, the fight for something in a group, to fight for the future, to change the system for the better.
But not everything is going well inside Chavez’s revolution. Near to the school where Gregoria studies, an entire neighbourhood is slipping off the edge of the hill it’s built on. The Chavez Government paid a company to start making repairs but the money was embezzled and nothing fixed. Clara Arroyo still lives with no plumbing and a roof that threatens to collapse.
CLARA ARROYO (Translation): This one represents the power of Christ.
The largest room in her house is a shrine to the many saints she calls ‘the Brothers.’
CLARA (Translation): The advantage we poor people have is that we have God and the Brothers. Every morning I pray to God to bless Chavez, to be with him and never forsake him. No other President ever cared that we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner. And as far as housing goes, I know they’ll find me something. Some day.
The revolution is underwritten by Venezuela’s vast oil riches. But these riches are increasingly being siphoned off by corruption, and the Chavez Government has done little to stop it. Zaraza is a farming town. A few hours east of Caracas, this region, Guarico, used to produce 40% of the nation’s staple corn crop. It’s also home to the biggest scandal ever to hit the Chavez Government. Rosalia Aular has spent her entire life working these fields. Everything she earns is used to buy next year’s corn seed.
ROSALIA AULAR (Translation): I’ll be honest with you, sometimes we have no money. Not even for underwear. But I keep going.
In 2002, the Chavez Government created a Development Fund for Agriculture, Fishing, Forestry, and Related Activities – FONDAFA for short. FONDAFA was a massive loan program meant to help farmers like Rosalia. Last year FONDAFA handed out $1 billion nationally but, in many areas like Zaraza, that money never made it to the farmers.
TRANSLATOR (Translation): Do you think your situation has improved?
ROSALIA AULAR (Translation): No, I’m no better off. I haven’t gained anything. Nothing at all. Maybe if I got some help, but so far nothing’s changed. I’m still struggling the same way.
Reinaldo Barrios works in the Zaraza Mayor’s office. The documents he’s holding show that most of FONDAFA’s money was stolen by powerful local landowners with connections to organised crime.
REINALDO BARRIOS (Translation): The municipal government was able to detect that these resources weren’t reaching small farmers. So it was the big landowners who were getting richer.
FONDAFA was supposed to grant loans to farming cooperatives. But Reinaldo told me that landowners created fake co-ops and paid people in town to use their name on the paperwork. He estimates that in Zaraza alone US$46 million was stolen from FONDAFA, and at least US$5 million of that can be traced directly back to organised crime. Reinaldo knows he’s taking a huge risk in going public with this information.
REINALDO BARRIOS (Translation): We think they withheld over 10 billion bolivares in their accounts and commercial institutions. And they’ve subsequently invested in buildings and other construction projects. That’s where FONDAFA’s money ended up.
Many vulnerable people in town were persuaded to take out loans they were told they’d never have to repay. Natali asked me not to use her real name. She works as a prostitute in the local brothel.
NATALI (Translation): I don’t have a mother. She died nine years ago. She left four children behind. I am the youngest girl, and there is a younger boy. For us, when your mother dies, your whole world finishes.
Natali is 20 years old and has two children. She signed papers for a loan of US$7,000, 15 million in local currency. But she received nothing.
NATALI (Translation): It happened to many other people. First, they came and offered us a loan, a loan for 15 million. We did all the paperwork and what they more or less did was just lie to us.
Many people in Zaraza did receive what they thought was easy money. They bought new cars or mobile phones and the bars became packed every night. They’ve now discovered that they signed papers for loans that were actually twice or even 10 times the amount of money they received. Natali now owes the bank thousands of dollars that she has never seen.! Alarm bells have been ringing inside government for some time as this letter dated 6 June 2003 reveals. Written by inspectors from the Ministry of Agriculture, it expresses concern that much of the land earmarked for FONDAFA grants was useless for farming.
LETTER: “It was determined that this land does not meet the requirements for the sowing of the maize crop requested.”
Then, earlier this year, the Zaraza Mayor’s office wrote to the federal government alerting them to the fact that most of the people receiving grants were not farmers.
LETTER: “There is a presumption that 80% of beneficiaries are not producers or do not engage in agricultural activity.”
It was one of many similar letters from the Mayor’s office.
REINALDO BARRIOS (Translation): They ignored our claims and we didn’t ever receive a response either.
NATALI (Translation): I’d like to see those people pay for what they do, for ripping people off. They should – how can I explain it – they should know that we all have rights whether we have a decent job or not.
Meanwhile, Zaraza’s legitimate cowboys and farmers are still struggling to survive.
ROSALIA AULAR (Translation): We need roads. We need clinics and drinking water. The president talks a lot and I like his programs but we’ve been abandoned. He doesn’t know what is happening, otherwise it would be different.
TRANSLATOR (Translation): And you still call yourself a Chavista?
ROSALIA AULAR (Translation): Exactly.
CHAVEZ SINGS (Translation): I’m not a gold coin. I don’t have two sides that everyone likes. If you don’t like me, that’s tough.
All around Venezuela there is a widespread belief that Chavez is surrounded by a corrupt clique. These trade unionists, who are natural allies of Chavez, have gathered outside the Legislative Assembly to condemn corruption.
UNIONIST (Translation): As from this moment, the National Union of Workers in every single state has to call for a march and mobilisation against corrupt politicians, against corrupt mayors and against employers violating workers’ rights. I salute you, comrades!
According to Reinaldo, corruption is fostered by even senior ministers inside the Chavez Government.
REINALDO BARRIOS (Translation): There are people very high up in the national government who are specifically using the revolution in their favour in order to become richer. I’d call it – from what I hear, there’s no revolution here. Yes, there is a kind of revolution, one of opulence.
Despite weeks of requests by Dateline, no-one in the Venezuelan Government was prepared to respond to these claims. Many of Chavez’s most militant supporters believe the government is out of touch and there’s a real fear that this is leading to political violence. Oswaldo Rivero is a member of an urban guerilla group called the Tupamaros. He says they’re waging a war on corruption:
OSWALDO RIVERO (Translation): People have claimed to be leaders in a process they’ve never participated in, living off and paying lip service to the revolution while they profit and grow rich. These infiltrators are going to take off their masks. And if we need to take up arms, we will do so.
In the 1980s and ’90s the Tupamaros fought to overthrow the government. They’ve now become a far-left political party – and their members are prepared to kill or be killed for the revolution. Their support is especially strong here, in the capital’s most politically charged barrio, known as January 23.
OSWALDO RIVERO (Translation): Take a look at this. Down with fascists, Nazists, coup plotters. Long live the Tupamaros!
Someone is shot here almost every night. Sometimes it’s political assassination. To film here, I needed to be under armed guard. Oswaldo calls it a low-intensity war zone.
OSWALDO RIVERO (Translation): I’m from a fighting tradition. My father was a union leader in the ’60s, with the Communist Party in Lara State. He endured political persecution. ’23 January” means to me”¦For all of us, it is like a family, revolutionary and identify ourselves with the same social issues. The first thing we were taught was solidarity.
The Tupamaros stood up for Chavez when he was at his most vulnerable. In 2002, Chavez was briefly overthrown and it was the Tupamaros who fought back against the police who supported the coup. They helped Chavez regain the presidency. Now the Tupamaros blame police for much of the corruption and crime that plagues Venezuela. Violent crime in the capital has tripled while Chavez has been in power. Caracas is now a city with one of the highest rates of gun-related death in the world. The Tupamaros have recently taken the law into their own hands, and kicked the entire police force out of barrio January 23.
MAN (Translation): If the Venezuelan state can’t deal with delinquency and organised crime, then our organised community has to do it.
Today a few police officers have returned to try to talk things over but it’s not going well.
MAN (Translation): If the police don’t act quickly, the citizens and the community will take action against the criminals.
WOMAN (Translation): I think the principal housekeeping has to start with the metropolitan police itself. Why? Because in our community we know officers who are criminals – if you sell drugs, and you kill people, you’re a criminal too!
It’s a measure of how fragile this revolution is and how far it has to go when Chavez and his supporters need armed vigilantes like the Tupamaros to defend them against their own police. Recently the Tupamaros themselves have split into factions, and this is further fuelling violence and crime. The frightened residents of barrio 23 don’t feel safe with the police, but they know they’re not safe without them either.
WOMAN (Translation): A fortnight ago some kids were kidnapped, children between 7 and 13, why? Because the police can’t come into the district.
Remarkably, no matter how difficult life in the barrios gets, Hugo Chavez enjoys widespread support. G
GREGORIA AULAR (Translation): Well, I think President Chavez is a good president. I like him as a president. I like everything he’s done. Despite what people say, he is getting things done.
And votes from these neighbourhoods are set to guarantee him victory in December’s presidential election. His approval rating is over 50%, the same as it was when he first took office, while his nearest rival struggles to reach even a fraction of that.
GASOLINA(Translation): Someone else might be able to do it better. But this is an important moment for the world, and this is Chavez’s moment. We will be… Despite all our faults, we will be… We will be an example, we are setting an example… for the whole world.
So what kind of example is Venezuela setting for the world? Gasolina is a long-suffering Chavez supporter who’s still waiting patiently for the revolution to deliver. Till it does, he’ll keep singing about living in a country rich in oil where the poor struggle to survive.
GASOLINA (Translation): There may be improvements but there are still protests. While I’m still living like this, the way it’s always been, I have to keep protesting.
LILIANA MERCEDES EVANS