Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Armed with Shovels, Army Launches Social Rescue Plan

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Mar 1 1999 (IPS) - Armed with shovels and other tools, tens of thousands of army troops, civil servants and volunteers in Venezuela began to repair schools, clear up a backlog of patients awaiting operations, and attend homeless persons and street children as part of a six-month social emergency plan.

Some 70,000 troops, 80,000 public employees and a similar number of volunteers launched the programme on Saturday, the tenth anniversary of the start of a week-long bloody popular revolt known as the ‘Caracazo’.

President Hugo Chavez, who on Tuesday completes his first month in power, said the civic-military plan signified “the in-depth start of the democratic revolution that we have promised, and that no one except the people and the organised community will carry out.”

“The arms we carry are tractors, cisterns, picks and shovels, paint and paintbrushes; these are the best weapons at this time,” said Defence Minister Gen. Raul Salazar, heading out from a fort to poor neighbourhoods in Caracas at the head of a commando at 6:00 AM local time Saturday.

Chavez, a 44-year-old retired lieutenant-colonel who pushed the traditional parties out of power in last December’s elections with the passionate support of the down-and-out, called on students, workers, homemakers and peasant farmers to take part in “the social reconstruction with your support, no matter how small.”

One of the hundreds of volunteers who signed up, Solange Valleras lost her job as a receptionist last October, and is pessimistic about finding work, “because wherever I go they are laying people off, and no one is taking on new people – especially if they are 37 years old like me.”

Valleras said she was willing to work in exchange for food and transportation, but as long as she is later guaranteed a job, “because I have no savings and I live on my own with my two children.”

Truckdriver Alfredo Galindo has a job. He signed up as the delegate of a parish council from a poor neighbourhood of Caracas, representing 32 women and 48 men ready to collaborate on the weekends “in whatever, from cleaning sidewalks to preparing food.

“We want to help our ‘comandante’ (Chavez) give the country a boost,” said Galindo, who donated “30,000 bolivars (53 dollars) from the beers that we saved this weekend while working.”

The husband and wife team of architects Luis Valente and Maria Sanchez are a relic of the virtually decimated middle class. Although they did not vote for Chavez, they saw the plan as a chance “to contribute our grain of sand to rescuing the country.”

The Valente family wanted to do all they could to help. Frank, one of the couple’s three university-age children queuing up last week to register with their parents, said “I’m excited, I just want to be here to see this. I think it’s great.”

Standing in line behind the Valentes, Francis Ocandia said he wanted to “see my president to tell him that the walls of my little house in La Dolorita (a poor neighbourhood) are falling down, and I want the soldiers to come with blocks (bricks) to repair it.”

The president and his cabinet deny that the plan represents the start of a process of militarisation of the country, as alleged by critics, who also point to the unusual number of high-level posts to which Chavez has appointed serving or retired officers.

“We don’t come from another planet, we chose the military career, but we are from the same people, we were born in the same towns and neighbourhoods,” said Defence Minister Salazar.

Chavez made the start of his plan, ‘Proyecto Bolivar 2000’ – named after Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar – coincide with the tenth anniversary of the beginning of a week of social uprising and riots cracked down on harshly by the army.

The ‘Caracazo’ cost more than 400 lives, according to human rights groups.

The president recently invoked the commotion over the military repression of the anarchic protests and looting of businesses, mainly grocery stores, ten years ago as a justification for the aborted coup attempt he led in February 1992.

The troops participating in the project have been sent to 1,500 worksites – streets and highways, educational and health centres – throughout the country in the start of the first phase of ‘Proyecto Bolivar’.

The second and third stages will involve a jobs programme and a plan to combat school drop-outs.

In their campaign uniforms, Defence Minister Salazar and the rest of the senior officers supervised the plan in the 26 areas into which the country was divided for the purpose. Chavez, meanwhile, in an olive-green jacket, oversaw the works in various parts of Caracas.

On Saturday around 1,800 surgical operations were performed in hospitals and other public health centres, clearing away a backlog of patients who had been waiting a long time, said Health Minister Gilberto Rodriguez.

Physicians employed by the Health Ministry and volunteers attended visitors to health clinics crowded by mothers and their children, like Yezabel Marcos, who explained that “I can finally bring my two daughters in, because if I miss work, I’ll be fired.”

At least 15 percent of the economically active population in Venezuela is unemployed, and things are only getting worse with the recession and the closure of dozens of companies.

Venezuela’s 24 state governors and 326 mayors are actively participating in the plan, and contributed to defining the most pressing tasks, in which non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community associations and groups of subsistence farmers and indigenous people are involved.

Some 1,500 street children were picked up and attended in specialised centres, in an operation in which NGOs, as well as professionals in a volunteer capacity, took part.

Hundreds of homeless adults who try to survive by panhandling in the metropolitan area of Caracas were also picked up and attended by civilian and military doctors, barbers, pyschologists, social workers and other volunteers in centres that already existed or were created especially for ‘Proyecto Bolivar’.

Local residents alongside soldiers and teachers began to repair public schools – 70 in Caracas alone – while the officers in charge began their work of “raising awareness that the community should take care of what it repaired,” said Salazar.

Venezuela, whose economy is dependent on oil and is facing a nine billion dollar deficit this year due to the low international prices of the commodity, has seen its living standards plunge since the 1980s.

The situation peaked in the past five years, when real income crashed 35 percent and the poverty level rose 15 percent. Eighty percent of Venezuela’s 23 million inhabitants presently live below the poverty line.

At the same time, the state pulled out of its social functions in the poorest parts of cities and rural areas, while public services virtually collapsed, amidst the degeneration of the local political model.

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