Venezuela's New Motto: Power to the People ; the Chaos Often Associated with Hugo Chavez's Presidency Has Obscured a Political Maturation in Venezuela, Where Grass-Roots Activism Is Thriving

Article excerpt

The 17 volunteers gathered in a central Caracas apartment have at least one thing in common: most have President Hugo Chavez to thank for getting them involved in politics. Now they're determined to end his political career by having him recalled from office.

In a poor neighborhood across town, Paula Bastida has also turned into an activist - but for the opposite cause. A passionate supporter of Mr. Chavez, Ms. Bastida volunteers for a government- sponsored literacy program in her hillside neighborhood of tin- roofed shacks. She believes Chavez to be the savior of the nation's poor.

Welcome to Venezuela's world of grass-roots activism, a new phenomenon in a country not known for its power of the people.

"Before, one didn't worry about politics," says William Mendez, a customer-service representative for a book-publishing company, at the recall meeting. "One left politics to the politicians and accepted whatever they said."

Not anymore. The political drama of Chavez's rule, punctuated by a spiraling economy and often violent demonstrations, has obscured what might be called a process of political maturation here. Millions of previously apolitical Venezuelans have become passionate about the future of their nation, and relatively low-profile groups have found prominent roles.

Once the domain of exclusive circles of notoriously corrupt political parties and business cliques who handed power back and forth, the nation's political stage has now been extended from the statehouse out into the barrios, onto the newspapers, and over the airwaves.

"I have lived here for 20 years," says Bastida, a technician in the Ministry of Agriculture, "and this is the first time that such opportunities [for involvement] have existed."

Today's Venezuela is deeply polarized between those who accuse Chavez of wrecking the economy and pushing the nation toward communism, and those who see him as the only hope for redistributing the nation's oil wealth to the poor.

One of the most prominent - and controversial - new actors is Lina Ron, a fiery street activist whose wavy bleach-blond hair and baseball cap have become an icon of Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution for the Poor." Ms. Ron, a one-time sidewalk vendor, makes her headquarters two blocks from parliament in an underground hall decorated with posters of liberator Simon Bolivar, guerrilla fighter Che Guevara, and, naturally, Chavez. Ron, who Chavez himself once described as "uncontrollable" for her sometimes violent street activism, may have done more than anyone else to change the image of Venezuelan women.

"We [the people] are the revolution," she declares in a sidewalk interview, as followers crowd around her appealing for help with medical, educational, and financial troubles. "Chavez is the only good president the people have ever had."

The freeing of politics from the political class has given prominence to new groups, particularly women. Women's organizations, both in support of and opposed to Chavez, are prominent in the street activism and protests, and several female journalists have become major public figures. …

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