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
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
"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
"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. …