Hugo Chávez and Petro Populism
At the Coordinador's little headquarters I meet this other type of Chavista: not a sentimental housewife like Guerrero, but a hard-core ex-guerrilla. Juan Contreras is balding, a bit paunchy and has rather unassuming boyish features, but he got his political education the hard way and at a young age: in the form of demonstrations, police beatings and shootouts with the paramilitary forces of the state. He is now one of the key organizers in the Coordinador.
The walls outside the office are covered in revolutionary murals: One honors a youth killed in a demonstration against Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, another is for the Zapatistas, a third displays the classic Alberto Korda portrait of Che Guevara. Most of the art predates Chávez, and none portrays his image.
"Chávez did not produce the movements--we produced him," explains Contreras. "He has helped us tremendously, but what is going on here cannot be ascribed only to Chávez."
According to Contreras and a few of his comrades, the Coordinador got its start after the failed Chávez coup in 1992. In the wake of that defeat, the government began jailing leftists. Contreras fled to Cuba for a month with twenty-nine other activists from 23 de Enero; upon their return, almost all of them were arrested, and Contreras went into hiding. About a year and a half after the attempted coup, the activists regrouped and decided that armed struggle was definitely over and done with. They created the Coordinador and devoted themselves to aboveground work.
Today the Coordinador pursues a three-pronged strategy that involves reclaiming public space from drug gangs, recovering local cultural traditions and promoting organized sports. Already the barrio has produced several players for Major League Baseball, including Ugueth Urbina, Juan Carlos Ovalles and Juan Carlos Pulido. Later a young guy named Kristhian Linares stops by to pay his respects to Contreras. Only 18 years old, Linares has just signed with the Florida Marlins. He starts spring training as soon as his papers are in order.
After building these forms of social solidarity, the Coordinador then launched another project, setting up committees to deal with health, land titles, elections and the like. Some of this work interfaces with government-funded missions, some doesn't. But the paramount issue here is security. The slums of Caracas are extremely violent. Every week, around eighty people are murdered in this city of 5 million.
"We use culture and sports and organization to take over public spaces," explains Contreras. What if the drug gangs refuse to move? "Well, many of them are connected by family to the larger community, so we use that pressure. There is the armed tradition here, and they respect that. And there is a tradition of lynching in this barrio. In the past the community has killed some criminals. Not recently, but it has happened. So most of the gangs take us seriously and stay away from the central areas."
Later, as we scale a ridge packed with little homes, he explains that farther into the barrio are some agricultural projects but that I'll have to come back to visit them because the outlying areas become dangerous in the afternoon. Clearly, cultural reclamation plus threat of lynching does not completely displace crime.
It also seems that the opposition, or elements in it, have on occasion used criminals against Chavistas. An activist from nearby 23 de Enero, a woman who once lived in California, tells the story of a gangster who was paid to make death threats against the local Cuban doctors. The doctors got so freaked out they split. But the woman, a trained social worker, found the young thug, a local guy, and explained to him that he would certainly be tracked down and killed by angry Chavistas if he persisted with his threats. The gangster reconsidered and decided to stay out of politics. The Cuban doctors returned.