Venezuela's new motto: power to the people

The chaos often associated with Hugo Chávez's presidency has obscured a political maturation in Venezuela, where grass-roots activism is thriving.

The 17 volunteers gathered in a central Caracas apartment have at least one thing in common: most have President Hugo Chávez 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. Chávez, Ms. Bastida volunteers for a government-sponsored literacy program in her hillside neighborhood of tin-roofed shacks. She believes Chávez 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 Méndez, 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 Chávez'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 Chávez 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 Chávez'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 Simón Bolivar, guerrilla fighter Che Guevara, and, naturally, Chávez. Ron, who Chávez 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. "Chávez 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 Chávez, are prominent in the street activism and protests, and several female journalists have become major public figures.

"The image of the domestic woman has been abandoned for that of a combative woman who takes to the streets," says radio and television reporter Marta Colomina, a self-described "pitiless opponent" of Chávez. Her gravelly voice has become ubiquitous in denouncing what she considers to be Chávez's corruption and authoritarian tendencies.

Some women see their new prominence as a sea change in a nation whose women are often more renowned for winning beauty contests than for practicing leadership.

"We are aware that only by organizing can we achieve equality for women in areas of employment, education, and politics, which continue being male-dominated," says Luz Maria Alvarez, president of the opposition group Women for Liberty, which counts 60,000 members nationwide.

The boom in activism represents something of a rebirth for the nation which has South America's longest continuous democracy, but also one of its most dysfunctional ones. Despite the nation's vast oil reserves, four decades of democratic governments failed to pull most Venezuelans out of poverty. Citizens lost interest in the system, and voter abstention has soared to 50 percent recently.

That began changing with the rise of Chávez, a charismatic populist who has given Venezuela's poor majority an unmistakable sense of involvement. Chávez has made activism a centerpiece of his government by promoting self-help organizations like the "Bolivarian circles" neighborhood groups, which played a key role in sweeping Chávez back to power in April 2002, just 48 hours after a military coup ousted him.

Yet the activism also has ominous aspects. While the circles are intended to repair streets, tutor children, and assist the disabled, some red-bereted, motorcycle-riding members have also gained a reputation for violence. And while most see Venezuelans' new activism as a healthy development, protest marches and demonstrations have repeatedly turned violent, resulting in dozens of politically related deaths over the past two years.

In contrast to historical voter apathy, because of the possible referendum on Chávez, Venezuelans stood in line past midnight to fill out their forms at a voter-registration deadline. The referendum became constitutionally possible after the Aug. 19 midway point of his term. Chávez opponents have collected more than 2 million signatures to qualify the referendum for the ballot, but Chávez disputes the petition's legitimacy. The issue is now in the hands of the National Electoral Commission, who will decide by Sept. 20 whether the signatures are legitimate and set a date for a vote if they are.

Now, even some of Chávez's bitterest opponents hope this is one Chávez-inspired change that lasts. "I have always believed that every bad thing produces some good," says Xiomara Montes at the pro-recall meeting. "The good thing about this government is that it has made us wake up."

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