Of Sunlight and Shadows: A true tale of Venezuela
By Jutta Schmitt
This was one of those brief, ad hoc journeys we sometimes make to Chiguará, a hidden mountain village an hour's drive from town. The Pan-American Highway, along the Sun Route, crosses miles of a hot, desert-like landscape with keenly shaped sandstone formations and forests of cacti and acacias on dark red soil. Where the Sun Route fades away and dissolves into a somewhat cooler climate, a narrow road branches off into the mountains. It takes the traveler to the picturesque heights of what we like to call the “Independent Republic of Chiguará,” for some of its remarkable, rebellious inhabitants.
This small peasant village, revealing itself at the end of a fifteen- minute climb, clings to a steep slope in the mountainous region and opens up its heart, the wide and friendly Plaza Bolívar, just a few blocks from the entrance to town. Across the Plaza, facing the cathedral and standing in a colourful line of neat houses, is the “El Momoy” house, which bears the name of a legendary Andean dwarf and hosts one of Chiguará´s two modest restaurants.
As we entered the tiny, cave-like restaurant on the ground floor of El Momoy that day, a bouquet of roses caught my eye. They stood in a clay vase on a stool, caressed by a ray of sunlight that spilled across the room through one of the small, open windows. Something struck me about the flowers; their petals seemed denser than those of other roses I had seen, absorbing and retaining the light, making the filigreed heads radiate intense colour. From the kitchen, which is just an open extension of the main dining room, Marina the waitress came forth, greeting us warmly. The old wooden staircase in the back of the room creaked repeatedly to announce that our friend Rafaela was descending. She welcomed us with a long, firm embrace. We sat down at one of the tables as Marina whirled around us, serving black coffee and oven-baked, flat wheat cakes, still warm and filled with grated cheese.
We had hardly finished eating when the bearded face of Carlos Manuel, Rafaela´s husband, appeared at our table, his brown eyes sparkling in defiance. “How much time do we still have left?” he asked, taking a seat. “We do not have to talk about the ifs, the only question here is when,” he said, reaching deep down into his pocket. A wrinkled packet of cigarettes came to light, which he laid on the table, offering a smoke. The packet went round, and for a few moments we all sat quiet and meditative, observing the smoke from our cigarettes rise above our heads in blue circles, forming a dense layer beneath the ceiling.
“So tell me, when will the bastards come for us, for our oil, for our water, for our country's rich fauna and flora? When will they patent our indigenous peoples´ancient knowledge, when will they claim royalty fees on the cultivation of herbs generations of our ancestors have used for medical treatment? When will we finally be strangers on our own soil, in our own forests, on our own shores? When will we stand under this deep blue sky and see it turn red, see our hearts´and hands´daily efforts be bombed to pieces, see the American flag insult our view? All we have been dreaming of, all we have patiently begun to construct since president Chávez came to power, is being obstructed and overshadowed by the big boot that threatens to crush us at any time! My question is, when will that time come?” Carlos´dark, persistent eyes searched for an answer in each of our faces.
The sunlight painting the roses as we entered the restaurant had since made its way around to the open back door, through which it reached our table, immersing Carlos Manuel in a bright aura that contrasted sharply with his sinister mood. Serenity and darkness materialized together in his person for a moment. “He seems a perfect reflection of the times,” I thought as I watched him. Spring has woken this country from decades of hibernation; here are its people, blossoming, acting, thinking and inventing their Bolivarian Revolution, gladly taking the risk of erring. They have simply had enough of five hundred years of imposed economic and political systems detrimental to their hopes, aspirations and lives, of importing the 'wisdom' of social models alien to their spontaneity and humanity. Or to what is left of these after the catastrophic encounter with a self-destructive economic system that has brought the most deadly consequences for the past five centuries. Here are people who have confronted their destiny, determining to change it themselves. And now there is a cloud casting its shadow on their tremendous efforts: the shadow of empire, of fascism, of corporatism expanding all over the globe in a last, desperate act before its inevitable disintegration. These were my thoughts as Carlos continued speaking:
“We know where they will come from; they will encircle us from the outside, from Colombia, Aruba, Curaçao, maybe even from Guyana, and they will suffocate us from within, employing terrorism within our borders. They will lay the noose around our neck and then soon they will be pulling it tight. All this because we have had the courage to take our destiny into our own hands, with president Chávez at the helm, navigating on the oceans of black gold beneath our soil. They, who have trampled on each and every effort of our Latin American peoples to pursue self-determination and happiness, they, who are spitting on their own constitution, still dare give us lessons about democracy and human rights! Who in the world wants their kind of democracy? Who in the world wants their kind of human rights? No sane person--except our former elite turned opposition, of course--would willingly choose such a farce!”
These were the words of an eminently practical man, who had constructed many of Chiguará's newer houses while maintaining their traditional art and craftsmanship, and paying respect to the style and architecture of time-honoured buildings. He was involved in a communal experiment, the Mistajá Cooperative, launched under a new law for cooperative associations. This law gave people the choice of organizing the workforce in small groups of producers, so as to control their own production and distribution of goods and income. The democratization process of the Bolivarian Revolution was not merely limited to the political realm, but an active socio-economic engagement, taking the form of these autonomous cooperatives. These were intended to be open and flexible organizations under the control of both their associated workers and the consumers of their products.
And here was Carlos Manuel, an enthusiastically committed worker, co-manager and co-owner of Mistajá Cooperative, a craftsman, architect and agronomist, one of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who were dedicating all their energy to the enormous task of creating not only a new political system, but a different kind of socio-economic system, one that would have a compassionate human face. As he lit another cigarette, he rose from his seat, as defiant as when he had taken it. “Are you prepared? I am prepared,” he said. “So let them come. Other than that, I am afraid there is not much to say these days. Everything is fine, and at the same time–-everything is not fine at all!” He said goodbye to us, stepped though the back door and disappeared into the bright sunlight.
I doubted he or anyone here was really prepared. How do you prepare to face an unprecedented arsenal of conventional, nuclear, chemical, biological and even geophysical weapons in a combination of low, medium and--in the end--high intensity warfare? I asked myself. I thought of the biological warfare disguised as a “war on drugs” the Americans were conducting in neigbouring Colombia, this tragic country converted into a macabre testing ground for chemical and biological agents, threatening its immense biodiversity and its inhabitants´ health and lives. I remembered December 15th, 1999, the day of the decisive popular referendum in Venezuela, when the new constitution was submitted to the people for approbation. That day, the State of Vargas had literally been swept into the ocean by devastating torrential rains, product of climatic conditions never before experienced in Venezuela´s coastal region. There was suspicion that some type of artificial manipulation of weather systems themselves was even being employed as a weapon.
A strong, fresh breeze from the Plaza came through the front door of El Momoy, and as I felt the cool wind in my hair, I felt I could see, in a single image, the ultimate logic and apex of our dying, globalized mode of production. Nature itself--humanity´s environment and habitat, our very lifeline, had been converted into a lethal weapon as the logical result of a process that began as the ‘liberation of man from the yoke of nature,' and progressively converted all of humanity's inventions into weapons and means of destruction.
It was time for us to leave. When we got up from the table, Rafaela reached toward the stool where the roses stood in their clay vase. Carefully, she picked one of the beautiful flowers from the bunch and gave it to me in a warm, spontaneous gesture. “Where do you get these incredible roses from?” I asked her. “From the most special rose gardener in the region,” she replied. “Who would that be?” I inquired. “Mistajá Cooperative,” she said with a smile. As I marveled at the glowing rose in my hand, a true piece of nature's art, the old saying flashed through my mind: “They can kill the flowers, but they cannot stop the coming of spring!”
Uneasily, I couldn't help thinking at the same time: what if this isn't true anymore?
Jutta Schmitt is a political analyst & commentator, assistant lecturer in political science at the University of The Andes in Mérida, Venezuela. Born in Germany in 1965, she studied political and social science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt on Main. She came to Venezuela in the early nineties for two semesters of overseas studies at the University of The Andes in Mérida, obtained her masters degree with a dissertation on the Venezuelan political, social and economic crisis and returned to Venezuela after the conclusion of her studies. She has been a permanent resident there since 1995. A supporter of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías and the Venezuelan people's cause, Jutta Schmitt has participated in many conferences speaking about the Bolivarian Revolution, the dangers of Globalisation, and Imperialism in the XXIst Century. She forms part of a Bolivarian Studies Circle in a rural community near Mérida, which tries to unite academia with the common people in an effort to further the theoretical understanding and practical realization of the Bolivarian Revolution. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For comments, essays & poetry: http://www.geocities.com/juschmi/index.html
For summaries (spanish) of the sessions of the Bolivarian Studies Circle: http://www.franzlee.org/momoyprotocols001.html
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