While President Hugo Chavez struggles to revive the battered bolivar, in a hillside slum overlooking his palace, die-hard supporters are talking about getting rid of the Venezuelan currency altogether.
to the 23 de Enero barrio, home to about 100,000 people and something of a
laboratory for Chavez's nationwide socialist experiment. Here you find dogs
named "Comrade Mao", and even a "revolutionary car wash."
are creating a popular bank and are going to issue a communal currency: little
pieces of cardboard," says Salvador Rooselt, a soft-spoken 24-year-old law
student and community leader who often quotes Lenin and Marx.
20 militant groups sometimes described as Chavez's "storm troopers"
run this urban jungle in western Caracas, where hulking concrete buildings
daubed with colorful murals -- one depicting Jesus Christ brandishing an AK-47
rifle -- show off the neighborhood's radical tradition.
are giving capitalism a punch in its social metabolism," said Rooselt, of
the Alexis Vive group, wearing its trademark bandana with the image of
guerrilla icon Ernesto Che Guevara around his neck.
deeply-rooted socialist ideology, absolute territorial control and financing
from the government have allowed Alexis Vive to put into practice some of the ideas
Chavez is struggling to implement in the rest of Venezuela.
stores sell milk and meat from recently nationalized producers at about a 50
percent discount. Residents do voluntary work, kids are encouraged to steer
clear of drugs, and some youths have even joined a pioneer organization modeled
on similar groups in Communist Cuba.
sure President Chavez supports our initiatives and seeks to implement them at a
national level," Rooselt said.
Vive spreads its message via Radio Arsenal, an underground FM station Rooselt
says was inspired by Vladimir Lenin's experience with a political newspaper a
are also turning their hands to urban agriculture and fish farming to feed
locals, and say that the future communal bank will extend micro-credit to
foster economic independence.
being a stronghold of the "chavista" movement with a massive
electoral muscle that has helped the president win votes for more than a
decade, 23 de Enero's radicalism has often proved a political liability for
series of attacks targeting opposition symbols such as the Globovision
television station, and even the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, have led Chavez to
publicly distance himself from these groups in the past -- although some
neighbors think they still take direct orders from "Comandante
Ciccariello-Maher, a social scientist with a PhD from the University of
California, Berkeley who has studied Venezuela's radical movements, calls it a
"tense alliance" between the president and the barrios.
depends on the radical sectors for support, but neither side truly trusts one
another ... If he were to destroy them, he would be destroying his own base as
well," he said.
are the days when local groups proudly displayed their automatic weapons in
front of visiting reporters. Militants from Alexis Vive say their armed
struggle is over.
since the revolutionary process started there haven't been any weapons. We
joined the Bolivarian militias," said Rooselt, referring to a
35,000-strong armed force recently launched by Chavez to defend his socialist
other more belligerent groups within 23 de Enero appear to be still armed to
January, one of the groups released a video to the media showing its members
dressed in military attire and brandishing automatic weapons and a
rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
called on Chavez to clean his government of corrupt "false socialists."
in 23 de Enero remains tight. Rooselt's told Reuters he received a call by cell
phone the moment two reporters were spotted in the neighborhood.
might explain why crime rates here have dropped by 95 percent, according to the
militants, who say they have turned it into one of the safest places in
OF THE REVOLUTION"
in the past as "Little Vietnam," 23 de Enero has a long history of
left-wing radicalism. The neighborhood's name refers to January 23, 1958, the
date on which military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez was toppled.
community, mostly made up of rural workers attracted to the capital by
Venezuela's oil boom, played a key role in the 1989 riots known as the
"Caracazo," which claimed scores of lives when the army shelled
buildings in the area for days.
Vive, for instance, honors community leader Alexis Gonzalez, who was killed by
the police in 2002.
Ciccariello-Maher calls 23 de Enero an example of "alternative
sovereignty" beyond the control of the state.
neighborhood and movements it nurtures represent both the laboratory and
spearhead of the Bolivarian Revolution ... It is in 23 de Enero that the most
radical forces are located, forces which drive the process forward," he said.
government is finding new ways of supporting 23 de Enero. In a plot behind a
local market, neighbors in Che Guevara bandanas are building a state-funded
brick factory equipped with Iranian-technology.
far from there, a group of former paratroopers who joined a failed coup d'etat
by Chavez in 1992 have set up a "revolutionary car wash" next to a
wall displaying a huge picture of the late Colombian guerrilla commander
"Here in 23 de Enero we are committed to take this process to
the very end," said cooperative member Martin Campos, a 38-year-old
retired soldier sporting a yellow baseball cap with a red star. "We are
chavistas. Red, very red."
*Editing by Daniel Wallis and Anthony Boadle