The small farming community of Hato Arriba doesn’t appear on most maps of Venezuela. About three hours drive from the small city of Tocuyo in the western state of Lara, the agricultural settlement is tucked away in the Andes mountains and boasts a population of approximately 500 families. Public transportation to the settlement leaves only once a day from the nearest urban center and has the capacity to accommodate about six people.
Yet, despite its emphatically rural character and its lack of a steady Internet connection, Hato Arriba, like many of the agrarian caserios in this part of Venezuela, is an example of the kind of 21st century socialism that the government of Hugo Chavez has been promoting since 2005.
With one major dirt road that traverses its modest geography, Hato Arriba is home to no less than ten community councils – grassroots organizations of popular democracy created by the Chavez administration to facilitate greater access to political power for the country’s population.
Community councils in Venezuela have the constitutional right to petition the national Executive for development projects and services in order to improve the quality of life for those represented by the neighbourhood organization. It is through the community councils that the inhabitants of Hato Arriba have been able to attain agricultural credits, greater electricity services, literacy programs, a subsidized food market, and a number of new grammar schools.
“Since about seven years ago, one of the advances that we’ve seen from the revolutionary process is the decentralization of power through the formation of community councils. We’re seeing a break with the model where the [urban centers] control development. There is a new kind of horizontalism where every space has its own importance, particularities and necessities”, explained Carlos Bastia, a community leader of farming community.
Currently, a major project of the residents of this hamlet and its neighboring villages has been the consolidation of what is denominated as “the Commune in Construction”, an umbrella organization that attempts to link the different community councils of any given region under a single banner.
In the case of Hato Arriba, the Commune in Construction is attempting to join together with six other nearby settlements in order to amplify residents’ voice, satisfy local needs, and achieve greater autonomy from the bureaucratic structures that can obstruct progressive change at the regional level.
This, according to Bastia, is the final objective of the communes – foster local, democratic self-governance that empowers communities and lessens the role of the state over time.
Breaking the Sound Barrier
Last Sunday, Hato Arriba took a further step towards consolidating its commune when the community celebrated the launch of a new grassroots radio station that that has the capacity to reach all six of the surrounding caserios.
The initiative is part of a community media movement in Venezuela, which over the past ten years has seen a profound democratization of the airwaves.
Sunday’s inauguration in Hato Arriba took place in a local grammar school and was the site of a festive environment that saw the performance of local music groups, traditional dancing, raffles, and the cooking of a community stew known in Venezuela as sancocho.
“For us, it’s a great pleasure to see this radio operational because through it we’re going to be able to communicate and let the people know everything that is happening politically socially and culturally in this area”, said Norkys Dugarte, a community member and spokesperson for Hato Arriba’s community council.
One of the fundamental aspects of the new radio station, as explained by Dugarte, is the emphasis that it places, not only on the construction of the commune, but also on the political and social role that women are playing in the communities.
Yanahir Reyes, a gender activist working in popular education in the caserio, commented on the heightened need for media programming in areas such as Hato Arriba that deals specifically with the issues faced by women and girls. “The beautiful thing about this community is that we’re linking different struggles. All of this has been a process that has taken time and the radio is a tool that is going to help us change paradigms”, Reyes said.
Reyes, who works with mothers and children as part of a Ministry of Education program mentioned that initiatives like the new station have the potential to break with traditional, male-dominated practices and empower women to take a more active role in shaping the politics of their communities.
“The women of this community have been underestimated and have been told that we aren’t capable of putting together a radio station, that we don’t know how to use microphones or a transmitter. We believe that this radio is fundamental for us to be recognized and valued so that people understand that we aren’t these kind of women that appear in magazines or beer commercials”, she asserted.
Although the radio inauguration could be considered a small development in light of the wider revolutionary process taking place in Venezuela, the residents involved in the erection of the new station see the event as another important advancement towards the building of a new ideal for their community.
It is their contribution, or “grain of sand” as is commonly said in Spanish, to a greater vision that sees Venezuela and Latin America moving further away from an externally- imposed development model and closer to the local communities and heritages that make up the essence of the country’s character.