Saturday, May 2, 2009

International Workers Day

In much of the world, the corporatocracy's global assault on labor, employment and immigration hardly make International Workers Day a time for celebration. Instead, across much of the western world, May 1st is marked by strikes, protests and general discontent at the abysmal failures of neoliberalist policies to live up to their promises. In the US, misguided regional trade policies and persistent belief in the American dream have exacerbated the immigration issue and the country continues to witness a steady influx of illegal aliens. With numbers of 12 million strong, these workers have become an integral part of many economic sectors, especially in the South, with the supply of cheap labor they lend to industries like agriculture. Remove them and the economy would collapse even further than it already has. Yesterday in LA, thousands of supporters took to the streets to press for immigration reform, a burning issue that failed to pass Congress during the Bush era. In the midst of violent clashes between riot police and protesters in Turkey, the call went out in Istanbul for an end to fascism and repression and the need to implement socialist policies. The people of Taipei took to the streets to demand a response to soaring unemployment and falling wages. The new global pandemic is not Swine Flu. It is, and it always has been, capitalism's inability to provide the people of the world with the basic necessities of life, dignified employment and happiness.

It seems that only in the socialist South do workers have reason to celebrate. While in attendance for the May 1st celebrations in Cuba a few years back, where I witnessed what was to be Fidel's final infamous 5 hour speech, the people told me that upwards of one million Cubans descend on Plaza de la Revolution, half the population of Havana. In Venezuela, yesterday's Día de los Trabajadores was celebrated by the token march down Avenida Libertador of red-clad Chavez supporters, praising the achievements of their unique socialist revolution. I did not attend, but undoubtedly and in characteristic fashion, it was loud, passionate, a little bit drunken and with a suspicious, hard to define quality of obligation. Yet on the whole, workers, peasants and pretty much everyone except the upper class have ample reasons to celebrate as they've benefited greatly from the recent social reforms. Part of those reforms is the PDVAL program, a food security initiative whereby the state (through PDVSA, the national oil company) provides staple foods to the public at regulated prices. Although plagued by what I've come to understand as trademark Venezuelan, and not merely PSUV inefficiencies, the PDVALs are extremely popular and citizens line up early to get the best choice of the day's harvests. The most recent addition to the PDVAL family is a temporary location in the Bellas Artes district that speciliazes in dairy products. Along with agriculture, domestic dairy production has suffered enormously since the discovery of oil and the industry is marred with persistent neglect. This becomes most evident when surveying the Mision Mercal food stores and the PDVALs, rows of empty shelves with no milk powder in sight. Even conventional supermarkets, selling milk powder at 3 times the price, experience occasional shortages. These conditions, along with the desire to hamper the state's effort to improve food security, are what prompted the biggest food retailers in the country to hoard foodstocks, leading to a series of warehouse inspections, fines and stricter regulations on the processing and sale of staple foods. As trivial as it might seem, the significance of the powdered milk issue cannot be understated, a fact that Chavez himself has attested to. After the failed 2004 referendum attempt, he stated that the loss can be attributed to the state's inability to fill the shelves of Mercals and PDVALs with powdered milk, and had they succeeded in their epic last ditch effort, the vote would have swung in their favor. A friend of ours, who works for an international food wholesaler partially responsible for stocking the Mercals, tells the story with the same suspense and consequence you'd expect from a Vietnam veteran. Diplomats working and sleeping in a cargo airport in Brazil for 2 months, sending plane after plane full of powdered milk back to Caracas at nearly $200 a kilo in air freight. Apparently PDVSA officials were given the word to devote 2 million dollars to filling those sad, empty shelves and bring milk to the homes of Chavez supporters in time for voting day. Beyond the political motivation of this one incident, the government is truly devoted to making Venezuela food secure, but problems and inefficiencies with roots far deeper and older than Chavez' revolution continue to thwart one iniative after the other.

Yesterday milk products were once again at the forefront of politics, only this time linked to expressions of frustration, hatred and ignorance and not signs of goodwill. In a series of events eerily similar to those of the short-lived coup d'etat in april of 2002, there was a last minute change to the route of the opposition march, which was organized in protest of what they consider to be a dictatorial regime. Apparently spurred on by opposition mayor of Libertador, the largest municipality of Caracas, the protestors broke through a police blockade meant to buffer between pro and anti-government supporters, on their way to the National Assembly building. But fortunately, unlike the coup, the worst results of the violent clashes between demonstrators and police forces were some injuries and the senseless destruction of government property and not the loss of human life. The victim: the new PDVAL at Bellas Artes that provides Caraqueños with subsidized dairy products. In the wake of the opposition march, the temporary structure was badly vandalized, with 75% structural damage reported. The walls were torn off, the outside refrigeration units were smashed up and several people were dousing it in gasoline to burn it to the ground until the janitors from inside were able to chase them off with the help of some sympathetic passersby.

In Caracas, everyone is critical of everyone else and nobody wants to accept any of the blame for the violence, corruption and ignorance that rage out of control, making the city notoriously dangerous, inefficient and virtually ungovernable. At times you feel trapped in a massive lawless valley that's slowly sinking further and further into the mountain. If you're angry about your government, put your energy towards addressing one of the problems that stand in the way of an open and sincere dialogue between all parties in the political spectrum. Without even a semblance of constructive dialogue, criticisms become dangerous, ruthless, absurdly unfounded and start manifesting into physical acts of sabotage and violence. Ignorance and education, the overabundance of and lack of respectively, are two of the greatest obstacles standing in the way of a tolerant and more peaceful Venezuelan society, so I implore you, the Caraqueños, the people with whom I've shared a common home for over 6 months, to look within, analyze the nature of your criticisms, try to see the good in everything and please, just let the people have their damn milk!

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