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Jody McIntyre is a writer, poet, political activist and founder of The Equality Movement. He blogs at Life on Wheels.

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Jody McIntyre is a writer, poet, political activist and founder of The Equality Movement. He blogs at Life on Wheels.

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Rolling towards progress

Is it time for a new wheelchair access icon? A group calling itself the Accessible Icon Project proposes a more dynamic version of the International Symbol of Access, in circulation since 1969. The BBC reports that the new icon started as a piece of ‘guerrilla art’ on the campus of Gordon College near Boston, US. Artist Sara Hendron, one of those behind the project, says the new symbol is ‘a metaphor for self-direction and self determination’. accessibleicon.org

Steve A Johnson under a CC Licence

I have always been independently minded, determined to follow the path written for me in life. Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes we fall over... especially if we have quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Even the language of disability is a political nightmare. Is a disability something you ‘have’, ‘suffer from’ or ‘were born with’? Are you ‘different’, ‘special’ or exactly the same as everyone else? In fact, being a disabled person puts a swift end to these seemingly unending dilemmas. You don’t have time to pontificate over how to put your level of mobility into a verbal expression when you are putting all of your effort into brushing your teeth on your own for the first time, or climbing to the top of Machu Picchu in Peru.

We can’t escape who we are. As a child, however, I wasn’t a ‘disabled person’. I was a goalkeeper playing football in the park with my cousins; I was a Manchester United fanatic. In my mind, there was no reason to believe that I couldn’t become the team’s next first-choice goalkeeper. Kneeling down on the grass and diving from side to side to stop the ball, it never occurred to me that the professional goals might be a bit too high.

My cousin Hamish and I took our passion for the game to new heights. We would write out all the results of an imaginary season of top-class football and then act out each game between the two of us. I always came home with grassy knees and another pair of worn-out tracksuit bottoms. We were born exactly three months apart and cared for in the same incubator of the same south London hospital; him for a three-month premature birth and me for the fact that I stopped breathing when I was born. I died in my mother’s arms and I was brought back to life by something greater than all of us.

No such thing as ‘can’t’

‘Do you want to bring your wheelchair in?’ asks Abdul-Maalik, who works at the An-Noor mosque in Acton, west London. ‘We have lots of people with disabilities who come here, including my son. What is it... cerebral palsy? Yeah he has the same thing...’

I have never gone to the doctor in relation to my disability. It isn’t an illness and I don’t feel unwell

I met eight-year-old Qasim a few days later, a bundle of energy and confidence bounding towards me, crawling on his knees across the carpet. The story that he began to tell after an extremely brief introduction continued, without a pause for breath, until his dad finally had to drag him away.

‘Me and my friend were RUNNING down the street and then he got me like this and I said no way and then I started RUNNING again...’ I listen patiently and I can’t stop smiling at the imagination of a boy who cannot yet stand unaided. Of course, we cannot physically run, or jump, or even jog, but in our minds we are doing all of these things. Qasim knows he has a disability, as he quickly explains during his introduction: ‘Yeah, I’ve got cerebral palsy and sometimes I use an electric wheelchair with a stick that you can push to go like this... do you know what an electric wheelchair is?’

‘Yeah I do, actually I’ve got one myself,’ I reply. ‘It’s in the boot of my car, which is parked outside.’

The thought of driving a car brings another glint to Qasim’s eyes and he looks up at his dad, face full of mischief. A series of car noises and pretend driving manoeuvres ensue.

When you are young, you dream about all the things you can do with your life; but when you have a disability people are eager to tell you what you can’t do. My parents were the first to receive the ‘bad news’ that I would be unlikely to walk, and probably wouldn’t do too well with talking, either. Fortunately, like all great tabloid headlines, it wasn’t 100 per cent true. In fact, I’m sure my mum wouldn’t mind if I talked a bit less. Nevertheless, my parents had received the first of many challenges and a warning: you can’t always accept the status quo or the current norms.

In 1994, disabled children weren’t supposed to go to mainstream schools. My parents disagreed, and fought my corner so that I could do just that. It was the year that Sir Nicholas Scott, Minister for Disabled People in John Major’s Conservative government, used his influence to defeat the Civil Rights (Disabled Personal) Bill at its report stage, through procedural means. The government introduced its own Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) one year later, but only after the public outrage which followed Scott’s blocking manoeuvres.

Discrimination knocks

My mother, my younger brother and I had our own version of the school run every morning. My specially adapted green tricycle was made of heavy steel and wouldn’t fit through the narrow garden gate at the back of our house, so every day my mum had to assemble it outside, before getting me on to the seat and strapping my feet into the pedals. Nevertheless, as my mum tells me now, the thought of simply putting me into a wheelchair didn’t cross her mind. My independence was thus encouraged from an early age.

Independent school run: Jody’s mother assembled this heavy steel tricycle every morning outside the house so he could get himself to school. She reflects that using a wheelchair didn’t cross her mind.

On another day, I’m holding my dad’s hand as we get on to the bus, struggling to walk in my own way, taking each step with care and keeping my eyes focused on my feet just like he always told me to do. ‘Why don’t you take your time,’ the driver muttered under his breath, thinking that no-one would hear. But my dad did hear him and minutes later he was trying to wrestle with him through the plastic window by the driver seat. I can only guess that having a disabled child must bring a mixture of joy at the challenges they overcome, anger at the discrimination of other people, and fear that one day they will have to face those prejudices on their own.

The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 was the first piece of government legislation to outlaw discrimination against disabled people. As I got into my early teens, I memorized the name of this Act to use to ward off supposedly well-intentioned people who approached me in train stations or on the street, demanding to know where my parents were and why I was on my own. I would often plan to ask if they knew about paragraph 6 section 3, even if it was only the title that I actually remembered. However, when it was first introduced, the DDA was limited in scope and the duty to treat disabled people equally was subject to a caveat, termed as ‘reasonableness’. The Act took a definition of disability based on the medical model. I have personal experience of the inadequacy of the approach: my application for a university disability grant was rejected after my doctor refused to give a written statement as ‘evidence’. Different people have different ways of doing things but I have never gone to the doctor in relation to my disability. It isn’t an illness and I don’t feel unwell.

In 2013, Turkey officially removed insulting words in reference to people with disabilities, including ‘faulty’, from its laws

The year was not only significant for disabled people living in Britain. In southern Africa, the disability rights movement took a huge stride forward with the election of two women disability leaders to parliament, for the first time in the history of the region. In February, Maria Rantho was sworn in as part of Nelson Mandela’s ANC’s national list of candidates. At the time, six million disabled people formed 12 per cent of South Africa’s population.

‘All along there has not been much said or done to protect the rights of people with disabilities,’ said Maria Rantho, ‘and we needed to be represented by our own people.’ In April, Ronah Moyo followed in Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, as head of the women’s wing of the Zimbabwe Federation of Disabled People. The Global South continued to set the pace for the disabled people’s struggle as the year progressed. The First International Symposium on Issues of Women with Disabilities was convened in Beijing in August, and the first international conference on disability rights was held in December in Havana, Cuba.

‘Helping’ hands

When I was studying at secondary school I began to go to the bus stop on my own, where route number 484 so often plagued my morning journeys. For the first few years I would insist on walking from my house (despite the advice from the ‘health and safety’ brigade at my school) carrying a heavy laptop in my bag and dressed in the compulsory shirt, tie and blazer. Sometimes I fell over, but that was something I had adapted to, with the constant array of bruises and bumps a colourful collage on my knees and shins. I would always bounce straight back to my feet, neither fazed nor daunted. On one occasion, though, my bag was weighing me down and I took a little longer than usual to stand up after losing my balance. It was just outside the pizza shop next to my mum’s house, the main road I walked down every morning and an area busy with commuters. The split-second was more than enough of an invitation for me to be swarmed by passers-by, grabbing my arms and ‘helping’ me up. And then I heard a shout from a person, full of distress, clearly a latecomer to the scene.

‘Oh my gosh, what’s happened to his leg!’

‘Don’t worry,’ said another voice, ‘it was like that already.’

The story still brings a smile to my face.

Taking on transport

I would take the bus to school from just across the road from my house, in later years using an electric wheelchair instead of walking. I use the term ‘take the bus’ in a loose way, as I became completely accustomed to waiting as three consecutive buses drove straight past without stopping for me, or riding the whole two-and-a-half-mile journey on my wheelchair instead. Although it became something I expected, no incident felt less infuriating than another. On the occasions that bus drivers did have the courtesy to stop for someone in a wheelchair, the chaos would continue. The automatic wheelchair ramp would be put out, only to get caught on the kerb, stuck and render the entire vehicle immobile. Or the drivers would tell me that the bus was ‘full’; sometimes this wasn’t true, and sometimes it simply meant that a woman with a pram was standing in the space reserved for wheelchair users. They liked to enforce the rules you see stickered around you on buses, but were less keen on adhering to them themselves.

If I began to speak of my experiences on trains and tubes, I could fill many pages. Maybe an overheard conversation between a station worker and police officer as they physically prevented me from boarding a train to Brighton, where I was going to visit my cousins, will suffice. I was a young teenager at the time and not quite as able to articulate the feelings welling inside me as I would be nowadays.

‘We think he has run away from home,’ said the platform manager.

‘Yeah, I see,’ the policeman replied, ‘we are just checking that now.’

Millennial progress

Maybe I got my passion for travelling from my mum, who called her parents from war-torn Beirut at the age of 18. Or from my dad, who spent the first years of his life growing up in Nigeria. Different countries progress at varying rates when it comes to disability although, it seems, never quickly enough. The year I was born, 1990, China passed a law for disabled people promising supportive measures to ‘alleviate external barriers and ensure the realization of their rights’, as well as guaranteeing the right to education and to work. The beginning of the new millennium continued to produce changes and progress. In Canada, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act was passed, with a view to making all public establishments completely accessible to those with physical and mental disabilities. Just last year the Supreme Court of India declared that a deaf and mute person needn’t have their disability prevent them standing as a witness. In 2013, Turkey officially removed insulting words and phrases in reference to people with disabilities, including ‘faulty’, from over 95 of its laws.

More than laws

I was 15 when the DDA Amendment Act was passed in Britain, extending anti-discrimination protection to private clubs, small employers and land transport, even if my own experiences with the latter suggested that something was still amiss. Legislation will not suffice unless attitudes also change and history would suggest that education is essential for that to happen. The Amendment broadened the definition of disability and introduced a public duty to actively promote equality. It also called for disabled people to be more ‘involved’. But sometimes, we simply have to involve ourselves.

Legislation will not suffice unless attitudes also change

When I finished sixth form, most of my friends were choosing between university and working to save money. The only thing on my mind was to travel and see the world. In 2007, the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was opened for signatures. I had been demanding my rights since I started to speak, but now I was going to take my independence to a new level. To some friends and family members, even those who had seen me learning to balance, learning to take steps, and then taking leaps into the world outside, going to South America for three months, on my own, seemed like an impossible task.

I was determined, however; evidently more determined than those who didn’t want me to go.

Disabled people have two struggles to deal with: the personal struggle of overcoming obstacles or challenges, but also the battle to convince other people that they are able and have the right to do so.

Machu Picchu ascent

‘You weren’t in a wheelchair in the photograph,’ said Franklin, my Peruvian host in Cuzco, when we met for the first time. In a way it was the kind of reaction I preferred. Rather than the whispered comments and sideways glance so prevalent during my childhood, travelling brought me into contact with people genuinely surprised to see a person with my ‘condition’ – there we go, another term for the subject – so far away from home on their own. I was asked if I was Argentinean, Chilean, even Paraguayan, but no-one would ever guess where I was really from, and my disability undoubtedly played a role in that. It was only a week into my three-month journey that I went to Machu Picchu. Ditching my wheelchair at the bottom of a steep set of stairs leading up to the entrance, I slowly began my ascent up the ancient Mayan ruins. I hadn’t eaten or drunk a thing that day and the beating sun had my t-shirt damp with sweat. Every step took a large amount of effort, but I quickly got into a rhythm and had the summit in mind. It was a feeling of liberation when I got there, the fresh, clean air filling my lungs. I felt the coolness of the breeze and admired the beauty of the mountains, clinging to a small victory in the inner struggle we all live with, ‘disabled’ or not.

Nobody is 'normal'

Do comedians have a duty to talk about political issues?

I think every comedian’s artistic journey is to find his or her own voice. Who you are as a comedian reflects who you are as a person, what you think and how you see the world. Good, strong comedy is part of a healthy democracy – it’s where free speech still exists, where the status quo can be challenged and where difficult subjects are discussed.

Have experiences from your early life shaped you as a person?

There’s a real paradox growing up with a disability. On the one hand we’re told ‘everyone’s equal’; on the other we’re burdened with these long scary labels by a medical world that views us as mistakes. I struggled long and hard not to be viewed as a pity object and that was a big factor in me developing a sense of humour. I wanted people to see me as funny and capable. It took me years to rid myself of the deep sense that there was something ‘wrong’ with me, that I was faulty. I found that belief disempowering and it had a very negative effect. Now I think that everyone is different and has things they can and can’t do – and that I’m just me. It was very important for me to realize that nobody is normal, that ‘normality’ is a myth, a made-up idea.

As a kid were you aware of having a disability?

I grew up in London and I was a very happy and cheeky child, largely because my family made me feel loved. I never felt abnormal and I was always playing and performing.

‘Take note, folks: 83 per cent of disabilities are acquired!’

When I went to high school, my life changed dramatically because I felt judged on my physical differences which until then hadn’t been important to me or ‘defined’ me. I became ashamed of myself and very insecure, and I remember not wanting to go out anywhere, turning down party invites and being afraid even to go for a walk because I hated people staring at me. I had to reject the mainstream value system that strips so many of us of our confidence and happiness, and make up my own one. It was a political as well as a personal awakening.

How did you make your way in the comedy world and get to where you are today? If a young, disabled person were aspiring to be a comedian, what advice would you give them?

I never planned to be a comedian. My love was acting so I felt very lucky to land a part in BBC’s ‘Grange Hill’ when I was 14. It was an amazing experience: I did the show for five years before hitting unemployment due to the lack of parts for wobbly girls!

Luckily, my dad, Alex, who’s a writer, wrote me a film script in 1998, and he made my character a comedian. I loved the part but found the idea of doing stand-up utterly terrifying. To my delight (and horror) the script was soon picked up by a film company and, very reluctantly, I joined a comedy workshop – purely for research purposes. I didn’t say a word for six weeks! I was so scared. But somehow my class persuaded me to do a five-minute routine at the end-of-term show and, even though I was petrified, I thought, ‘Wow! This is it! This is what I’m meant to do!’ So it’s all down to my dad, really.

Fighting for your rights in the world’s seventh richest country. People with disabilities took to the streets in Britain for the ‘Hardest Hit’ demonstration against deep cuts to services, in 2011.

Jenny Matthews

When I started out as a comedian 14 years ago, there were hardly any other comics with disabilities, but now we’re seeing a lot more performers with different abilities. In some ways, I think comedy’s the perfect match for performers with disabilities because it can be an advantage to have a unique perspective on life and for the audience to feel curious about you. One of the reasons I fell in love with stand-up was that it made me realize that my disability was actually a bonus, and I’d never felt that before.

My advice to someone with a disability who wants to be a comic would be the same advice I’d give to anyone who wanted to be a comic – get stage-time, keep writing, don’t rush, discover what you want to say and be prepared for a long journey. Stand-up is fantastic but it is all-consuming, so you really need to want to give yourself over to it. Although there may be politics in the comedy industry, your disability isn’t a factor on stage.

In your lifetime, do you think things have got better or worse for disabled people in Britain?

I think media representation is slowly increasing and events like the Paralympics showed that, instead of switching off, mainstream audiences are open to difference. The more disabled people can be recognized as people with talents and emotions and goals, the more ‘normal’ disability will become. Politically, we are faced with the very scary prospect that many of the hard-won rights for disabled people are being eroded by our backward-pointing government. The vital support network that allowed many of those celebrated Paralympians to achieve their goals is being stripped away because of the constant cuts.

A third of disabled people already live in poverty and that figure will rise dramatically when the cuts are fully implemented. Far from saving money, these cuts are an attack on a section of society deemed too vulnerable to fight back.

This is about ideology, not money. Take the Disability Living Allowance reforms. They are costing $1.2 billion to implement, while companies like Atos are being paid $1.5 billion to carry out reassessments, and this is all to reduce a fraud rate that amounts to only $94 million annually. Meanwhile, the real ‘drains on society’ – the bankers, the CEOs who pay no tax, the politicians who fiddle their expenses, the companies who keep all their profits – are left untouched, free to continue lining their pockets. It’s shocking that disabled people have to fight for their basic human rights in the seventh richest country in the world. Unless we all join together, the future for disabled people in Britain looks very bleak. Take note, folks: 83 per cent of disabilities are acquired!

In a recent speech, you said you were ashamed of funding illegal wars that make people disabled in other countries...

The value of human life depends on where you are born. It saddens me that instead of viewing the human race as one community who share this planet, the power élite dehumanizes huge numbers of people who are seen instead as an economic ‘resource’, ripe for exploitation.

You say that in our system of power, ‘we’re made to feel helpless, disempowered’. How do you stay hopeful?

I keep positive by living by my own value system. I don’t think of success in terms of money or possessions or status. To me success is getting up each day, doing something I believe in and having the health to do it. If it’s a sunny day, I can walk in the park and I feel lucky to have that freedom. I was given the confidence to choose a vocation that I love, rather than a ‘sensible’ one. I think that encouraging anyone to pursue happiness is a precious thing and that is what I want to do when I have kids!

I think every day is a gift. We don’t know how long life is going to last so I try to appreciate just being alive. It’s easy to forget that life is temporary but I try to remember that it will be gone one day. That perspective helps me feel very happy to be here.

Francesca Martinez is an award-winning ‘wobbly’ comedian, writer and actress. She is currently working on her first book, What The **** Is Normal?!.

Western silence on Maduro’s victory in Venezuela is hypocritical

Nicolas Maduro supporters
Nicolas Maduro supporters Joka Madruga under a CC Licence
Alberto Garcia lives in the Petare barrio, in the east of Caracas, but was born in Maracaibo, Zulia state. Like thousands of others, he didn’t wait for the election results to be announced before taking to Avenida Urdaneta, the road which runs through the centre of the capital up to Miraflores, the Presidential palace. ‘Chávez is more dangerous now he has died than when he was alive,’ Alberto tells me. ‘He liberated us from the imperialist powers... here, we have democracy!’

Fifteen-year-old Jonayca, too young to vote, is also in the crowds, surrounded by a group of friends from school. ‘We are here for our future,’ he says, ‘we want to defend our country.’

When the results of the Venezuelan Presidential elections were announced late on Sunday night, few were surprised by the name of the winner. Nicolas Maduro had been personally named by Hugo Chávez as the person to vote for if anything happened to him, and the commitment had held strong. Unlike Chávez, however, Maduro failed to capture a landslide victory, as had become the norm in recent Presidential elections. His narrow margin of victory set off a war of rhetoric, continuing the trend of the political campaigns that had preceded the election. While Maduro took to the 23 de Enero barrio to proclaim the continuation of the Bolivarian revolution, an hour later, on a far wealthier side of the city, his electoral opponent Henrique Capriles called a press conference in which he denounced the President-elect and refused to recognize the election results.

Over the last few days, Capriles has spoken a lot about wanting to follow a peaceful route. However, there is an implicit contradiction in calling for peace while refusing to accept the results of a democratic election, and this, unfortunately, is the message his followers have received. On Monday, Capriles called for a cacerolazo that evening, a form of protest consisting of a co-ordinated banging of kitchen pots, first made popular among the opposition to Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970s. The cacerolazo went ahead; I could hear it from where I am staying in the city. Later that evening, Capriles’ supporters attacked the headquarters of Telesur, a news channel broadcast across Latin America. Another group of opposition supporters surrounded the home of Tibisay Lucena, the President of the CNE (the National Electoral Council). Minister of Communication Andres Izarra posted online that some of the protesters were threatening to burn down his father’s house.

Henrique Capriles also called for a demonstration to take place outside the headquarters of the CNE on Wednesday; however, by Tuesday opposition violence had caused seven deaths and over 60 injuries. Maduro said that a firm hand was needed and that the march would not be allowed to go ahead. Capriles later cancelled the march, blaming the deaths on the government, who he said were planning to ‘infiltrate’ his demonstration.

The force of the tide which swept Chávez to victory in October, with more votes than he had ever received before, seemed too powerful to scale. This time around, however, Maduro was over half a million votes down on his predecessor, and Capriles increased his vote by a similar amount to narrow the gap. However, close election results are nothing new in so-called democratic elections. (In Britain, none of the three mainstream parties won a majority the 2010 elections, and so two of them ‘teamed together’ to form a government – as if that had been a hidden option unwittingly voted for by the majority of the British public. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself gained power with only 40 per cent of the vote in 1987.) 

The US and the European Union have as yet failed to recognize Maduro’s victory. On Monday, he was officially sworn in as President by the CNE; still, no recognition from the sacred tongues of the former imperialist powers. And this despite the fact that Venezuela has one of the most open, safe and fair voting systems in the world, with seven individual measures to ensure the security of the vote.

So why, I wonder, the double standards in the case of Venezuela? In Britain, the Guardian newspaper reported that elections in Venezuela ended in ‘turmoil’. Why does a close election result here automatically mean turmoil, but in ‘first-world’ countries simply means the exercise of democracy? Is it because this is a country rich in resources, refusing to follow the dictates of foreign powers? Foreign Minister Elias Jaua called the Venezuelan ambassador to Spain for consultations on Monday after the Spanish government said it would not recognize the ‘implicitly strong and clear’ results of the election. On Monday night, President Maduro took advantage of a press confidence to re-assert the position: ‘Take care, because Venezuela is free... we defeated the King of Spain a long time ago!’

Almost every government in Latin America, the real international community in this part of the world, has recognized the results of the Presidential elections and congratulated the people of the country for yet another successful democratic process. It is time for Henrique Capriles, and his backers abroad, to do the same.

Venezuela election: who will win the trust of the people?

the two election candidates
Nicolás Maduro (left) and Henrique Capriles Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ABr and Wilfredor, under a CC License

Things are heating up in the centre of Caracas. The heat is sweltering and Venezuela’s presidential elections are fast approaching on 14 April. It is hard to find a quiet moment in between the seemingly endless ‘red points’ which hand out posters and information in support of Nicolás Maduro’s election campaign.

However, Henrique Capriles too has his supporters, who are intent on speaking out against what they see as an undemocratic government. In Plaza Candelaria, 18-year-old Yelis, is working handing out Capriles’ leaflets, but she agrees to take a few minutes out to be interviewed.

‘This government isn’t democratic, because they use power and they use the people.  They want to make a revolution and they criticize capitalism, but they are the capitalists. I think that Capriles has better intentions than the government does,’ she tells me.

‘What is your opinion of capitalism?’ I ask.

‘I think capitalism is a good thing and can help provide give people the opportunity to work. This government talks about a revolution based on equality, but equality isn’t the same thing is justice. Because there are some people who work really hard for many hours, and the government want to take their money away and give it to people who don’t work at all.

‘For example, the system of the misiones [Bolivarian missions] needs to change. There is one called Mision Vivienda, which is a government programme that builds houses and gives them to people who have lost their homes or have problems, but it isn’t just that, because if you get an apartment from the Mision, you have to vote for the government! It’s like buying peoples votes. They don’t vote for the government because they like them, but because if they don’t they can’t get a home.’

‘But how does the government know who they are going to vote for?’ I reply.

‘Well, people are scared that they’re going to lose their job or home if they don’t vote for the government. For example, my dad lost his job just because he voted against the government!’

It’s difficult to know how to get to the bottom of such a claim, especially when it is presented without evidence to support it. Despite Yelis’ view that the system of voting doesn’t work, it is votes for Capriles on Sunday that she is campaigning for.

‘I think we need to improve our relations with the US. What happened is that Chavez was always criticizing the ‘Yankee capitalists’, but the government were still buying clothes and everything.

‘In truth, I really think that Capriles is going to win. Maduro doesn’t want to improve the country.’

This overwhelming confidence has been prevalent amongst opposition supporters in the run-up to the elections, not least due to the rhetoric of their presidential candidate. I ask Yelis what has changed since the last election, only six months ago, when Capriles was badly beaten.

‘Well he’s made the same campaign as last time, but this time he’s speaking more to the people’ she explains. ‘In every state he’s visited, Capriles is talking more about people’s problems, with the lights and with jobs, and he’s proposing more solutions.’

In the La Paz Mision Vivienda complex, there are two huge blocks of brand-new apartments with a children’s playground in front. Although progress hasn’t been as quick as hoped in a country with a severe shortage of housing, this week alone has seen hundreds of bungalows being delivered to families from the poorest sections of society in several states. Here, I come across a different set of opinions.

‘If I tell you how we were living before,’ says Paola, a woman in her late forties, ‘you won’t even believe me.’

When I ask how things would change if Capriles were to win the elections, I am met with radiant smiles and a chorus of responses.

‘We’d be back living in the hills,’ says Teresa, ‘where we were before! We are going forward with this process, and Capriles can never win!’

Venezuela: ‘We spend more, in order to gain more’


Tamara brushes her fingers against the strings of her guitar, thoughtfully. I had met her on a trip into Plaza Bolivar, near the Capitolio Metro station in Caracas, where I keep noticing that there are a lot of people using wheelchairs.

‘I don’t know why,’ Tamara replied, ‘but you can see how things have changed. Before, it was much more difficult for disabled people to get around. The Metro was much less expensive, it cost money to get a wheelchair, there was no help. Also, people’s attitudes are changing.’

‘Before’ is a word I keep hearing in Venuzuela. For example, all of the museums and historical sights in the centre of the capital, Caracas, are free to enter, but it wasn’t like that ‘before’. Even one of the parks near Bellas Artes, a beautiful place to walk through, was exclusive ‘before’. The visibility of disabled people in day-to-day life in Caracas is something that I have found especially touching but, again, it wasn’t like that before. ‘It’s because it’s so much easier to get around if you’re in a wheelchair here!’ my younger brother comments.

‘I think it’s really important that you are making these observations, as a person who is coming from outside of Venezuela,’ Tamara continues. ‘Because here, after fourteen years, I think it is easy for us to forget these things. For example, pensions for senior people: there are some who say, yes this is great, but this is my right – it is not from the revolution. OK, you are correct, it is your right, but shall we see where your rights are if the opposition got into power?’

Tamara, like many Venezuelans, has thoughts of the Presidential elections on 14 April on her mind. Voters will need to decide who will replace Hugo Chàvez as president after he died in March 2013. ‘We do feel positive, but it is a completely new step. We need to be alert,’ she tells me.

It is during another trip to Plaza Bolivar when I see Ramon, a blind man, being helped along the street by a member of staff from the local Metro stop. He has accompanied him for quite some distance before stopping and pointing him in the right direction. It was both a surprising and heart-warming sight coming from London, a city where transport staff often believe their task is to hinder rather than help disabled people to travel.

When I approached Ramon to ask him some questions, he wanted to know who I was writing for. Eventually, once he was convinced of my credentials, he concluded: ‘Oh, so you’re with the process!

‘We need to get more disabled people into the government, the National Assembly, the regional governments, so that we are representing ourselves,’ Ramon continued. ‘There are laws defending and promoting our rights, but we should always be striving to ensure that they are properly enforced.’

The deep social changes are described to me as ‘the process’. Governments that came before the election of Hugo Chàvez in 1998 are grouped as ‘the Fourth Republic’. Venezuelans, now living in the Fifth Republic, do not want those days to return.

Solange works in Cacao Venezuela, a hugely popular hot chocolate café sitting on the corner of the Plaza. I wasn’t sure what to expect from our interview but, as with every person I speak to here, she speaks with deep political conviction and well-thought out analysis.

‘I think the hot chocolates are so good simply because of the pure cacao that we use,’ Solange says. ‘I can’t tell you the recipe, because there are other cafés that really want to know. But the problem with the capitalist companies is that they want to make such huge profits and nothing else.

‘We spend more in order to gain more.’

The truth in the hills of Caracas


Jody McIntyre has been inspired by Venezuela’s Mount Avila.

Visible on the horizon from almost any point, Mount Avila looms on the Caracas skyline. It is close to the area I have been staying in for the last month: a giant brother that watches you everywhere you go. It seems to be a source of energy for the city; a point of reference if you ever get lost; something to look up at to forget your troubles.

Ever since travelling to Venezuela, I have wanted to make my way up Avila. Perhaps the appeal is, as the dissident lyricist Ali Primera once sang:

‘La verdad de Venezuela / no se ve en el Country club / la verdad se ve en los cerros / con su gente y su inquietud’

‘The truth of Venezuela / one does not see in the Country club / the truth is seen in the hills / with the people and their unrest’

This particular hill is not home to the barrios of others surrounding Caracas, but it is cherished by caraquenos (people of Caracas) all the same. Once inaccessible to the majority of people because of high prices, and a number of years of closure, the teleferrico, a huge cable car that sweeps over the majestic forest on the Caracas side of the mountain, is now open to all for only a few dollars.

On the way up Mount Avila, in stark contrast to similar attractions in other Latin American countries I have visited (Machu Picchu in Peru comes to mind), it seemed as if we were the only foreigners making the journey.

It was some trip to the top. Behind us, the entire city was laid out; once so intimidating, but now so insignificant compared to Avila. The forest twists and hangs from the face of the mountain, at times far away, but moments later with tree branches brushing against the side of your seat.

At the top of Mount Avila, you are literally standing in the clouds, and patches of white mist floated conspicuously in the air around us. We decided to take one of the covered pick-up trucks that were heading off to the town of Galipan. It was only a short ride, which we spent clinging on to the railings next to our heads and trying to ensure that the wheelchair in the middle of us did not fall either out of the pick-up truck, or onto one of the other passengers.

Once we arrived in Galipan, we went in search of the road less travelled. It did not take us long to discover what we were looking for. Next to a small, deserted building, with planks and bricks from which we fashioned a small table, and another plank of wood which served as a bench, we sat down to take in the views of the valley below.

Later, we walked much further into the hills. I have to pay tribute to my younger brother for pushing my wheelchair up and down the various paths we came across. I am sure he will agree that it was worth it.

Eventually, we arrived at what seemed to be the summit of the route we had taken, finding ourselves outside a school which was closed, presumably for the weekend. I cannot imagine a more perfect place to receive an education. We sat down to read outside for a few hours. I wouldn't have minded if it had been for a few days.

In Venezuela, the political situation continues to develop. The focus has now shifted to regional elections in December, and there are some feelings that the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), which holds the majority of seats in the government, should be doing more to include people in the way their candidates are chosen for various areas. For the opposition, failed Presidential candidate Capriles has chosen to stand for re-election in the state of Miranda.

Politics continues to be a part of people’s lives here in a major way, thanks to a political process that has changed their lives. There is still much to be achieved, and criticisms to be made, but the fact that this internal debate is taking place shows how far Venezuelan democracy and, even more importantly, participation have come.

For now, however, my thoughts are in the mountains.

‘Without the people, I am nothing!’


Queues at a polling station in Venezuela. The presidential election had a turnout of over 80 per cent.

Emotions can be difficult to summarize with words. How does one portray the atmosphere of thousands of grassroots political activists (at least, that is how I would describe Venezuelan voters) flooding into the streets and celebrating, before the election results have even been announced? How does one convey the scene of ordinary people waking up at 3.00am, queuing to vote at polling stations from 4.00am for an election that doesn’t even open for another two hours?

In last Sunday’s Venezuelan presidential election, people queued in the sunshine for hours; they voted in their millions – over 80 per cent of the voting population – and then they celebrated throughout the night. The experience could not be more different from that of those of us in places like Britain, more used to the form of ‘representative’ democracy that we, erm...enjoy?

There are positives and negatives to be taken, from the point of view of those who voted for Hugo Chavez’s successful re-election, although you would have had trouble discerning that from the dancing crowds who pushed into Miraflores, the presidential residence in Caracas, and heard Chavez speak for over an hour from the ‘People’s Balcony’, late on Sunday night.

Chavez won in 22 of the 24 states in Venezuela, and his 8,133,952 votes were more than he has received in previous elections. However, the opposition did manage to close the gap to 11 per cent, far closer than the 26 per cent Chavez won by in 2006. Nevertheless, to win by over 1.5 million votes would, in many other countries, be considered a huge feat, a landslide even, and only in comparison with previous, astounding election results in recent times in Venezuela does the term ‘closer’ seem appropriate.

There is one thing which Sunday’s figures fail to convey, however. The majority of Venezuelan people, the poorest sections of society – single mothers, black people, disabled people (who were helped to the front of voting queues!), young people, indigenous people – feel that there is something to defend here in Venezuela. It is all well and good to take a back seat and dismiss the Bolivarian Revolution as all rhetoric and cult of personality, but there is clearly something more profound taking place.

At every polling station I visited on Sunday morning, long queues twisted and turned their way up streets and around corners as people waited to vote, often for up to two hours. Their vote means something here. Old people and young came out with their little finger stained in purple ink – one of the precautions used to prevent anyone from voting more than once – and held it proudly in the air. Even after voting had closed, some hours after the official end time of 6.00pm due to continuing queues, people’s determination and passion for these elections continued. How could I forget, as we swelled into the grounds of Miraflores amidst near-crushing crowds, struggling just to stay on our feet, the heavily pregnant woman who turned to my younger brother and asked if he needed a hand lifting my wheelchair?

It was during those moments, when the celebration turned into a march and a late-night presidential speech, that I got a sense of the people leading this process. Speaking from the balcony, Hugo Chavez could not have been clearer in his sentiment: ‘Without the people, I am nothing!’

And his words were true. Without the people of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez would never have been restored to power after the 48-hour coup d’état of April 2002. His defeated electoral opponent, Henrique Capriles, actually took part in that coup, but that didn’t stop Chavez from tweeting, the day after his re-election: ‘Believe me! I just had a pleasant phone conversation with Henrique Capriles! I invited him to national unity, to respect our differences…’

Yes, without the Venezuelan people who voted on Sunday to defend their revolution, for socialism, and against imperialism, recent history would be very different.

Slideshow photo: Wilfredor, reproduced under a CC license.

Who is Hugo Chavez Frias?


Hugo Chavez on his surprise visit to Plaza de los Museos. Photo: lubrio, reproduced under a CC license.

Since I arrived in Venezuela a little over a week ago, Hugo Chavez Frias has been a busy person. On my first evening in the capital, Caracas, he was addressing thousands of young people in a sports stadium and boxing with recently returned Olympic athletes. The next day, he addressed a rally of tens of thousands of government supporters in the state of Merida. From there, he went to Tachira, to similarly massive crowds swelling through the streets. On Friday evening, he made a surprise visit to a festival at the Plaza de los Museos, Caracas, where young people were celebrating the launch of the second Venezuelan satellite, named ‘Miranda’, which was built in China by scientists from both countries.

Ask yourself this: in Europe, is there a single political leader who would turn up, without warning and with little security around him, at a festival of young people and be immediately surrounded by passionate supporters? As he made his way through the crowd, there were chants of ‘Uh, Ah, Chavez no se va!’ (Chavez is not going). The next day, that chant continued into the city of Zulia, where tens of thousands rallied once again. According to a report in the British Observer newspaper on Sunday, Chavez is ‘drained and bloated by cancer treatment’, and ‘sometimes has trouble walking.’ You have to wonder if Rory Carroll, the author of the report, is actually talking about the same person. Indeed, you have to wonder if he is living on the same planet.

Chavez didn’t seem to have any difficulty walking onto the stage in Zulia, with an electric guitar hanging across his stomach and pretending to join in with the band that was performing. Appropriately, his speech began with a spontaneous sing-a-long with the crowd, before moving on to the assertion that ‘Venezuela today is independent and free, and we are not a colony of anyone!’

From pacted to participatory democracy

There are accusations that Chavez has built a cult of personality in Venezuela, and it is undeniable that he is a character difficult to avoid. During election campaigns, he is particularly in his element. After all, Chavez has won more democratic elections than any other president in recent years. Since he first came into power, after winning 56 per cent of the vote in 1998, the political culture of the country has been transformed. Millions of poor Venezuelans, excluded from the political system during the preceding decades of ‘pacted democracy’ in which the two mainstream parties shared power, voted for the first time. In the following year, Chavez won a referendum to write a new constitution for the country, and the public submitted proposals for what it would contain. The pocket-sized Bolivarian Constitution is often held up by Chavez during interviews and rallies, and is still sold on street corners today. After the Constitution was passed, again by a democratic election, the President was re-elected for a second time in as many years, this time with 59 per cent of the vote. In 2006, Chavez was re-elected with 62 per cent.

The figures speak for themselves, as do the credentials of Venezuela’s democratic process. Surely, the real question, then, is: what are the root causes of that popularity? Reading the reports of mainstream Western media sources, you would be forgiven for thinking of the Venezuelan masses as a herd of blind sheep unthinkingly following a caudillo-type supremo with slavish devotion. After all, an example of an alternative system that works, a system in which making money is not the prime objective of government policies, truly is a dangerous thing. So, we hear reports of ‘human rights abuses’ in Venezuela, with no specification of what these supposed abuses are, exactly.  We are told of Chavez’s use of Venezuela’s oil wealth to gain electoral support, without further elaboration. Indeed, it may be difficult for people living in a country with such a moribund political system to imagine that any politician could genuinely gain the support of his compatriots. So, let us explore the possibility in a serious way.

Why is it that the majority of the Venezuelan population keeps re-electing Hugo Chavez’s government? Is it because a country once mired in corruption and poverty now has the lowest level of inequality in the whole of the Americas? Is it because, since Chavez came to power, 22 universities have been built – are all completely free for students to attend, and which encourage those from less privileged backgrounds to do so? Is it because people living in the barrios (poorer neighbourhoods) in the hills surrounding Caracas can now take a cable car into the city that has transformed a lengthy journey into a relaxing 10 minutes, and is completely free for anyone to travel on? Is it because the government has built playgrounds in city plazas for young children to play on? Is it because of the government education misiones which have taught elderly women and men to read and write for the first time? Is it because the Bolivarian Constitution, written by the public and passed by a national referendum, enshrines the rights of indigenous people for the first time, or is it because it bans any foreign country from having a military base on Venezuelan soil?

The ‘elusive’ president

Or, as Rory Carroll would like us to think, is Chavez now an ‘ailing, elusive figure’? It seems strange for an elusive figure to spend an important week opening a new factory, giving a lengthy interview on television, travelling up and down the country speaking to many thousands of people and joining young people at a festival in Caracas. But then again, maybe Carroll knows something that I don’t?

In his article, he goes on to suggest that recent polls are leaning either way, but this is a distortion of reality. The average of recent polls puts Chavez’s lead at a double-figure percentage over his opponent, with 10 polls ranging from 13-28 per cent. The only two polls posing the possibility of a Capriles victory put his lead at between 2 and 4 per cent. Again, it is an example of attempts to conceal the reality of the situation.

The fact is, Hugo Chavez is an extremely well-known and popular figure in Venezuela, but it is not because of posters in the street that he has been elected so many times, and is likely to be re-elected again on Sunday. This line of argument only goes to show the prejudice in our view of Venezuelan people’s intellect, and their capacity to develop informed political views. On the contrary, it is Chavez’s ability to connect with ordinary Venezuelans, and the concrete achievements of his government, that will prove the deciding factors.

The title of Rory Carroll’s article described Sunday’s election as a ‘final showdown’.  But, if the voice of Venezuela’s majority is heard, what they view as a revolutionary process may have only just begun.

Slideshow photo: www_ukberri_net, reproduced under a CC license.

Youth rising

‘We are from the slums of London, yeah,’ a young man says to camera, the lower part of his face covered by a scarf, which he pulls up to keep it from falling down. It’s 9 December 2010, and tensions are high in the centre of the city.

Later that day, during student protests against a hike in university tuition fees, I will twice be pulled out of my wheelchair by police officers intent on violence. The second time they did it, it was caught on mobile phone and subsequently beamed to millions of people across the country, thanks to the person who filmed it. I and a group of others were right outside the Houses of Parliament at the time, as the elected (and non-elected) members inside voted to triple fees to £9,000 ($14,200) per year.

egypt
Egypt's youth-led April 6 Movement in Tahrir Square. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in 2011, they played a pivotal role in bringing down Hosni Mubarak. Espen Rasmussen/Panos

But the young man giving the television interview is not a university student. He is still at school, and has more immediate worries about other government cuts to eduation. ‘EMA!’ he half-shouts – the acronym of the now scrapped Education Maintenance Allowance for poorer students aged 16-19. ‘[It’s] the only thing keeping us in college! What’s stopping us from doing drug deals in the streets? Nothing!’

He isn’t particularly eloquent but you can hear the frustration rising from the back of
his throat.

Over the past two years, thousands of young people like him have mobilized over issues as diverse as fuel prices, personal freedom and economic injustice.

There is talk of a new 1968. Could something unique be happening? What is clear is that we are living in a time of revolution and reaction, with young people often taking the lead. In different corners of the globe, they are engaging with politics in new and forceful ways. From the student demonstrations in London, to the Mohammed Bouazizi-inspired uprising against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, to a swell of popular democratic movements across Latin America, young people are pushing the boundaries.

Misguided youth?

Fast forward 18 months from the education march to the wake of the England riots in 2011. Sky News stream their ‘Teen Gang Members Explosive Interview’ online. The reporter speaks to a group of young men who have participated in the London unrest, their identities concealed by hoods and scarves, with just a thin strip left clear for the eyes. He asks what they have taken. One interviewee, who is 16 years old, says he was shopping for his son.

‘I got him clothes, I got him nappies, powder... the whole Johnsons set!’ he says.

We are not born with the impulse to go out and tear apart our own communities

The boy beside him has a more hard-nosed approach to looting. ‘Man [I] got some TVs as well, plasmas, PS3 [PlayStation games console], laptops and stuff, innit.’ He goes on to say that the ‘couple grands’ he is expecting to make from selling the goods would be ‘nice, actually, for not paying nothing!’ Is this the voice of young people today? Or were the youth of England best represented by the students who fought for access to education?

We can say that the actions of the ‘teenage gang’ have no political meaning because they were stealing material goods. But perhaps the £100 billion ($158 billion) spent on advertising to children every year played a part. Could the destructive ‘Teen Gang’ who loot clothes shops and electronics stores also be following the example of their own government, who sent military forces to Iraq, to smash entire cities and loot a whole nation? Or, if we go back further to colonial times, wasn’t that the attitude of the British Empire? The truth is, we are not born with the impulse to go out and tear apart our own communities.

Click to see larger version

A snapshot of the movements and project pushing the boundaries for the next generation.

Occupy Afrobeat

Five months after the England riots, social protest swept through Nigeria when the government chose New Year’s Day 2012 to announce that they were scrapping a $7-billion fuel subsidy. The response, in the form of the Occupy Nigeria movement, was well organized and urgent. By 9 January, a national strike was in place, bringing major cities to a stand-still. Seun Kuti, the son of Fela, joined the marches, and legendary author Chinua Achebe lent his voice to condemn the government’s actions. It was Nigeria’s youth, though, who were on the streets, and who ridiculed government ministers online via Twitter and YouTube. By 16 January, the government announced that fuel prices would be brought back down.

This movement was not as simple as the mainstream media portrayed it. The protest was sparked by an unacceptable hike in the direct cost of living, in a country with 23 per cent youth unemployment. But there was more to it than that. Young people in Nigeria were protesting against the political élite and President Goodluck Jonathan, but they also had a wider critique of the Western-dominated institutions which encourage the privatization and deregulation of economies in the Global South: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or, as Seun Kuti likes to call them, the ‘International Mother F***ers’.

Out with the old guard

Two months later, in Egypt, the January 25th Revolution Coalition refused to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They had played a central role in organizing the mass street demonstrations centred around Tahrir Square, which eventually overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak. Several Egyptian youth groups made up the Coalition, from the Young Muslim Brotherhood to the April 6th Youth Movement.

Representing a broad spectrum of political opinion, the Coalition recognized the need for unity in the face of a far greater enemy. They refused to meet with Clinton for a simple reason. The US government had consistently been an ally of the ousted Mubarak regime. It was not only a repressive government that the Coalition fought against but the international structures that kept them in power.

Senegal's 'Fed Up' movement
Constructive criticism: Senegal's 'Fed Up' movement pushes for improved governance and accountability. Amanda Fortier/OSIWA Communication Unit

‘The Egyptian people are masters of their own land and destiny,’ the Coalition said, ‘and will only accept equal relations of friendship and respect between the people of Egypt and the people of America.’ They demanded that the US issue a formal apology to the Egyptian people.

The January 25th Coalition used the internet to internationalize and spread their struggle to a wider audience, and were specific and articulate in their demands. Among them were calls to scrap the old constitution, release all political prisoners and halt gas exports to Israel (previously sold at a fraction of its value under Mubarak).

In Chile, too, the student movement that exploded into the public arena in 2011 was precise in its demands. Like their Egyptian counterparts, the students have built a sustained political movement in the struggle to dismantle the neoliberal apparatus of a previous generation. The Chilean students were aware that having abstract goals is not enough or, as spokesperson Giorgio Jackson said, they were looking for ‘formal ways to turn social demands into reality’.

Pan-American unity

The wave of progressive movements and governments transforming societies across Latin America provides much inspiration for the Chilean students. In Venezuela, hip-hop artists from the barrios, or less-privileged areas, surrounding Caracas use culture to transform society. Hip-hop group ‘Area 23’ come from the 23 de enero neighbourhood, one of the most militant zones in the capital and traditionally one of the strongest bases of support for the Hugo Chávez government.

‘When Chávez won the election I was 15 years old,’ says rapper Jorney Madriz, in Pablo Navarrete’s film Inside the Revolution, ‘...and to be honest, I didn’t care that Chávez had won. Why? Because Venezuela’s youth, myself included, weren’t at all interested in politics.

‘Area 23 and I show how young people have become interested in finding out about our history and have learned that politics can be a powerful weapon if we use culture to expand these ideas.’

The story of apathetic youth is a myth, and has been proven as such

Area 23 is part of the Hip-Hop Revolución collective, which runs 31 hip-hop schools across the country. The collective has a position of critical support for the government. When Area 23 were invited to perform in front of the President in a televised performance, they were unafraid to deviate from the plan and start rapping about corruption and bureaucracy holding back the revolution.

Whether it is in the barrios of Venezuela, or in the favelas of Brazil, the poorest sections of society are organizing to challenge the abuse of power that affects their everyday lives. Mayra Avellar Neves grew up surrounded by drug gang violence in one of Brazil’s favelas, which the police were intent on ‘pacifying’. At the age of 15, she organized a march of hundreds of children and teenagers to protest against deadly police patrols through the favela during school hours. The police eventually gave in, enabling many children to study again.

Payback

So what connects these movements, what sets them apart? Young people in England may not be facing the same struggle as Egyptians or children in the favelas, but we do live in an unequal society that tells us that capitalism is the only way, and that fills our minds with dreams of material possessions we may never be in a position to acquire. Social protests by youth worldwide connect over unmet expectations, and anger at exclusion or abuse from those in power.

Senegal's 'Fed Up' movement
Fighting fire with finesse: Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo scored a media coup last year when she posed in a peace symbol built from teargas bombs. Vallejo told government that the $100,000 forked out on teargas would have been better spent on education. Roberto Candia/AP Photo

It turns out that the looters in London shared the same concerns as the masked boy protesting against student allowance cuts. ‘This is payback, innit...’ explains one of the south London youths in the Sky News interview. ‘Put back EMA!’ says another interviewee, when asked what the government should do to stop the riots happening again. ‘Help all the single mothers that are struggling, [stop the] uni cuts. Come on! We are doing this to try and survive in this world, and until we get that... it’s not gonna stop.’

We are told that these things cannot happen, and that austerity is the only way forward. The truth is, there are successful alternatives being built right now, and denying their existence does not make them any less real.

The story of apathetic youth is a myth, and has been proven as such.

Let us educate ourselves, as young people with the weight of tomorrow and the joy of the future resting on our shoulders, about what is really happening in the world. Let us be inspired and motivated by the youth of the Global South. Let us open our eyes to a different vision that refuses to accept the economics of austerity and the politics of élitism. Whether in the form of 140-character tweets or the chants of masses in the streets, the voice of young people is destined to be heard.

Jody McIntyre, 22, is a journalist and political activist. He has written for The Independent, Electronic Intifada and Disability Now, among others. His first book, Life on Wheels: Palestine, will be published by Verso in 2012.

Action and Resources

Organizations

International

It's getting hot in here itsgettinghotinhere.org
Youth Climate youthclimate.org
Taking IT Global tigweb.org
Global Youth Coalition on HIV/Aids gyca.org
Restless Development restlessdevelopment.org
Youth Time Movement youth-time.org
Global Poverty Project globalpovertyproject.com

Aotearoa/ New Zealand

New Zealand Youth Mentoring Network youthmentoring.org.nz
Edmund Rice Justice Aotearoa erjustice.org.nz
Muse Collective musemagazine.org.nz

Australia

The Oaktree Foundation theoaktree.org
Australian Youth Affairs Coalition ayac.org.au
Millennium Kids millenniumkids.com.au
Australian Youth Climate Coalition aycc.org.au

Britain

People & Planet peopleandplanet.org
Votes At Sixteen votesat16.org.uk
Buzz off (Liberty) liberty-human-rights.org.uk/campaigns/buzz-off
Livity livity.co.uk
Live Magazine live-magazine.co.uk
Student Hubs studenthubs.org
UK Youth Climate Coalition ukycc.org

Canada

Free the Children freethechildren.com
Assembly of First Nations Youth Council afnyouth.ca

US

Amplify Your Voice amplifyyourvoice.org
Kids Change The World kidschangeamerica.org
Youth Activism Project youthactivismproject.org

Elsewhere

Gaza Youth Breaks Out gazaybo.wordpress.com
Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile fech.cl
Coalition of the Youth Revolution (Egpyt) facebook.com/Coalition.Of.Youth.Revolution/info

Books

Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted its Youth by Shiv Malik, 2010 (Icon Books)
Penny Red: Notes from the New Age of Dissent by Laurie Penny, 2011 (Pluto Press)
Madlands: A Journey To Change The Mind of a Climate Sceptic by Anna Rose, 2011 (Melbourne University Publishing)
Counterpower: Making Change Happen (New Internationalist)
The Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit by Jamie Kelsey-Fry and Anita Dhillon, 2010 (New Internationalist)
Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution by Andrew Boyd with Dave Oswald Mitchell, 2012 (OR Books)

Reports

World Youth Report 2010: The Youth and Climate Change, United Nations, social.un.org/index/WorldYouthReport/2010.aspx

World Youth Report 2012: Youth Employment, United Nations, unworldyouthreport.org

Angry Young Men, Veiled Young Women: Constructing a New Population Threat, The Corner House, 2004 nin.tl/Puit0q

Who is Henrique Capriles Radonski?

election posters in VenezuelaThe presidential elections are a truly national event in Venezuela. There are rallies to attend, public statements and press releases by the candidates, mini-newspapers containing plans for the next six years of government… and everyone has an opinion.

The posters are the easiest to spot. On every street corner, two faces are prevalent: Hugo Chavez, and his main opponent, Capriles Radonski. Chavez, corazon de mi patria. Heart of my country. Capriles, hay un camino. There is a way. Where this way will lead us, exactly, we are not told.

With just two weeks to go until voting takes place, the candidate who tops the polls is difficult to miss. Hugo Chavez is a larger-than-life character, and has become well-known for his statements denouncing, imperialism, capitalism and US foreign policy. The man who famously called George W Bush ‘Mr Danger’ for his murderous policies of invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq looks to be on course for yet another election victory on 7 October, but what about Capriles? The Roundtable of Democratic Unity [MUD] coalition he represents is looking far from united; just two weeks ago, four organizations withdrew their support for the opposition candidate after leaked documents revealed the neoliberal agenda of his economic policies. But what are his main campaign policies, and how has he gone about communicating them to the Venezuelan people? Does he have the potential to cause an upset?

According to articles in mainstream Western media, Capriles is a ‘centre-left progressive’, and indeed, this seems to be the way he is attempting to present himself to voters. Instead of attacking the Misiones (missions) introduced by the Chavez government to tackle healthcare and education, Capriles has recognized the immense popularity they enjoy with the millions of ordinary Venezuelan people who run them at a local level and benefit from them. So Capriles has decided that, if elected, he will keep the Misiones in place.

If only he were telling the truth. On 23 August, an internal MUD document was leaked to the Venezuelan media, revealing his economic plans. The MERCAL Misiones, government-subsidized supermarkets offering families basic foods for a fraction of their usual price, are among the targets; food subsidies would be decreased by 60 per cent over the next three years. The Gran Mision Vivienda, which aims to build two million houses and also funds poorer sections of society to build their own housing, is to be ended. I have been extremely impressed by the fast and efficient Metro service around Caracas, on which, as a disabled person, I can travel for free – as can my brother, as someone helping me. Under Capriles, however, subsidized travel will be taken out of service, and standard prices will be increased by 5 per cent every four months in several cities.

Even before the leaked documents, it may have been difficult for voters to believe claims that he would keep in place Misiones which would never have existed without the actions of the Chavez government he is so intent on attacking. A march of hundreds of thousands which took place on Saturday in the capital, Caracas, and was dubbed ‘Misiones con Chavez’ in support of his re-election bid, seems to be a case in point. Similarly large mobilizations have taken place in the cities of Merida and Trujillo in recent days, attracting numbers that the opposition simply cannot.

Rather than policies, however, it seems to be Chavez’ personality that Capriles really dislikes, so perhaps we should analyze the latter’s own background in order to understand where he is coming from.  In 2002, during the coup which ousted Chavez from power for a grand total of two days, Capriles was serving as mayor of Baruta. On 12 April, the Baruta police arrested the Minister of the Interior, Ramon Rodriguez Chacin. On the same day, Capriles was part of a crowd in Baruta that attacked the Cuban embassy, cutting off water and electricity, destroying vehicles parked outside and refusing to allow the Cuban ambassador to leave. Chavez has often been criticized for his ties with the Cuban government, which has resulted in such ‘atrocities’ as thousands of Cuban doctors providing free healthcare for the poorest sections of Venezuelan society through the Mision Barrio Adentro. Of course, attacking the embassy of any country is illegal under international law, but Capriles refused to accept responsibility, claiming that he helped to prevent further violence. After a lengthy investigation and more than one arrest, he was cleared of all charges under a government amnesty in December 2007.

It doesn’t add up to a record to be proud of. Nevertheless, Capriles is determined to get his message out. Hugo Chavez may have Plan Carabobo, his proposal for the next six years of the Bolivarian revolution, but Capriles has his Plan Venezuela, and he seems unwilling to give up without a fight. Indeed, that is what many are now concerned about: as the April 2002 coup and the oil bosses’ strike in December of that year show, the opposition is not averse to using extra-constitutional methods to achieve its objectives. As an electoral victory for the opposition becomes increasingly unlikely – a recent survey of opinion polls from August and the first week of September gave Chavez an average of 51 per cent support, but Capriles only 35 per cent – there are worries that the opposition may decide to refuse to accept the results of the election.

In a speech delivered in Caracas last Thursday, however, Capriles claimed that he was still confident of his chances.

‘...and we are going to see the victory of Plan Carabo- err... Plan Venezuela!’

It was a slip of the tongue, but perhaps, for once, Capriles was closer to the truth than he would like to admit.

Photo: Finlay McIntyre

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