They do not look like revolutionaries, the mothers and grandmothers, waitresses and street sweepers huddled around a sewing machine, making gingham slippers and cloth baskets for Christmas sweets. But in a country where decades of machine-run politics snuffed out civic participation, the act of learning to sew represents a radical and controversial awakening.
This sewing circle is a "Bolivarian circle," a building block and bulwark of President Hugo Chavez's social revolution that takes its name from Simon Bolivar, a native son who liberated much of South America from Spanish rule in the early 19th century.
Hoping to strengthen his nascent political organization and marginalize resistant government institutions, Chavez called on supporters earlier this year to create these circles as lobbying groups that would appeal directly to him for help financing community programs. The president, whose fervent populism echoes a distinctly Latin American man-on-horseback style embodied by Bolivar, would award money for almost anything from loan programs to individual medical needs brought to him by the circles.
To a Venezuelan elite that has fallen precipitously from its place of political privilege since Chavez's election three years ago, the circles smack of Cuban-style revolutionary defense committees, designed to ensure fealty to the president's populist agenda. But aside from the poster of guerrilla leader Che Guevara on the wall, ideology rarely enters this room of swinging light bulbs, plastic furniture and scraps of colored cloth strewn on the cement floor.
The circle, known as the Bolivarian Movement of Women, has started job training for poor women and sports programs for neighborhood children, and collected thousands of dollars for pressing community medical needs. A loan program is scheduled to begin within weeks.
All the money has come from Miraflores, the presidential palace, where the goal of thinning out bureaucracy between the president and the people has been viewed by political opponents as evidence of Chavez's autocratic tendencies. Anita Gonzalez, whom colleagues call "the commander" for her single-mindedness in organizing this circle, said calls and letters to Chavez have brought the community more than $20,000 in aid.
"We really don't talk too much about the central government, but more about what is happening here in this place," said Maria Armas, who earns $60 a week sweeping streets as part of a civic workforce organized by the circle. "What we learn here sells."
With his election, Chavez ended a two-party hold on political power that controlled Venezuela's vast oil wealth and distributed those resources among supporters with the help of party-appointed "community leaders." Now the former failed coup leader is trying to establish a "participatory" as opposed to "representative" democracy by sidestepping institutions, passing laws by fiat and using referendums to make dramatic changes.
It has been a ragged, disorganized process. Without an established party organization of his own, the former army lieutenant colonel turned to the military to implement social programs directed at the vast poor majority that elected him. But the new role for the military has faced some resistance within its ranks, particularly as it is being used to advance left-leaning programs in a historically centrist country.
Hence the importance Chavez has placed on the Bolivarian circle. On a recent weekly radio program, Chavez told supporters: "Don't wait until tomorrow. Call your neighbors. Call your friends. Organize a circle and find ways to fill potholes on your street, to assist this government, to reclaim your rights."
The ideal circle numbers between seven and 11 people. Its task is to meet regularly to draft wish lists and lobby for change, using a liaison in Miraflores to help win resources. About 8,000 circles, from fishermen in the northeast to farmers in the west, have been created since May.
"This country has never been accustomed to participation -- for 50 years we had been asleep," said Henry Navas, a burly 49-year-old grandfather and a main organizer of Bolivarian circles in this thin strip of Caribbean coastline called Vargas state. "Now, though, we have reasons to wake up."
Despite the lack of ideological requirements for membership in the circles, Chavez's critics call them another step in the "Cubanization" of Venezuela. "The Chavistas have tried to copy the [Cuban] committees, but actually have only come up with a few well-organized bands of militants," said Anibal Romero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University in the capital, Caracas. "The idea that these circles could multiply and serve as centers of indoctrination and organization of a vast mass movement didn't get off the ground."
Chavez has readily said he looks to Cuba and his friend, President Fidel Castro, for inspiration in remaking Venezuela's education, health and athletic systems. But membership forms for circles do not ask for party affiliation, and require only that members be "Bolivarian." In this context, the term means self-reliant.
Here in Vargas, which sits on the ocean side of a lush coastal range 20 miles north of Caracas, tragedy helped speed the organizing process. In December 1999, as Venezuelans went to the polls to ratify a Chavez-inspired constitution, the string of towns tucked between cliffs and the Caribbean was inundated with mud, rock and water during heavy storms. Thousands of people were buried alive.
Rebuilding Vargas became a revolutionary act in itself, waking up residents of these towns long dependent on weekend tourism to the political and economic challenges ahead. Soon after the floods, Navas led a campaign against the local power company that was planning a rate hike to pay for rebuilding the power system. His neighbors and friends had lost houses, yet were still receiving electric bills and threats that failure to pay would prevent future service. The company backed down.
Dozens of circles started emerging from this new political spirit four months ago, and each for a distinct reason in towns from Catia del Mar to this one, where the most lucrative employment has long been in the nightclubs that attracted tourists from Caracas before the landslides destroyed the beaches.
Venessa Yarce, 20, who with Navas helps run the No Turning Back Social Network, an umbrella group of community organizations, belongs to a circle in the hillside town of La Guaira. The circle works on children's issues -- how to clean up a neglected community park, how to raise money for new playground equipment. Other circles work to improve public transportation routes, win money for bridges and retaining walls, and build new roads.
"This is about community struggle," Yarce said. "But there are still people who will not accept change."
While the movement formally has no ideology, there is a left-leaning feel to it. Posters of Che Guevara, the Argentine doctor who helped lead the Cuban revolution, watch over rooms used by the circles. Yarce, who calls herself "progressive," wears a T-shirt denouncing "Yankee Imperialism" in Colombia.
In the women's circle in Naiguata, however, the only nod toward national politics is a three-hour weekly study session on the "Bolivarian" constitution. "Or we'll talk about violence against women and what can be done about it, drug use in our neighborhoods -- these things," said Gonzalez, the organizer whose father owns the building being used as a classroom and clubhouse.
A few weeks ago the circle traveled to Miraflores, a two-hour ride by car, to personally petition the president for money to buy supplies to build a house for a homeless woman, pay for a prosthetic leg for another woman and fund cataract surgery for a third. Within days, the money was approved.
Outside, on the lazy, sloping streets of Naiguata, women in red baseball caps lean on brooms. They are street sweepers and garbage collectors hired by the town hall with money won by the circle from the central government to provide jobs.
"It's not enough to live on," Peggy Rivero, a 26-year-old mother, said of her $60 weekly pay, "but it certainly helps."