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HR Film Fest Review: Now the People Have Awoken

Review: Now the People Have Awoken

By Natasha Burling

A heated debate followed the screening of a film about Venezuela’s political situation at the Rialto in Newmarket this week. Now the People Have Awoken, shown as part of the Human Rights Film Festival, looks at the changes in Venezuela since President Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998.

Image: Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.

After the film some of the audience was skeptical of the film’s message that health, education and the economy had significantly improved in Venezuela since 1998 and the discussion panel was met with a barrage of questions.

Set during the December 2006 elections, the film mainly presents the views of Chavez supporters, such as Noam Chomsky and Eva Golinger, with just a few comments from opposing groups.

Image: Noam Chomsky

The main message of the movie is that life has improved considerably for the poor since Chavez came to power, with more equal access to education and health, and community-owned enterprises that benefit the lower classes.

Factory workers in the documentary, who had been unemployed before Chavez, now cooperatively own a shoe factory.

In the film, one man said his daughter needed a $12,000 operation and because of Chavez he was able to send her to Cuba under the reciprocal Venezuela-Cuba health agreement. Other interviewees said they had been able to get an education for the first time.

Several audience members asked the panel, which included Auckland University lecturer Dr Kathryn Lehman (Pictured left), why the Venezuelan government was sending people to Cuba for operations or bringing Cuban doctors to Venezuela when the money could be spent on Venezuela’s health system.

An Italian doctor, who practised in Venezuela for 23 years between 1978 and 2001, says it is ludicrous to send people to Cuba for operations when the money could be spent improving hospitals and resources in Venezuela.

Dr Paola Favaretti, who has dual Italian-Venezuelan nationality and lives in Auckland, says colleagues tell her hospital resources are becoming more and more scarce. Even when she was practising in Venezuela there were shortages of medicines and she sometimes had to ask the patients’ families to bring painkillers into the hospital.

Lehman explained that there is a health exchange between Cuba and Venezuela, where Venezuela sells low-priced oil to Cuba and in return Cuba supplies doctors to remote areas. She says after the Soviet Union stopped supplying oil to Cuba the country needed another supplier.

She adds that Cuban doctors are more willing to go into dangerous areas in Venezuela and are setting up community-focused clinics that teach primary health care.

Favaretti says she and her colleagues are in the health sector so their motivation is not political but their priority is the health of the people.

“We have to tell people. We can’t let people think this revolution is alright.”

Mark Weisbrot and Francisco Rodriguez have recently released contradictory studies about whether healthcare has improved in Venezuela.

Favaretti admits that life for the poorest in Venezuela has improved since Chavez but that this comes at a price.

Image: Hugo Chavez speaking at the United Nations general assembly, New York, New York.

She says Venezuela “used to be a tolerant country” and there was not such a divide between supporters of different political groups but that nowadays people are afraid to express their political views.

Her Venezuelan friends say they don’t protest because they will be threatened by a pro-Chavez group like the Bolivarian Circle.

Although Lehman can’t comment on the perceived threat to an individual or group, she does believe there is true freedom of expression in Venezuela. When she was there in December 2006 she noticed that many newspapers freely ran articles criticising the Venezuelan government.

Favaretti says the face of Venezuela has changed but the real situation has not. For example, in the documentary people had been given titles to their land but there was no mention that they still live in unsanitary conditions.

As conveyed in the film, education is now more accessible under Chavez, says Favaretti. Before Chavez, public school teachers were paid badly, which made the quality of education low, so people sent their kids to private schools if they could.

However, she says teachers these days must teach according to socialist ideology.

Lehman acknowledges that Cuba assisted in setting up the Misión Robinson education programmes but says this is because the rate of literacy in Cuba is high so their model is useful.

Favaretti says one change to the constitution that Chavez proposed in the referendum of 2007 was going to make children the responsibility of the government, not the parents.

Although not familiar with that particular proposal, Lehman says it may be a good idea to shift responsibility for children to the state, “If the state is responsible it can’t let children go hungry.”

Favaretti says the film did not address the high level of crime that exists in Venezuela these days. She says her friend got shot and Favaretti herself was threatened with a gun in her car.

“What about your quality of life because you need to go to areas that are not safe?

“Is it worth the risk everyday to be killed?”

The fact that the number of people murdered is not reported shows there is not real freedom of the press, she says. Thirty to sixty people are violently killed in Caracas everyday, she adds.

Favaretti was disappointed people did not pay more attention to the views she gave after the movie.

“At a Human Rights festival (people) should have the patience to listen to my opinion. I am not new to this intolerance.”

Favaretti warns New Zealanders that they need to see both sides of the argument in Venezuela. “Don’t listen to just one protagonist. There is more than one voice.”

Lehman points out that the film did briefly air the views of President Bush, Condoleeza Rice and others but says that the film redresses the imbalance in mainstream media coverage of Venezuela.

“To me that story that we never hear provides a needed balance.”


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