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Venezuela: bringing information technology to the people. An interview with Ireland Trotman, a facilitator at the Ramon Ismael Ramos Infocentre in Caracas.
Climbing the steep streets of the 23 de Enero barrio in West Caracas, we noticed the newly installed metal tubes, rising up the side of each house in small straight vertical lines in contrast to the irregularities of the mountainside and the self-built dwellings. Piped gas, for cooking. Further up, we walked by a recently built two-storey octagonal building; though its open doorway we saw several people waiting to see a doctor: patients who had no need to worry about the cost of their diagnosis and treatment. The beautifully painted murals that we passed did not boast of these mundane achievements; they celebrated the people's heroes, Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara, and expressed solidarity with people around the world fighting against US imperialism.
The mid-day January sun was hot and bright, and it was a relief to enter the cool air-conditioned atmosphere of the infocentre. A dark-skinned young woman with an unusual name introduced herself: "I am Ireland Trotman. I am a facilitator at this infocentre, which is called the Ramon Ismael Ramos Infocentre, here in La Cañada." As my eyes adjusted, I saw rows of desks with flat computer screens. Two spacious rooms, with 74 new computers, and an office for the facilitators.
You have internet access, so you can check the facts yourself. Less than 20% of the world's population use computers and the internet. Of those who do, most live in Europe, North America and Japan. But here in the La Cañada district of the 23 de Enero barrio, anybody who wants to can learn how to use a computer, and can access the web. Ireland explained how this came about:
"This was a proposal sent to the Ministry of Science and Technology by the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar [community association]. Before in this place, there was a parking lot. The proposal was submitted so that we could have a centre built here where children, youngsters, adults and the entire community would have access to information and communication technology.
"This was a rather hard job, because the Ministry itself doesn’t build the facility. It just assigns the equipment and material, and the specifications of the building; the community is responsible for the designation of the team and the personnel who will then build it.
"The Ministry of Science and Technology proposed that the Coordinadora had to erect a building in which to place the machines. So instructions were given to the men and, on behalf of the association, in one weekend they built the walls, ok? The walls and the floor, so that the Coordinadora Simon Bolivar could pass for the second inspection. Why? So that the Ministry can send engineers, send social workers to assess the impact it would have to put up an infocentre. They raised the infrastructure, they went to the Ministry, confirmed that it had been put up, they passed the inspection."
Who uses this infocentre? "Everybody from the community uses it. Both adults and children. Children come to do their school homework and investigate a bit further. Similarly, people at the university and at postgraduate level come and do their university work and these types of things. We have over here what we call the PNAT, the Plan Nacional de Alfabetizacion Tecnologica [National technological literacy plan]. It was created specifically in order to allow those kinds of people who never had contact with a computer to learn to use the technology."
How many people use the centre? "Until today? Look: there are 200 people who have completed the course so far, registered and with certificates handed in to them. We still are dealing with the second bunch which is about 100 people. Also, some 100 to150 people each day come and use the internet for whichever purpose, not including those who come for the course."
Is it free to use the infocentre, with no payment involved? "Exactly. Totally gratis." How much time can each person spend using the equipment here? "Whatever is needed." And the effect on the lives of the people as a result of the creation of this centre? "Quite positive. Super-positive." Ireland Trotman gave two examples: "A lady who [previously] didn’t have the slightest knowledge of computers and she was very satisfied, she sends me e-mails every day, she can attach files to an e-mail. Besides this, the first course that we did in this infocentre included a gentleman of 80 years. And he is also doing a course of personal development, of how to operate a computer."
The equipment at the Ramon Ismail Ramos infocentre is first class. We switched on one of the machines, and the Linux software sprang into action immediately. Using the high-speed broadband connection, we checked for news from home.
But this is much more than just a story of human interest and successful local endeavour. With the involvement of the communities, the government is working to enable every Venezuelan to be able to have access to computers and the internet. As Ms Trotman told us: "Right now we have 500 [infocentres], and to be honest at the end of this year we want to achieve over 1,000 infocentres nationwide. And this is one of the biggest- why? For the capacity and the number of machines. We have 74 computers. But there should be some in the entire national territory. Even if they aren’t so big, even if there are only 10 computers, 20 computers, 15 computers, it’s important that all the communities get access. For example, in La Cañada we have five infocentres in this area. Down there there is an infocentre, up there in zone E there is one, in every zone there is one.
"We want to reach the most remote areas. We have what we call the the infomovil [mobile infocentres], including the infolancha [boats], and the infocampamentos- these are camps which are set up so that the indigenous communities have access to the technology." Following an inspection, the people in the area are informed in advance that the infomovil will arrive, to stay for a week, two weeks, one month, three months, however long it takes. "Besides the IT workshops, we also do what we call social work in the infocentres. We organize activities together with the local community and do other specific workshops together with other organizations, and we can provide the space to an organization which might need to have a meeting."
Your house is here in the barrio? "Yes, I’ve lived here for 32 years. We work for the ministry but we also members of this community. The ministry seeks applications from the young people who want to do the work, and depending on the interview, it is decided whether they are selected or not. All those who work here [at the infocentre] live in the neighbourhood. They don’t send us to another zone, precisely in order to maintain this closeness and to get us involved with the community, in order to have this sense of belonging."
Apart from the infocentres, are the changes taking place in Venezuela changes for the better? "Yes, better in the sense that we now have a greater sense of belonging. We have a different political consciousness. We now know that we don’t only have duties, but we also have rights. Before your rights were limited to seeing things, accepting things and shutting up. Now you can have your own point of view, you have the right to participate, to be listened to and that your opinion be respected. Which I believe is the most important thing."
Translation by Franco Munini and Ariadna Petri.