Letter From Venezuela: The Land of Chavismo
As Venezuelans prepare to go to the polls December 3, expectations are that President Hugo Chávez will easily win re-election, thanks to his wide base of support among the country's poor and marginalized majority. In this election, however, people will be voting not just on hopes and expectations but rather on the proven track record of Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" and its gains in alleviating poverty.
An innovative series of social programs known as misiones, or missions--set up to parallel ineffective and often exclusionary government agencies or services, and largely funded through oil sales, which account for 47 percent of government revenue and 80 percent of exports--has delivered concrete benefits to Venezuela's poor. As one example, roughly 3 million Venezuelans have enrolled in one of the four free educational missions--basic adult literacy, primary school, high school equivalency and university--since the programs began in 2003. Recently, in one adult literacy class, the pride of the students was palpable as one after another went to the chalkboard to transcribe--albeit with a few errors--short sentences that their facilitator read aloud. One woman in her late 60s told me after class, "This is the first time in my life when Venezuela has had a government dedicated to inclusion, not exclusion."
A mission that brings doctors to live in poor neighborhoods, towns and villages to provide free, easily accessible healthcare is so popular that in 2004 alone it logged more visits than the entire public and private healthcare systems combined over the previous five years. There is a job-training mission, and a mission that provides food subsidies and soup kitchens. These and the other missions offer much-needed services and dramatically increase the quality of life for millions of Venezuelans, often in ways that are not easily quantifiable in commonly reported poverty indicators.
Even in the statistics, however, changes are evident. According to Venezuela's most recent census, the number of households living in poverty has dropped from 42.8 percent in 1999, when Chávez took office, to 33.9 percent in early 2006. Households living in extreme poverty dropped from 17.1 percent to 10.6 percent during the same period. The poorest quintile of the population has seen its consumption power more than double. Official unemployment has been cut by more than half, to around 10 percent, although most jobs are either in the public sector or in the "informal" sector.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, says that while poverty statistics tend to follow overall economic growth (and Venezuela's economy has been growing at record rates as global energy prices have soared), the improvements are nonetheless remarkable. "The Chávez government has only had three years of stability and control over the oil industry," he says. "In that time they have dramatically increased access to healthcare and education.... I don't know of anywhere else in the hemisphere that has made these kinds of gains."
There is ample room to be critical of President Chávez and his Administration. Most English-language news reports demonize his government, focusing on the continuing culture of corruption, the fear of centralization of power, high crime rates, and close ties with Cuba and Iran. But the missions and Chávez's deeply charismatic style of government have mobilized historically marginalized sectors of society into a powerful political base. If Chávez wins the December election, it will be the third time in less than eight years that his mandate has been confirmed in internationally observed elections. "Under Chávez we have gotten a taste of what it is like to run the country, to have access to social, political and educational opportunities," says Héctor González, who grew up with six siblings high in the hills above Caracas in a dangerous, impoverished barrio called La Vega. "That feeling of empowerment is not something people in the barrios will give up easily."
Chávez's accomplishments have come even as his political opposition has remained committed to his ouster--often through extra-constitutional means. After failing to take the Chávez administration seriously in its initial years, during which "Chavismo" became the only game in town and the Chávez government consolidated control of the country, the opposition pulled off a short-lived coup in 2002, orchestrated a devastating sixty-two-day bosses' strike that paralyzed the oil industry in 2002-03 and instigated an unsuccessful recall referendum to try to force Chávez from office halfway through his term in 2004. Chavistas see these efforts as little more than the machinations of a rich white elite that suddenly found itself powerless for the first time since the Spanish settled the territory in 1522.
And today, the success of Chávez's antipoverty missions is such that even his strongest opponent, Governor Manuel Rosales, promises not to do away with them if elected--a hard-to-imagine scenario, given Rosales's commitment to orthodox, pro-business economic policies and his insistence that these policies will insure that "capital returns" to Venezuela. But Rosales's campaign promise to keep the missions is itself a clear example of how far to the left the past eight years of Chavismo have shifted the Venezuelan political spectrum.
Rosales, who has the strongest track record and most experience of the prospective opposition candidates, was chosen behind closed doors as the challengers' consensus candidate. He is one of only two governors in Venezuela who are not from any of the many parties in the pro-Chávez ruling coalition. He supported the 2002 coup and was filmed embracing the coup president, Pedro Carmona, shortly before Carmona issued the decree that dissolved the Supreme Court and the National Assembly, changed the name of the country and empowered himself to fire any elected official. When asked why he backed Carmona, Rosales responded, "One makes mistakes in life, but what is definitely important is when one makes a decision like that, in the midst of confusion, that it be made in good faith."