Mar 18, 2013
Chavez appeared in Venezuela’s political life in 1992 after a failed coup d’etat. This was his way of responding to the 1989 massacre of working people who had protested insufferable price increases by the social democratic government. After this coup attempt, Chavez was imprisoned.
In Venezuela, for decades, political life meant alternating between the two parties in power, the right and the social democrats. In the 1990s, the degradation of the political system opened a way for Chavez’s movement. When he came out of prison, he launched a “Bolivarian movement” to take part in elections. By evoking Simon Bolivar, the 19th century leader of Venezuelan independence from Spain, he appealed to the nationalist sentiment of the working classes and sought to rally all those who hoped for change. The discredit of the traditional parties did the rest, and in 1999, Chavez was elected president at the head of a movement still finding its direction.
For fourteen years, the regime established many social programs, which did contribute to reducing inequalities. It was all the more remarkable that Venezuela acted the opposite of what was common throughout the rest of the world – where wages and benefits continually were cut to preserve and enlarge big business profits and the wealth of the privileged class. Even in rich countries, less and less money is devoted to public services, and social programs and social protections are reduced.
Certainly the existence of a sizeable income from oil permitted the Chavez regime to use part of that income to finance his social programs. That’s what the politicians and commentators reproach him for. For these critics, the profits of the multinationals and the local ruling class are more important than social expenditures. In their eyes, Chavez is guilty of rewarding a base of supporters. These same critics have nothing to say when the same is done to benefit the rich!
Those who hated Chavez the most had to admit he got results. In the conservative French newspaper Le Monde, one article said, “The Bolivarian revolution privileged the social to the detriment of the economy.”
At the same time, the newspaper showed how much improvement there had been in the lives of Venezuelans. Between 1998 and 2011, the Gross Domestic Product per person went from $3,889 to $10,731. At the same time, the level of poverty decreased from 49% to 27.4%. An index showing equality versus inequality showed a favorable improvement. And infant mortality was reduced from 20.3 to 12.9 per thousand births.
The Chavez regime also improved education. During his years in power, UNESCO added Venezuela to its list of states without illiteracy.
In 2008, the regime was responsible for raising food consumption by 16.5%, thanks to a program that furnishes basic foods to the population – despite sometimes chaotic distribution.
The health sector benefitted right from the beginning of Chavez’s presidency thanks to aid and know-how of Cuban doctors. Even rich bourgeois people in Latin America, although anti-Castro, prefer to go to Cuba for medical care. Thanks to this aid, the Chavez regime was able to open numerous neighborhood clinics. But the clinics have also lacked medical supplies, and some have now closed. Chavez himself publicly admitted the difficulties. In the same way, with respect to housing, the regime admitted that it only constructed 350,000 units of public housing while the country needs three million.
The opposition continued to denounce Chavez as nothing but a dictator. They ignore the fact that during 14 years in power he organized election after election and even a referendum, which would have driven him out of power if he had lost.
With his power stabilized, Chavez declared himself the partisan of “21st century socialism” and added “socialist” to his party name. But, in practice, while the state took control of the oil industry, it didn’t take away any industry from the possessing classes. Chavez had rather sought, and found, a compromise with them, including with some of those who tried to overthrow him in 2002, like Cisneros, a big owner of the media.
Even if Chavez was able to better the living conditions of the very poor, due to the luck of having big oil supplies and higher world prices, that didn’t prevent the richest Venezuelans and the multinationals from increasing the share they take of the national income.
Finally, these parasites are the ones who truly benefitted from Venezuela’s wealth.