After four decades of repressive political rule, the legacy of Chavez’s government in terms of huge socio-economic benefits to the majority of Venezuelans are remarkable. The forthcoming national elections will decide whether this legacy is upheld and consolidated or defeated by an oligarchic elite aligned to the interests of the US.
On 5 March 2013, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, leader of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and one of the outstanding leaders of Latin America, lost a two-year battle with cancer and passed away. It is no exaggeration to say that Venezuela, Latin America and the world will not be the same without him. His country, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Third World and progressive people all over the world have suffered the loss of one of the best champions for social justice, sovereignty, a fairer world order, and, specially, standing up to the United States.
MEDIA DEMONISATION OF CHAVEZ
Media hacks went immediately into action and, as if responding to a single high command, wrote tendentious and negative pieces to register the sad event, aiming to demean the achievements brought about during Chavez’s 14 years as president of Bolivarian Venezuela. Some, as Phil Gunson, even go as far as blaming Chavez himself for the April 2002 coup: ‘…it was his attempt, in early 2002, to impose party control over the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, that sparked the revolt that came close to ousting him’ (‘Hugo Chavez obituary,’ The Guardian 5 March 2013). Gunson, with Eurocentric contempt, dismisses Chavez’s ‘socialism of the 21 century’ as ‘a vaguely defined hotchpotch of ideas filched from a variety of sources, whose only consistent ingredient was an ever greater concentration of power in the hands of one man.’ Gunson’s groundless claim of authoritarianism against Chavez has been recycled and reheated ad nauseum by media pundits since 1998. And, of course, Gunson is oblivious to the fact that ‘Bolivarian socialism’ has been embraced by millions in Venezuela and Latin America, producing radical government after radical government in the region. Even dead, media pundits find ways of blaming Chavez. Benedict Mander, for instance, on 2 April 2013 in the Financial Times (FT) wrote: ‘And this year, from beyond the grave, the socialist leader, who died last month of cancer, is thwarting Mr Capriles’s second bid for the Venezuela presidency at the April 14 elections.’
Negative articles abut the president Chavez’s death were written in the FT, the BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Evening Standard, and, of course, The Economist. The Economist (‘Venezuela after Chavez,’ 5 March, 2013) in an irresistible manifestation of Olympian condescendence stated: ‘Mr Chavez’s supreme political achievement was that many ordinary Venezuelans credited him with the handouts and did not blame him for the blemishes.’ One can even hear what such ‘pundit’ is really thinking: ‘These dark-skinned Venezuelan paupers are not discerning and keep voting the wrong way’. This contempt is confirmed when we read the piece’s conclusion: ‘A majority of Venezuelans may eventually come to see that Mr Chavez squandered an extraordinary opportunity for his country […] But this lesson will come the hard way, and there is no guarantee that it will be learned.’ (The Economist, ‘Venezuela after Chavez,’ 5 March, 2013).
This brings us straight into the central issue about Venezuela after Chavez. What is president Chavez’s legacy? Unfortunately, thanks to the media’s handy work, millions of decent and innocent people in Western Europe and the US are convinced not only that Venezuela under Chavez was a dictatorship (or a dictatorship in the making), but also that his policies are an unmitigated economic disaster. Thus, for example, ‘serious’ BBC documentaries such as Oil Politics and Hugo Chavez (18 February 2012) in which journalist James Robbens, commenting on Metro-Cable, a high-tech transport system which connects Caracas’s shanty towns with the city’s downtown, says: ‘There is no doubting that this is a technological triumph of a series of interconnecting cable cars which bring some of the poorest in Venezuela much closer to the wealth of the capital, but you have to ask whether is also an extravagant showcase for Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution,’ which despite its tendentious nature is a reasonable point. But against all physical evidence to the contrary (he filmed the documentary in Venezuela where all the infrastructure are visible to the naked eye) Robbens goes on to affirm, ‘It seems in some ways to conceal the fact that so little else has gone on in the country, so little of Venezuela’s oil has been spent on similar infrastructure projects that are desperately needed to breach the gap between the richest and the poorest in this society.’ Robbens’ depiction is utterly false, as we will proceed to demonstrate in the next section. The list below is a very small sample of the infrastructure works already completed or under construction.
The above list disproves media arguments that President Chavez left a ‘rotten legacy’ (title of full-of-venom 9 March, 2013 The Economist article). In fact, thanks to President Chavez, Venezuela in 2013 is a nation on its way up the international ladder as an example of what can be done when the country’s wealth is used to benefit its population. The Economic Commission for Latin America has stated that Venezuela is the least unequal nation in Latin America and the one with the smallest gender inequality in the region. Women have benefited the most.
VENEZUELA BEFORE CHAVEZ
In 1998, when Hugo Chavez was first elected, Venezuela was in the midst of a profound crisis. Its political class was so corrupt that its traditional political parties (ADECO and COPEI), that had ruled Venezuela unimpeded since 1958, could not muster enough votes, not even as a coalition, to elect a president. One of its last presidents, Carlos Andres Perez, was impeached in March 1993 for the embezzlement of US$250 million. Corruption had spread its gangrenous influence over the whole body politic: parliament, the civil service, the judiciary, state-owned companies, political parties, universities, even some opposition parties were co-opted into the whirlwind of venality funded with the country’s oil revenues. Billions of dollars had simply vanished through the myriad labyrinth of connections that suffused the whole of the Venezuelan intricate and complex web of informal arrangements. President’s mistresses openly held more public influence than elected representatives and on some issues, even more than the president himself. The ruling oligarchy lived off the country’s oil revenues which it siphoned off in large quantities, whilst simultaneously busy itself with preparing the conditions for the creeping privatization of the oil industry mainly to the benefit of US multinational companies. Poverty, misery, squalor, social exclusion, repression, disease, high infant mortality, illiteracy, school desertion, youth delinquency and such like, were rife in pre-Chavez era Venezuela. Under the old regime Venezuelans standards of living went systematically and steadily down for over 25 consecutive years.
DECADES OF REPRESSIVE POLITICAL RULE
The cumulative effects of 40 years of oligarchical rule turned explosive when in 1989 president Carlos Andres Perez implemented an IMF-dictated austerity package that, typically, sought to penalize the poor in order to pay for collapsing oil revenues and gross economic mismanagement. It included increases in oil fuels leading to a rise in public transport fares, and drastic hikes in the prices of bread, milk, pasta and other subsidized foods. On 27 February 1989, the country exploded, especially in Caracas and 17 other urban centres in Venezuela, into food riots that lasted a week during which people spontaneously looted supermarkets and food stores. There were violent clashes with the police. On 28 February Perez declared martial law, suspended many constitutional freedoms, imposed a curfew from 6am to 6pm and unleashed the troops on the people. For about three days army units, on military vehicles went into the barrios and fired indiscriminately thus leading to the butchering of up to 3,000 people.
The ‘caracazo’ name with which this bloody episode has gone down in Venezuela’s history, broke the back of the old regime. The emerging of something new was unavoidable, in fact, desperately urgent, but the old oligarchic class was utterly incapable of coming up with any solution of any kind whatsoever. Such necessity produced the Hugo Chavez phenomenon.
The old regime led a moribund existence until 1998, when Hugo Chavez was swept to power in the wake of a meteoric rise of his leadership and newly founded Bolivarian movement, inaugurating a government committed to the re-foundation of the nation from top to bottom. After 14 years of immensely progressive policies, Hugo Chavez’s legacy leaves a country where illiteracy has been eradicated; schooling has more than doubled; free health care is available to 24 million Venezuelans thanks to his ‘Barrio Adentro’ programme; over 5 million hectares of cultivable land have been redistributed to about 100,000 peasant families; poverty has been more than halved, extreme poverty has declined to less than 7 percent; women have massively benefited from the government’s social programmes, including a Bank for Women that issues low interest loans to women to set up cooperatives and small business (in a decade the Bank has issued over 138,000 loans benefiting over 300,00 families); unemployment has dropped to about 6 percent; hundreds of thousands of new houses have been built for the poor; indigenous people have been granted special rights and their cultural identity is both respected and promoted as matter of constitutional principle.
FURTHER SUCCESSESS IN THE SOCIAL SPHERE
Venezuela has now the highest minimum wage in Latin America; the number of pensioners, thanks to the vigorous policies of inclusion of the Bolivarian government, increased from about 200,000 in 1998 to nearly 3 million (the law dictates that no pensioner can earn less than the minimum wage); over 4 million children get free meals at schools; 96 percent of the population have access to clean drinking water up from 80 percent in 1998; more than 250,000 children from deprived backgrounds attend music schools to learn to play musical instruments in the world-acclaimed programme ‘El Sistema’; since 1998 under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, over 95 million books have been printed and distributed free of charge among the population (this includes free copies of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables,’ ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes, and works by Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, among many others); thanks to the re-nationalization of telecommunications (CANTV) since 1998 landline phone subscriptions have increased by 280 percent, mobile phones by 1,451 percent, TV subscriptions by 412 percent, and internet users by 3,090 percent ; with the exception of the recent world recession period (2008-2010) Venezuela has grown steadily since 2003, year when the Bolivarian government wrested constitutional control over the oil state industry from the oligarchy (in 2012 Venezuela rate of growth was 5.8 percent); since 1998 Venezuela’s GDP has more than quadrupled going from US$91 bn to about US$400 bn in 2012; Venezuela has probably the most progressive Labour Law in the world which was drafted with 20,000 submissions from trade unions (the new law includes a 40 hour working week, gives right to social security to millions of people once excluded as self-employed, it outlaws outsourcing and increases prenatal paid leave from 12 to 20 weeks); racism, discrimination, and bigotry are illegal and are vigorously combatted institutionally; and there is special Law for Disabled People with a firm commitment to equality, that ensures their access to social security and that 5 percent of all jobs go to disabled people. Inclusion is Bolivarianism’s driving force.
RACISM OF OLIGARHIC ELITE
Racism has been a strong feature of oligarchy-led Venezuela and thus Afro-descendants in Venezuela have for long been subjected to racist discrimination. This is being vigorously opposed under the Bolivarian administration that has done more than any other government to counteract it by, for example, celebrating Venezuela’s African ancestry. The 1999 Bolivarian Constitution prohibits any form of racism, a Law Against Racial Discrimination (2011) has been promulgated and in March 2012 a new National Institute Against Racism was established. Furthermore, 10 May is now celebrated as African Descendant Day so that the country’s African heritage is properly registered and recognized. There is a Presidential Commission within the Ministry of Education charged with the task to tackle racism in education and ensure that education reflects the nations’ multicultural character. And in 2011 the Census, for the first time, at the request of organizations representing Afro-Venezuelans, allowed individuals to identify themselves as being of African descent. Jose Leonardo Chirino, an African slave who led a rebellion at the end of the 18th century to establish a republic and abolish slavery, is today revered, and this event is taught positively at schools. The airport of Coro has been named after him and his imposing, rebellious image is in the 5 Bolivar note (there are newly erected statues of Chirino in many places). On one occasion Chavez said: ‘Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my mouth, because of my curly hair. And I’m so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it’s African.’
Chavez persistently called on Venezuelans to recognize the country’s African ancestry and embarked on a vigorous policy of establishing relations with African countries (Venezuela has establish relations and embassies in 27 African nations). Venezuela has been a sturdy promoter of ALBA-Africa summits and of UNASUR-Africa summits.
The death of President Chavez led, by constitutional provision (Art.233 of the Bolivarian Constitution) to the inauguration of Nicolas Maduro, Executive Vice-President, as Acting President, who, also by constitutional provision, instructed the National Electoral Authority (CNE) to organize a national presidential election. This will be held on 14 April 2013. Though there are seven candidates, the main contenders are Nicolas Maduro, for the chavista camp, and Henrique Capriles, right wing candidate of the oligarchy who was already defeated by a landslide by Hugo Chavez at the 7 October 2012 presidential election.
The opposition faces an uphill struggle at the coming election. Not only Capriles was decisively defeated by Hugo Chavez at the October presidential elections but at the 16 December 2012 there were national elections for governors, with chavista candidates winning 20 out of 23 governorships, with the right wing opposition losing 5 out of the 8 governorships they used to hold. Furthermore, on 16 December 2012, there were simultaneously elections for local parliamentary elections, with chavista candidates winning in 22 out of 23.
US LOATHING THREATENS US CONTROL OF REGION
The United States profoundly dislikes both, Chavez’s assertion of Venezuela’s sovereign control over his country’s oil but even more so the fact that he uses it to enhance other countries’ independence vis-a-vis Uncle Sam in the region. Though the whole region is moving away from the US, there is no doubting that Chavez sought to accelerate this as much as possible. He was assisted by the fact that the US offers Latin America almost nothing, except military bases. The Pentagon has already expressed geopolitical concern about the main oil world supplies being located in Latin America under the control of governments that do not have the interests of the US at heart (Venezuela has the largest certified deposits of oil in the world, larger than Saudi Arabia). The US finds it intolerable that PDVSA is used as a ‘piggy bank to fund the programs and policies associated with his nebulously defined ‘21st Century Socialism experiment.’ The US and oil multinational companies deeply resent the de facto renationalization of Venezuela’s oil carried out under Chavez, that old contracts were renegotiated (a number of foreign companies were booted out) and foreign investors are required to form partnerships with PDVSA (the state company will hold 60 percent ownership, but the foreign company owning the reminding 40 percent will still have to fund 100 percent of the investment). Whatever the foreign company made would be subject to a 50 percent tax rate and a 33 percent royalty (tax) and investors must agree that any dispute that may arise in the future concerning their ownership with the government will be heard by Venezuelan courts, not international arbitration courts.
Oil multinational officious spokespersons argue that with these policies, even after Chavez’s death, Venezuela will be unable to attract foreign investment of the right kind (companies like ConocoPhillips and Exxon, they suggest), but this, they say, will require ‘some serious changes to its ownership and tax laws.’ However, they recognize that the “political apparatus Chavez has set up seems fully entrenched. It would probably take a full-fledged revolution for it to be wiped out at this point.’ Therefore, they go on, ‘when Venezuelans go to the polls [on 14 April"> to choose their new leader, they would be wise to choose someone who knows how to eat a big helping of humble pie.’ They are clearly not thinking of Nicolas Maduro, confirming the chavistas charge that Capriles is the empire’s candidate.
SUPPORT FOR THE VENEZUELAN RIGHT WING IN THE US
Faced again with certain defeat at the coming presidential election, sections of the right wing opposition in collusion with high officers of the US State Dept. are planning to either withdraw Capriles’ candidacy or use any lame excuse not to recognize the results. The right wing media in Venezuela has intensified attacks on the credibility of the CNE in order to create the conditions not to recognize the results that they know will be adverse to them. Worse still, Roberta Jacobson, US Assistant Secretary for Hemispheric Affairs, recently stated that she found a ‘little difficult’ for free and fair elections to take place in Venezuela. She provided no evidence whatsoever to substantiate such serious allegation. Such statements only encourage Venezuela’s right wing opposition to intensify their plans to trample upon the democratic rights of Venezuela’s citizens. Acting President Maduro has publicly denounced sections of the right wing opposition of trying to contact military officers with the aim to try a coup. Venezuela’s right did carry out a short-lived coup against President Chavez precisely in April, 11 years ago, but then mass mobilization of the people restored him to power on 13-14 April 2002. With regards to the quality of the electoral process, Jimmy Carter has said repeatedly that Venezuela has the best electoral system in the world. And Venezuela has certainly the most observed elections in the world.
The intense hatred of Venezuela’s oligarchy for the Bolivarian government and especially for Chavez derives from the fact that he recovered for the nation the oil revenues that under the old regime were the source of their parasitic life and privileges. They waged a coup in 2002 and nearly destroyed the country’s economy when they organized a two-month oil lock-out in 2003. The prevailing view amongst the oligarchy is that the defeat of the hugely popular Bolivarian government can only be achieved through undemocratic means and with the help of their traditional ally, the United States.
Respect the will of the Venezuelan people! Oppose the right’s plans of destabilization! NO to US intervention!
1. A world media campaign of demonization against the Bolivarian government of President Chavez has been going on almost from the moment he was elected in 1998; the negative depiction of Venezuela is carried out by the use of systematic misrepresentation, distortions, out of context negative ‘narratives’, and straight falsifications (infamously, The Economist editorial article of 16 July, 2009, falsely stated that ‘Venezuelan troops helped quell a rebellion centred on the airport at Santa Cruz in the east in 2007’ (http://www.economist.com/node/14031312). The false claim was so crass that The Economist was forced to issue a retraction (see full details here: http://www.globalresearch.ca/media-disinformation-britain-s-the-economist-backs-down-over-misleading-its-readers-on-venezuela/14626) For details of how the US corporate media systematically misrepresents Venezuela’s reality see Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (http://fair.org/)
2. Oil Politics and Hugo Chavez can be fully seen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr6ypqvt76g
3. The article has been rightly criticised by senior researchers of the prestigious Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs: “With articles like “Hugo Chávez’s Rotten Legacy,” The Economist is cementing its growing reputation as a fact-challenged right-wing propaganda vehicle […] Such a publication doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously by fair-minded people, because it is hard-put to offer impartial arguments in a democratic debate.” (Open Letter to The Economist http://www.coha.org/22113/)
4. Full details of the achievements of Bolivarian Venezuela under President Chavez can be found in free pamphlet: Venezuela: how democracy and social progress are transforming a nation http://www.venezuelasolidarity.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/vsc-pamphlet-june-2012-free-to-download.pdf
5. In SOUTHCOM, Command Strategy 2016 Partnership for the Americas, it is asserted that ‘three (Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela) of the top four foreign energy suppliers to the U.S. are located within the Western Hemisphere […] the U.S. will need 31 percent more petroleum and 62 percent more natural gas in the next two decades […] Latin America is becoming a global energy leader with its large oil reserves and oil and gas production and supplies.’ (pp. 6-7)
6. All of the quotes about Venezuela’s oil industry come from Cyrus Sanati, “Chavez’s death won’t spur new Venezuela oil drilling”, CNN Money, March 6th, 2013, http://finance.fortune.cnn.com/2013/03/06/hugo-chavez-death-oil/
7. The unfolding of the April 2002 coup can be seen in the extraordinary documentary The Revolution will not be televised which can be watched in English free of charge here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Id--ZFtjR5c
*Dr. Francisco Dominguez is Head of Centre for Brazilian and Latin Studies at Middlesex University and is Secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.
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