Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project
Three Cheers for Chávez
A few years ago, when I first visited Venezuela, I met countless enthusiastic supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. One of them was Peggy Ortiz, a blonde, self proclaimed Chavista (Chávez supporter) who at the time was working as a radio producer in Caracas.
On a walk through the city's Plaza Bolivar she introduced me to her friends who were all, in her words, revolucionarios. One of them was a Che Guevara impersonator. He had the same smile, beret and goatee as El Comandante, and proudly rode a black moped around, giving high fives to street vendors selling Hugo Chávez T-shirts, key chains and alarm clocks.
"People believe in Chávez. I believe in him," Ortiz explained as we walked past the stalls. "He's a clean president, he doesn't hide anything. Most people who are against Chávez don't understand this political process."
That is as true now as it was three years ago. Today, 2 February, the day that marks 10 years since Chávez was first sworn into office, is a good opportunity to reflect on Chávez's rise to power and the positive changes his policies have brought to Venezuela.
Chávez first entered the national limelight in the wake of a popular rebellion in Venezuela against neoliberal economic policies and state repression. Economic inequality, rampant in Venezuela throughout the 20th century, came to a breaking point in 1989, when right-wing President Carlos Andres Perez arrived in office. Perez implemented harmful International Monetary Fund structural adjustments, accepted a massive loan and subsequent debt which plunged the country into an economic recession. The Caracazo, a February 1989 uprising in Caracas against the Perez government and his economic policies, was met with brutal military repression. Hugo Chávez, then a young colonel in the army, refused to participate in the Caracazo crackdown. He led an attempted coup d'état against the Perez government in 1992. When the coup failed Chávez took the blame for it and was imprisoned until 1994.
Soon after his release Chávez began a presidential campaign that took him across the country, gaining support from diverse sectors of society. He started out with little financial backing, often traveling in a broken-down pickup truck and giving speeches out of the back. His humble background - he grew up in a poor family - and fiery speeches offered a radical alternative to the wealthy, right-wing politicians in power and gave hope to a disenfranchised population, 60% of which lived below the poverty line.
Shortly after winning the 1998 presidential election, Chávez re-nationalised the country's oil reserves. Under the new constitution, the state was granted full ownership of the Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) gas and oil company. This keeps the government, instead of corporations, in control of the industry. The constitution also established that revenue from the oil business should be used primarily to finance social and development programmes that alleviate poverty.
With the new funds, Chávez's government began literacy campaigns, undertook land reform, constructed free dentist offices, hospitals and schools in the poorest neighbourhoods and created systems of subsidised supermarkets and business cooperatives all over the country.
The Chávez government has faced many challenges, particularly from the disenfranchised elite that used to run the country. In April of 2002, a US supported coup d'etat was staged against Chávez. Yet the rebellion was short-lived. After an outpouring of support among civilian and military Chavistas, the illegitimate government was pushed from office. Chávez was back in the presidency within two days.
During one visit to Venezuela, I stopped by a newly built community center in a Caracas neighborhood. In one room, women over the age of 70 were attending literacy classes decorated with murals of Chávez. The literacy campaign, known as Mission Robinson, has reached millions of people of all ages. Other occupational classes teach carpentry, auto repair and other skills to help people gain employment. Programmes in education and literacy have lowered Venezuela's poverty rates by giving citizens new skills to improve their standard of living.
Nearby the literacy classrooms were the octagonal health clinics that are located throughout the country. In the clinics, Cuban doctors offer emergency medical care, vaccinations, check-ups and medicine for common illnesses. Free healthcare improves the quality of life for many Venezuelans. The work of Cuban doctors in Venezuela's new clinics and healthcare systems has allowed for the quick expansion of services. In some cases, poor families are able to visit the doctor or a dentist for the first time in generations.
A local resident led me to a building under construction that was soon to be a Mercal. Mercals, government subsidised supermarkets providing basic food for low prices, are now all over the country. Beans, bread, milk, vegetables and other products, largely from Venezuelan producers, are available in the markets.
Everywhere I went across the country, I ran into Chávez supporters. William Barillas, a tall, bearded volunteer at Radio Horizonte, a community radio station in Merida, Venezuela, believed the Chávez administration was a significant improvement from previous governments. "This government has left the era when governments never did anything for the country. They used to just help capitalists, which were a minority of the population. This government actually cares about the education and health of poor people."