Venezuela, An Example of Democracy Empowering the Poor

For the first time in Venezuelan history, a democratically elected president is really trying to do something for the poor.

Recently, a friend of mine asked me: “Edgard !, what is going on in Venezuela? two years ago I heard of a coup d’etat to topple the president and then he came back after being a prisoner of the coup leaders for 48 hours”. He continued: “In January 2003, we heard that the people were trying to topple him again with a national strike, but then the strike finished and nothing happened. What is going on down there?.”

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a clear example of the social struggle that many countries face these days. A struggle between the poor, who has been neglected for many years by corrupt governments, and the elite class who has benefited greatly from years of bonanza created by oil revenues, in this oil-rich country. An oil-rich country but with 80% of the population under the poverty level. The answers to my friend’s questions are that, in the fact, for the first time in Venezuelan history, a democratically elected president is really trying to do something for the poor. Also, the poor for the first time feel empowered by the progressive nature of the new democratically-drafted Constitution and the democratic system to exercise their right to a better life. This is why in April of 2001, the poor people from the shantytown-filled hills and peasants that conform the vast majority in Venezuela, poured out into the streets to demand that their president Hugo Chávez Frias be returned to office. Pedro Carmona Estanga, a business leader of th Federation if Chambers of Commerce Fedecamaras, now living in exile in Colombia, had led the coup along with the military top brass.

Four national strikes followed the coup, but in comparison to the traditional strikes in Latin America which are organized by union leaders along with poor people in mass, these strikes were organized by the business owners along with the old corrupt union leaders (one of whom is now in exile in Costa Rica) who had long ago forgotten their role of representing the working class. It is for this reason that the fourth strike between December 2002 and January 2003 was a total failure, since the vast majority of Venezuelans did not participate in it. As a result, oil tanker captains and oil refinery managers tried a desperate attempt to win the strike by refusing to work and sabotaging the industry run by PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. This action by oil executives led to an estimated loss of 11 billion dollars to the Venezuelan economy, thousands of lost jobs, and the firing of thousands of PDVSA employees, a firing very similar to President Ronald Reagan’ action against the airport traffic controllers in the early 80s. After the strike, thanks to the hard work of thousands of workers who support the revolutionary process, oil production went back to pre-strike levels (3 million barrels per day) in two months. Also, the country’s monetary international reserves went from 13 billion (in January) to almost 18 billion dollars at the end of August, due to government austerity actions to save the economy. So it is again the people, that 80% of the population who came out again during the strike to maintain the President in control of the government.

The opposition in Venezuela, with its coup plotting campaign, helped by anti-ethical one-sided mainstream media, terrorism, sabotage, senseless strikes and other tactics is trying to topple a President who has been elected twice in free elections (1998 and 2000), winning with 60% of the votes in each case. Two vote consultations to the population were performed in 1999 to write and approve a new Constitution. Two other free elections took place in the last four years to elect governors, city council members, mayors and other posts. The freedom of speech in Venezuela, highly criticized by the opposition, has been so notorious in recent years that even the press and media incur in abuses, and often ridicules the President in talk shows without the fear of reprisals, which were common in previous administrations. Also, many newspapers, community radio stations and internet websites are opening daily to document the news, since most people do not trust traditional news media any longer, which has taken the role of an opposition political party.

Having enjoyed six months of “quiet” times after the failed strike, the government led by President Chávez has been able to put forth several new programs to help the poor. To name a few examples, a literacy program of volunteers was established to teach 1 million people to read and write in a two-month period, many have been given titles of ownership to the public land they have occupied for years, many idle lands have been given to peasants and small business people to grow vegetables, many of these land owners have been given credits and equipment to work the land, government banks have opened to give financial credits for people to start their own businesses, people without medical insurance are normally sent to Cuba to obtain free medical care (more than 4.000 people since the year 2000), more than 500 Cuban doctors are living in the poorest neighborhoods attending patients (most Venezuelan doctors would not dare to live in a poor neighborhood), more than 1.200 new elementary schools have opened with free breakfast and lunch, two new universities have opened, and the list goes on.

Most recently, the opposition in Venezuela got its latest nail in the coffin when the signatures collected for a recall referendum on the President in February 2003 were rejected by the newly appointed National Electoral Council (CNE). The council, which had to be appointed by the Supreme Court (TSJ) since the National Assembly could not reach an agreement, rejected the petition for referendum on the basis that the signatures were gathered before the mid-term of the president (August 2003), and because the petition does not directly make a request to the CNE. The resolution argued that signatures collected anytime before the mid-term, is unconstitutional. People who had access to the boxes containing the signatures say that some of them contain photocopies instead of originals. Also, there have been reports of duplication of signatures, and signatures collected from bank accounts. Now the opposition plans to collect signatures again in October, however, they will be facing another obstacle in the law which states that no more than one petition for referendum must be filed for an official in a single term.

The problem is simple: in the past, business owners had an open door at the government palace to do any kind of transactions to benefit themselves and their crony government officials. These days, those doors are closed and the wealthy and powerful opposition does not want to accept this new scheme. However, the power of democracy has given the poor people new hope and they are working side by side with their president, the only one since Simon Bolivar (the national Liberator of the 18 hundreds) who is genuinely trying to help the needy people in Venezuela.

Edgard Hernandez is a Venezuelan Nuclear Engineer living in West Palm Beach, Florida