Is Chavez's Venezuela Populist or Socialist?

Writers on the left can help the Bolivarian process with objective reporting or humble supportive analyses. Or they can leave Venezuelans alone. They will do just fine.

By Charles Muntaner - CounterPunch
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"This is the first government that cares for us"

- Resident of the municipality of Libertador

Some in the US "left" are to be congratulated for their efforts to highlight the positive changes in education, health care and land redistribution that are occurring in Venezuela since the Bolivarian revolution. Unfortunately, following a cultural tradition of entitlement and righteousness, many US writers are compelled to pass judgment on a Bolivarian process which they barely understand.

From The Nation, Science and Society, to ZNET (except the informative Venezuela Watch), many analysts excuse their endorsement of the Bolivarian process with preemptive critical statements about Hugo Chavez's putative "authoritarian tendencies". If Chavez were the authoritarian firebrand of US commentators he would have already retaliated to the numerous attacks to his presidency and person (death threats, a coup, constant slandering by the media, a lock-out of the whole country, etc). But rather than retaliate or jail opponents Chavez kept calm and won 8 elections in six years, including a referendum last August where he got more than 60 per cent of the votes.

Another common apologetic practice is to undermine the socialist underpinnings of the Bolivarian process with the "populist" label (see Steve Ellner in Science and Society, for example). Following cold war habits, a major concern of the US left is still avoiding any association with regimes that might be labeled "Communist". This is a self defeating strategy as even moderate moves, by Scandinavian standards, towards a stronger welfare state will be labeled as "Communist" (e.g., Guatemala's Arbenz in the fifties).

Take for example Christian Parenti's leading article for the Nation (April 11 2005 issue). Parenti mislabels the current political will of the Venezuelans as "Petro-populism" which suggests that they are merely oil rich; thus, mischaracterizing the nature of their unique commitment to social-democratic reforms such as Mision Barrio Adentro (Inside the neighborhood). Also, contrary to Parenti's viewpoint, the Bolivarian constitution is not committed to capitalism anymore than to socialism: it sees the economic system as a means to improve the life of Venezuelans (see the recent volume by Luis Salamanca and Roberto Viciano Pastor on the Bolivarian Constitution for a detailed analysis).

Furthermore, Parenti's characterization of the Misiones (new government funded social programs) as "forcing" participatory democracy on citizens is unkind and unfair: this process reflects how Venezuelans decided to write their Constitution and organize their country. In that sense, any government "forces" its citizens, one way or another. When a writer relies on exemplars rather than surveys to describe the political attitudes of a population, it is important to choose representative individuals.

In that sense, Parenti's examples should have been more balanced: while the single "Chavista" in his article is portrayed as a "sentimental housewife", the opposition journalist is portrayed as a politically objective and mature democrat. In fact this "loyal" opposition that she represents continues to undermine the government by such actions as making threats to the life of government officials. Finally, Parenti complains about the cold treatment he received at one ministry. But, is it fair to complain when, in spite of being from the US, he still was allowed to interview a cabinet minister and voice his criticisms?

Venezuela's achievements: international socialist cooperation and participatory democracy in health care

While this kind of journalism proliferates, more objective assessments do not find their way into the "left" media. Let's take for example Mission Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood). Against the recommendations of International Financial Institutions, Barrio Adentro is designed to provide free health care to approximately 17.5 M Venezuelans (about 70% of the population) who previously lacked access. The program includes participative management from community members (following Article 84 of the 1999 Constitution), and increase in ambulatories (more 300 already built up to an expected 5000), and Medical Doctors living in the communities they serve (one MD for 12500 residents).

This program has been possible because of a cooperative agreement between the Cuban and Venezuelan governments. Venezuelan MDs did not want to practice medicine in poor neighborhoods. This is when a Mayor of Caracas and Chavez envisioned a bold public health alternative. Between April 03 and December 03, more than 10 000 Cuban MDs relocated to Venezuelan neighborhoods to practice primary care. These doctors have at least 10 yrs of post graduate experience and 2 yrs of experience in Integral Medicine (which sees health as a social outcome including housing, education, sports, environment, and food security). They perform between 20 and 40 visits every morning plus family visits in the afternoon, in addition to numerous prevention activities. Thus, operating as a separate health care system Barrio Adentro MDs conducted close to 80 Million visits reaching the whole 23 states while the former system achieved only 20 Million, with limited geographical outreach.

In addition, following article 84 of the Bolivarian Constitution, Barrio Adentro is run under the principles of participatory democracy. Local committees (Comites de Salud) chosen by neighbors have the power to directly contact local and federal governments to demand new or improved services for their communities. For example, during visits Cuban MDs and neighbors might realize that residents are in need to literacy courses, dentistry, removal of environmental hazards, thus contacting the appropriate branches of the government to obtain those services.

A recommendation for US analysts

The bottom line is thus simple. Given the recent history of interference of our country with Venezuelan politics (see Otto Reich's piece in the April issue of National Review for a chilling example), writers on the left can help the Bolivarian process with objective reporting or humble supportive analyses. Or they can leave Venezuelans alone. They will do just fine.

Carles Muntaner MD, PhD is a social epidemiologist at the University of Maryland, US. He is currently a health policy advisor to the Ministry of Health and Social Development of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.