On June 1, 20,686 people graduated from Mission Ribas, which gives poor Venezuelans their first chance to pass high school. One of the most obvious aspects of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, led by President Hugo Chavez, the social missions are changing the face of Venezuelan society.
Chavez recently announced that Ribas, which provides free education, including food, accommodation and travel, will have its budget increased to US$50 million a month. The vast majority of Mission Ribas graduates have now enrolled in Mission Sucre, which provides university education. By the end of the year, 210,000 will graduate from Ribas.
On the June 12 episode of television program Hello President, Chavez noted the beginning of the second phase of the community health-care program Mission Barrio Adentro and announced plans for the third phase, which will revamp Venezuela’s faltering hospital system.
A February opinion poll released by Datanalysis — a company associated with Chavez’s opponents — found support for Chavez at 70.5%, an increase on the 60% support Chavez received in a August referendum. The reason for the growth can be guessed: Datanalysis found that 73% of the population had benefited from the social missions.
On June 15, Venezuela Analysis commentator Gregory Wilpert wrote that many people who live in the poor neighbourhoods “consistently report that their sense of hope and of being noticed by the government has increased tremendously ... a large part of this hope stems from the urban land reform program”. This program, administered by elected committees in the poor communities, is granting the poor titles to the land that they have lived on for years, often building homes from scratch. Wilpert says this program could ultimately benefit nearly half of the population.
The education and health-care missions have been two of the biggest successes for the government. Mission Barrio Adentro, supported by more than 20,000 Cuban medics, has involved more than 185 million consultations and saved more than 25,000 lives, according to Venezuela Analysis.
Despite the progress, Venezuela still has a huge legacy of dire poverty to overcome. On June 5, Venezuela Analysis’s Jonah Gindin reported that a study by market research company Datos Information Resources identified a “dramatic impoverishment” of Venezuela over the last 20 years. As a result of harsh neoliberal measures, since 1984 the number of poorest Venezuelans has increased from 40% to 58%, while the number of middle-and-upper-class Venezuelans has decreased from 28% to 4%. One direct cause was that government spending decreased almost 50% between 1987 and 1997.
The anti-Chavez opposition makes much of the fact, reported in the March 31 Miami Herald, that, by the end of 2004, the number of households living in poverty was greater than when Chavez was first elected in 1998 (53% up from 49%).
However, this ignores two important things. Firstly, poverty is now decreasing and the figure was lower in 2004 than 2003. Indeed, according to the Datos study, the living standards of the poorest 84% of Venezuelans, thanks to the missions and increases in the minimum wage, increased by one third last year, after inflation is taken into account.
Secondly, the increase in the number of families in poverty was due in large part to the actions of the opposition, who, after organising a failed military coup in April 2002, initiated in December of that year a two month-long lock-out of workers across the country, demanding that Chavez resign.
Critically, workers in the oil industry were locked out by management, causing Venezuela's oil production to drop from over 3 million barrels per-day to just 25,000 by the end of December. Wilpert points out that “about 20% of GDP was lost during the two years 2002-03, with nearly $10 billion lost in economic activity during the oil industry shutdown alone”.
This crisis prompted the formation of a critical mission: Mission Mercal, a chain of government-run supermarkets that sell food up to 50% cheaper than the capitalist chains. At the height of the crisis, with privately owned distribution centres and networks shut-down by their owners, Venezuela faced severe shortages of food and other basic necessities. However, as most small and medium businesses didn't support the shut-down, there was plenty of produce. The government created Mercal to fill the void and since then it has grown dramatically. With more than 25,000 Mercal outlets, it captures 60% of the market.
On the June 26 Hello President, Chavez announced another $295 million in funding for Mercal, which will be used to expand the outlets and create another 1000 food houses to provide free food to the very poor. Because it sources food from government-owned cooperatives, Mission Mercal is tied to the struggle for food sovereignty in Venezuela, which imports up to 70% of its food.
There are problems, however. One of the reasons the missions were create was to replace state institutions riddled with corruption and bureaucracy with some under popular control. However, Venezuela Analysis’s Sarah Wagner reports that there have been “substantiated rumours” of corruption within Mercal itself. She points out that officials hope that with increased popular participation, this problem will be overcome.
The Venezuelan economy grew by over 17% in 2004 and is set grow this year as well, with both unemployment and inflation decreasing. A crackdown on business tax evasion has increased government revenue, as has rising world oil prices, and a government push to recoup $4 billion. With these funds, the future looks brighter than ever for Venezuela’s poor majority.
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 Actually, even poor Venezuelans technically had the opportunity to pass high school before Misión Ribas. The need to work at a young age because of their dire financial straights, and the fact that even ostensibly free public schools were forced to charge for school supplies, however, meant that many poor Venezuelans could not afford to finish their schooling. Misión Ribas addresses this problem by offering adult education that is not only free, but is also often accompanied by stipends for poor students in order to at least partially cover their living expenses. Furthermore, classes are held at flexible hours, permitting students to participate even if they are also working full- or part-time jobs [Venezuelanalysis.com editors].