Caracas, Venezuela. Hugo Chavez has moved onto the world stage as an advocate of profound change within his own country and abroad. At the gathering of world leaders at the United Nations this week he proclaimed: “The United Nations has exhausted its model…The twenty first century demands deep changes that will only be possible if a new organization is founded.” He described the specter of a “frightening neo- liberal globalization” that has sapped the will of the United Nations. Alluding to the United States, he called for an end to the “shameless dictatorship” it exercises over the international organization and demanded that UN headquarters be moved from New York to an “international city” in a country in the South.
These calls for radical changes at the global level are a reflection of the deep transformations being carried out within Venezuela. Starting in early 2005 Chavez proclaimed that Venezuela is bent on constructing “a new socialism for the twenty first century.”
Venezuela is not constructing anything resembling socialism as we knew it in the last century. Thus far there have been no moves to take over the assets of the largest national or transnational enterprises of the country. Furthermore, Chavez has not proclaimed a Peoples state, only a Bolivarian Republic, while the state bureaucracy of the Ancien Regime remains largely intact. Finally no centralized political party has been charged with the task of transforming the the economy or the country´s social, political and cultural values.
But even before Chavez´ proclamation that socialism is on the agenda, fundamental transformations had begun occurring in Venezuela. As Marta Harnecker, an adviser to Chavez states “Venezuela is engaged in a sui generis revolution.”
At the United Nation’s Chavez mentioned the achievements of his seven year old government. In a country of 25 million, 1.4 million learned to read and write within a year and a half, while three million Venezuelans previously excluded from education due to poverty enrolled in the education system. Seventy percent of the population now enjoys access to free health care while 45 percent of the people receive subsidized food via cooperatives, special food programs and government distribution centers.
These successes make the UN-backed Millennium Summit goal of reducing global poverty by fifty percent by 2015 and of providing primary education for all by the same year seem paultry. As Chavez noted, at the actual pace of change realized in the years since the summit, world hunger will not be halved until 2215 while universal primary education will not be realized until 2100.
The Bush administration lambastes Chavez for trying to establish “another Cuba” in Venezuela. This is hardly the case. Marta Harnecker, who also served as a participant and interpreter of the Cuban revolution, notes there are “few similarities between Cuba and Venezuela.” Each country has a charismatic leader, but the analogies end there. Harnecker states: “Fidel Castro used a central party apparatus to build socialism in Cuba, while Venezuela has no such structure.” If anything, Chavez is distrustful of political parties, given his military heritage, the crisis of the parties of the old regime and the constant squabbling among the parties and participants in the pro-Chavez Fifth Republic Movement, a political organization that predominates in the country’s National Assembly.
What this means for some on the left is that Chavez is a populist at best or a nineteenth century caudillo at worst. In fact there are many vestiges of Chavez´ rule that mark him as a combination of both and more. A unique system is being forged in Venezuela. It combines pre-modern forms in that Chavez is indeed harking back to nineteenth century caudillos and independence heroes like Simon Bolivar. At the same time, a “democratic postmodern revolution” is unfolding in Venezuela as hundreds of thousands of local organizations and movements are taking root among the multitude, enabling them to take control of their lives and their destinies. During Chavez’ seven year rule eight elections and referendums have been held with an election for the National Assembly scheduled for later this year, making Venezuela an example of an authentic participatory democracy.
Beginning with what are called ¨Misiones” or Missions in 1999, Chavez has fomented an incredible number of grass roots activities among the 80 percent of Venezuela’s population that has been historically marginalized. The early and most important missions focused on education and medical help. The medical missions are generally comprised of two doctors, most of them from Cuba. The doctors are sent to rural communities and shanty towns to provide health care and to help people organize around their health needs. The educational missions, part of broader “barrio adentro” programs are comprised of both national and locally trained teams that work to establish programs to deal with illiteracy as well as getting adults and younger people back into schooling programs to advance their careers. Neither the health nor the educational programs are run by the Ministries of Health or Education. They as well as additional missions involved in rural land reform, job training, etc. are funded and guided directly by national policy teams that are accountable to Hugo Chavez.
Simultaneously the cooperative movement has boomed: Today there are over 70,000 cooperatives of all types operating through out the country. Another very important initiative orchestrated from below are the “Comites de Tierra.” In a country where the vast majority of the population is urbanized, over 65 percent of the urban dwellers do not have formal land titles. The Comites, comprised of 150 to 200 heads of household each, are setting about the process of conducting land surveys and securing titles to their homes. There are now about 5000 Comites operating throughout Venezuela. These Comites have little or nothing to do with the Housing Ministry. Their activities are guided by the National Technical Office of Lands whose director, Ivan Martinez, is appointed by Chavez.
The Bolivarian revolution also resonates on the international scene. Chavez in the past month has launched PetroCaribe, a program to provide oil to the Caribbean nations at reduced prices and with access to long term credits at 1 percent per year. This comes on top of the formation of PetroSur, a plan to integrate the energy grids of several South American countries, as well as Venezuela’s adhesion to the South American Common Market (Mecrosur) and the Andean economic community.
All these measures constitute a challenge to the historic hegemony of the United States in Latin America just as its imperial hands are tied by the war in Iraq. Small wonder the Bush administration and its right wing evangelical ally, Pat Robertson, have a vendetta against Chavez and the Bolivarian socialist revolution in Venezuela. This week the US State Department stooped to a new low when it tried to prevent members of Chavez’ security team from accompanying him on his visit. As Chavez stated before the United Nations, in spite of such “internal and external aggressions, …we will fight for Venezuela, for Latin American integration and for the world.”
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas based in Berkeley, CA. His most recent books are “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice,” and “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire” (co-authored with Jim Tarbell).