As Venezuelans prepare to go to the polls December 3, expectations are that President Hugo Chávez will easily win re-election, thanks to his wide base of support among the country’s poor and marginalized majority. In this election, however, people will be voting not just on hopes and expectations but rather on the proven track record of Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” and its gains in alleviating poverty.
An innovative series of social programs known as misiones, or missions — set up to parallel ineffective and often exclusionary government agencies or services, and largely funded through oil sales, which account for 47 percent of government revenue and 80 percent of exports — has delivered concrete benefits to Venezuela’s poor. As one example, roughly 3 million Venezuelans have enrolled in one of the four free educational missions — basic adult literacy, primary school, high school equivalency and university — since the programs began in 2003. Recently, in one adult literacy class, the pride of the students was palpable as one after another went to the chalkboard to transcribe — albeit with a few errors — short sentences that their facilitator read aloud. One woman in her late 60s told me after class, “This is the first time in my life when Venezuela has had a government dedicated to inclusion, not exclusion.”
A mission that brings doctors to live in poor neighborhoods, towns and villages to provide free, easily accessible healthcare is so popular that in 2004 alone it logged more visits than the entire public and private healthcare systems combined over the previous five years. There is a job-training mission, and a mission that provides food subsidies and soup kitchens. These and the other missions offer much-needed services and dramatically increase the quality of life for millions of Venezuelans, often in ways that are not easily quantifiable in commonly reported poverty indicators.
Even in the statistics, however, changes are evident. According to Venezuela’s most recent census, the number of households living in poverty has dropped from 42.8 percent in 1999, when Chávez took office, to 33.9 percent in early 2006. Households living in extreme poverty dropped from 17.1 percent to 10.6 percent during the same period. The poorest quintile of the population has seen its consumption power more than double. Official unemployment has been cut by more than half, to around 10 percent, although most jobs are either in the public sector or in the “informal” sector.
Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, says that while poverty statistics tend to follow overall economic growth (and Venezuela’s economy has been growing at record rates as global energy prices have soared), the improvements are nonetheless remarkable. “The Chávez government has only had three years of stability and control over the oil industry,” he says. “In that time they have dramatically increased access to healthcare and education…. I don’t know of anywhere else in the hemisphere that has made these kinds of gains.”
There is ample room to be critical of President Chávez and his Administration. Most English-language news reports demonize his government, focusing on the continuing culture of corruption, the fear of centralization of power, high crime rates, and close ties with Cuba and Iran. But the missions and Chávez’s deeply charismatic style of government have mobilized historically marginalized sectors of society into a powerful political base. If Chávez wins the December election, it will be the third time in less than eight years that his mandate has been confirmed in internationally observed elections. “Under Chávez we have gotten a taste of what it is like to run the country, to have access to social, political and educational opportunities,” says Héctor González, who grew up with six siblings high in the hills above Caracas in a dangerous, impoverished barrio called La Vega. “That feeling of empowerment is not something people in the barrios will give up easily.”
Chávez’s accomplishments have come even as his political opposition has remained committed to his ouster — often through extra-constitutional means. After failing to take the Chávez administration seriously in its initial years, during which “Chavismo” became the only game in town and the Chávez government consolidated control of the country, the opposition pulled off a short-lived coup in 2002, orchestrated a devastating sixty-two-day bosses’ strike that paralyzed the oil industry in 2002-03 and instigated an unsuccessful recall referendum to try to force Chávez from office halfway through his term in 2004. Chavistas see these efforts as little more than the machinations of a rich white elite that suddenly found itself powerless for the first time since the Spanish settled the territory in 1522.
And today, the success of Chávez’s antipoverty missions is such that even his strongest opponent, Governor Manuel Rosales, promises not to do away with them if elected — a hard-to-imagine scenario, given Rosales’s commitment to orthodox, pro-business economic policies and his insistence that these policies will insure that “capital returns” to Venezuela. But Rosales’s campaign promise to keep the missions is itself a clear example of how far to the left the past eight years of Chavismo have shifted the Venezuelan political spectrum.
Rosales, who has the strongest track record and most experience of the prospective opposition candidates, was chosen behind closed doors as the challengers’ consensus candidate. He is one of only two governors in Venezuela who are not from any of the many parties in the pro-Chávez ruling coalition. He supported the 2002 coup and was filmed embracing the coup president, Pedro Carmona, shortly before Carmona issued the decree that dissolved the Supreme Court and the National Assembly, changed the name of the country and empowered himself to fire any elected official. When asked why he backed Carmona, Rosales responded, “One makes mistakes in life, but what is definitely important is when one makes a decision like that, in the midst of confusion, that it be made in good faith.”
The biggest innovation of the Rosales campaign, and the item likely to win him the most votes, is called mi negra, or “my black card,” a charge card that Rosales promises, if elected, to give to all low-income Venezuelans as a way to directly distribute up to 20 percent of the country’s oil profits, which amounts to billions of dollars per year. Depending on oil revenues, the card would provide a stipend of between $250 and $450 per month, per person — a good bit more than Venezuela’s minimum wage. This populist proposal is ironic: The opposition regularly lambastes Chávez for being a “populist” and giving handouts, yet mi negra would require virtually nothing of recipients — except, of course, voting for Rosales. Further, the name for this initiative has racist implications in an election in which race is a constant subtext: Most opposition leaders are white, while Chávez, like most Venezuelans, is a mix of indigenous, African and European ancestry.
Racism is never far from the surface in Venezuela. While I was standing in line to buy a cold beer on a scorching hot Saturday morning in October during a Rosales campaign rally, a tall man wearing Diesel jeans and Armani sunglasses told me, “I can’t wait to get that monkey out of office. I am sick of looking at his ugly face on TV for the last eight years.”
Nor is the issue of US involvement very far from Venezuelans’ minds. Reflecting a dangerous dependency among the opposition that trumps healthy critical engagement with the democratic process or a strengthening of civil society, one opposition supporter told me, “If we don’t win in December, we can always hope the Marines invade.” Opposition groups supporting the Rosales campaign have received financial support and incentives to work together through largely classified funding mechanisms involving the CIA, the US Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal what seems to be the tip of an iceberg of US funding for opposition groups.
One of the best-known of these groups is called Súmate, or Join Up. María Corina Machado, the founder of Súmate, was in the presidential palace during the coup and while the Carmona decree was issued. Súmate and the US government openly admit that they have funding agreements, and since the coup, Machado has met personally with President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and many others in Washington’s inner circles. The White House web page, in a caption under a photo of Bush shaking hands with Machado in the Oval Office, describes Súmate as “a non-governmental organization to defend the electoral and constitutional rights of all Venezuelan citizens and to monitor and report on the performance of Venezuela’s electoral institutions.”
Súmate used its US funding to initiate and then mobilize support for the recall referendum against Chávez in 2004 — which Chávez won with nearly 60 percent of the vote. The Carter Center and the Organization of American States both certified the referendum as free and fair. But Súmate, along with most major opposition groups and parties, refuses to recognize the results, and Machado currently faces charges of using foreign money to influence Venezuela’s domestic electoral process. The Venezuelan National Assembly has opened an investigation into the group’s accounting irregularities related to large dollar transfers from US government agencies in and out of their accounts. Machado, who declined repeated interview requests, has said that she is being persecuted for politically motivated reasons.
Rosales consistently polls in the 30 percent range, while Chávez polls in the high 50s. However, no one is sure what to expect on election day. So polarized has the country become, and so suspicious is each side of the other, that conspiracy theories abound, with many Chavistas convinced that the opposition has some shady plan for preventing a clear and clean Chávez victory. Some believe that the opposition plans on delegitimizing an election they know they can’t win, by boycotting it at the last minute, as five opposition parties, including Rosales’s, did during the 2005 national assembly elections. Rosales vehemently denies that he is considering withdrawing, and given that many of his hard-core supporters believe he will win, it seems highly unlikely.
Other Chavistas present a variety of conspiracy theories involving a secessionist movement in the state of Zulia. Giancarlo Di Martino, a “Chavista light” and the mayor of Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia and Venezuela’s second-largest city, has condemned a supposed destabilization plan involving CIA funding for violence and assassinations to interrupt the elections. Groups like Rumbo Propio, accused by pro-Chávez media of receiving covert US funding and tacit support from Rosales, openly advocate “autonomy” for the oil-rich state. Any violence, or even just a Rosales victory in Zulia, where he is already governor, could be used by the opposition to mobilize regionalist sentiments and to inspire Chávez government repression against the “Independent and Eastern Republic of Zulia,” as US Ambassador William Brownfield is rumored to have called it in recent months. All this could open the possibility of direct US intervention — at least according to the theories of some hard-core Chavistas.
A more likely scenario is that Chávez will win the election with somewhere around 60 percent of the vote, nowhere near the 10 million he is campaigning for — an impossible goal unless voter turnout is nearly 100 percent and his share of the vote upwards of 66 percent. Some opposition groups, including those with US funding, like Súmate, will undoubtedly make accusations of electoral fraud, no matter what the international election observers say or how many of their demands regarding the terms of the election are met. And the Bush Administration is likely to continue its interventions — at this point political and electoral, although many Venezuelans are certain that the military option is on the table.
But Chavismo is now solidly entrenched in Venezuela, and Chávez has made many friends in Latin America and beyond (including Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who recently won the presidential election there). Still, Chávez now faces the challenge of meeting the raised expectations of his own citizens, many of whom call for more radical reforms toward building what Chavistas call “twenty-first-century socialism.” In the months and years ahead, Chávez will need not only the inspiration of Bolívar but also the engagement and participation of even greater numbers of Venezuelan citizens.
Chesa Boudin is a co-author of The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions–100 Answers. In 2005 he worked as an intern on President Chávez’s foreign policy team, doing research for a master’s degree in Latin American public policy at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship.