NO VOLVERAN! This rallying cry embodies Venezuela’s response to the recall referendum that would subject Hugo Chavez’s presidential mandate to yet another vote. It can be heard throughout the streets and read on city walls throughout Venezuela. The chant refers to the previous ruling class who held power from 1958 until the election of Hugo Chavez. To fully appreciate why this particular mantra is a favorite it is necessary to examine what the majority of Venezuelans are refusing to return to.
Over the past several decades it had been sheik, in the international academic and business communities, to fit one’s discourse regarding Venezuela within the framework of the Venezuela Exceptionalism Theory. This theory asserts that in 1958 Venezuela departed from the common path of Latin America and established itself as a stable democracy and developed nation more closely resembling its two most northern American neighbors than any of those south of the Texas.
While the opposition uses this theory’s existence as evidence that Venezuela was a peaceful and prosperous place until Chavez came along, his supporters use it as a yardstick to illustrate where the country should have gone, but they argue, did not go. Who’s right? Lets take a few snapshot views at Venezuela’s history and in particular refresh our memory about the 1958-1998 period.
It is true that Venezuela made a break form its own past in 1958 in regards to political stability. In the 150 years prior, Venezuela had no less than 100 changes of power and 23 constitutions. But was the period from 1958 to1998 peaceful? Hardly. During Romulo Betancourt’s first elected term (1959-1964) there were six military uprisings, a steady stream of terrorist attacks, strong guerilla activity, one narrowly escaped presidential assassination attempt (perpetrated by a foreign government) and 916 political prisoners (Gunther, 1967).
In 1967, nine years after Betancourt took office Caracas was deemed the most expensive city in the world. The wealthy stashed their loot in foreign accounts, as the poor suffered. The infant mortality rate was 56 percent and life expectancy was 65 years. While during this period, Cuba and Brazil had each increased their public education budgets by over 60 percent, Venezuela only raised its own by 7.2 percent; and while Venezuela boosted the highest population growth rate in the world, Cuba and Brazil’s primary-school enrollment growth rate was more than ten times higher than Venezuela’s.
One well-respected author, who was a fan of Betancourt, described the economic gap of this decade as being “as wide as an alligator’s yawn” (Gunther, 1967). A mere 1.7 percent of the population owned 74 percent of the arable land. One fourth of all Caracas residents were prosperous enough to own a car, but an entire third of all Caraquenos lived in makeshift shantytowns called ranchos. What’s worse, 40 percent of these rancho households had no immediate access to water, much less any other sanitation services. The above glimpse illustrates that Venezuela’s first decade of democracy was far from exceptional with regard to the rest of Latin America.
But then came the black-gold years. The oil boom of 1970-78, the further raising of the governments oil revenue shares to 70 percent, and the nationalization of other natural resources provided the government with an unprecedented income. Wages increased, price controls were set, imports were subsidized, and land titles were given out (albeit in a disastrous manner). But how did the government and the moneyed class use this short-lived windfall to secure the future? They didn’t. By the early 80’s, corruption and mismanagement had created a huge deficit and the nation’s GDP plummeted.
The discontent of the 80’s culminated in street riots, deadly repression, and political instability. Like many other Latin American countries, Venezuela had suffered hard economic times in the 80’s and was being brought in line with the neo-liberal desires of the World Bank, which included austerity measures. One such measure ignited the country. Although commonly referred to as “El Caracazo” the uprising of 1989 occurred throughout the nation.
The poor flooded into the city centers rioting and looting for a couple days before eliciting an official response. The response was brutal. In Caracas the military was ordered into the barrios and within a few days 372-2000 people were killed (accounts vary between official and independent sources). This repression left the poor as well as many military men shocked, scared, and seething.
In 1992, Hugo Chavez led a failed coup attempt. His televised surrender speech gave the people their mantra for the next six years: “Por Ahora” (for now). These two words contained the will of the nation, just as today’s NO VOLVERAN! When this will became reality, Hugo Chavez skated into the palace with a 56 percent vote count.
By 1998 the nation as a whole still had not noticeably moved forward from 1967 in terms of social development and in fact was still at par with many other Latin American countries which had had significantly less resources over these decades. According to a United Nations Development Program Report (2000 ) President Chavez was handed over a leading oil-exporting nation where 18 percent of its population were classified in extreme poverty (Unsatisfied Basic Needs) and an additional 26 percent were considered in critical poverty. These poor included 2/3 of the nation’s children under 5-years old.
Forty-five percent of households still had no daily access to safe water and 27 percent had no sewage facilities. There was at least one person with chronic illness in 44 percent of all households and one hospital bed available per 585 residents (although most of these beds were only accessible to the wealthy). Not attending school at all were 13 percent of the county’s youth, nearly all of them from the poor sector, while the drop out rate among those who did enter school was 69 percent. In total, 44 percent of children in 1998 were excluded from the education system.
The 90’s saw Venezuela’s overall Human Development Index decline more than 10 percentage points and the real wage of all workers drop by 43 percent. Urban unemployment was 31 percent higher than in the rest of Latin America (Ellner, 2002) and of all new jobs created in this decade, 70 percent of them were in the informal sector.
Forty years had been lost during which the oil rich nation’s leadership had thrashed about aimlessly leaving the country right back where it had started. With one grand difference: Chavez and company was now in charge.
In the past few years since Chavez took office, the country has struggled forward despite crippling economic sabotage by the business community, an expensive failed coup, a constant media offensive, and international harassment and direct meddling. Early accomplishments of the Bolivarian Revolution are visible in all aspects of life.
Twenty thousand new homes have been built and another ten thousand were rebuilt by military programs called Avispa and Reviba. Three million people received potable water for the first time. One million received sewage services. Two and a half million acres of productive land has been distributed along with credits, technical support and equipment; and 30,000 land titles were given to urban squatters (all titles contain a no-resale clause).
The federal allotment to education at all levels more than doubled in Chavez’ first 2 years and more than one million children were integrated into the education system. Kindergarten enrollment tripled. Nearly 700 new schools were built, over 2,000 were reconstructed, and 36,000 new teachers were employed. The Bolivarian school model was established in 3000 schools, bringing two meals a day, art, sports, and recreation to many children’s daily lives.
One million people are being taught to read and write under the Mission Robinson project. Under Mission Ribas Venezuela’s drop-outs will get a second chance at finishing high school. Two new Bolivarian public universities will be open by spring and others will follow shortly, offering 10’s of thousands of scholarships to the underprivileged through Mission Sucre.
Hundreds of thousands of poor are being attended by volunteer Cuban doctors through the Barrio Adentro Program that provides one doctor per 200 families in slums where no medical facilities have ever existed before. The number of doctors throughout the nation increased by 48 per 1000 residents and life expectancy rose by 9 months. The new Proyecto Simoncito gave support to women and infants from pregnancy to preschool and infant mortality and under nutrition dropped significantly.
The Women’s Bank gave out 42,000 thousand credits to small woman-owned businesses; another 30,000 micro credits were given out to farmers, fishermen, and transportation collectives. Thirty-nine reforestation projects were executed and community nurseries produced 4.4 million plants. Laws pertaining to fishing have protected coastal waters from industrial fishing to the benefit of 200,000 community fisherman and various coastal marine species.
Three new metro lines, three freeways, a railway line, a second bridge over the Orinoco river, the Caruachi dam, a giant aqueduct, and second heavy oil refinery are under construction, creating tens of thousands of jobs. Thirteen cultural centers were built around the nation and the Caracas Theater was re-opened. Two hundred and forty-three “Infocenters”, computer salons with high speed internet, were installed in libraries, museums, city halls and NGO offices (1).
Chavez’ term started out on strong economic footing partially due to Chavez-lead, OPEC-instigated oil price increases. From 1999 to 2001 the gross domestic product per capita rose significantly, prices were stable and per capita consumption rose generously (ECLAC, 2002). However, in the past 18 months, lower oil prices, economic sabotage, and constant civil turmoil staged by the opposition has caused the economy to contract sharply.
These ruthless attacks by the opposition coupled with the phenomenal accomplishments of the administration and the citizenry, despite this hostile environment, has served to consolidate Chavez’ support and heighten the determination of the newly empowered masses to move ever onward in an attempt to make Venezuela truly the exceptional country it had been prematurely labeled decades ago. In fact, many Venezuelans, as well as internationalists, see the country as going well beyond being exceptional in Latin America, to become a worldwide model for other nations ready to move forward.
It is already too late to entertain the possibility of a return to the past in Venezuela. The failure of the recall referendum signature drive has confirmed this. Chavez has once again been “re-elected”, the Constitution has been re-affirmed, and the Revolution has been re-declared. This rallying cry has now become a reality. NO VOLVERAN!
- Dawn Gable is a member of the Bolivarian Circle Cyber-Solidarity USA
Notes and Citations:
(1) Keep in mind that Venezuela has only about 24 million people and is roughly the size of Texas and Oklahoma put together.
(2) Logros Proceso Bolivariano: (a ten-page document listing of the successes of the Bolivarian Process.) http://www.gobiernoenlinea.ve
ECLAC 2002 Statistical Yearbook for Latin America and the Caribbean: United Nations
Ellner, Steve 2003 “Introduction: The Search for Explanations” pp. 7-26 in Steve Ellner and Daneil Hellinger (eds.) , Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization & Conflict. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
Gunther, John 1667 Inside South America. Ontario: Simon & Schuster.
United Nations Development Programme 2000 Human Development Report Venezuela, 2000: Ways to Overcome Poverty. http://hdr.undp.org/docs/reports/national/Venezuela/Venezuela_00.pdf