Three Cheers for Chávez

"People believe in Chávez.
I believe in him," Ortiz explained as we walked past the stalls. "He's
a clean president, he doesn't hide anything. Most people who are
against Chávez don't understand this political process." That is
as true now as it was three years ago.

By Benjamin Dangl - Comment is free
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A few years ago, when I first visited Venezuela, I met countless enthusiastic supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
One of them was Peggy Ortiz, a blonde, self proclaimed Chavista (Chávez
supporter) who at the time was working as a radio producer in Caracas.

On a walk through the city's Plaza Bolivar she introduced me to her friends who were all, in her words, revolucionarios.
One of them was a Che Guevara impersonator. He had the same smile,
beret and goatee as El Comandante, and proudly rode a black moped
around, giving high fives to street vendors selling Hugo Chávez
T-shirts, key chains and alarm clocks.

"People believe in Chávez.
I believe in him," Ortiz explained as we walked past the stalls. "He's
a clean president, he doesn't hide anything. Most people who are
against Chávez don't understand this political process."

That is
as true now as it was three years ago. Today, 2 February, the day that
marks 10 years since Chávez was first sworn into office, is a good
opportunity to reflect on Chávez's rise to power and the positive
changes his policies have brought to Venezuela.

Chávez first
entered the national limelight in the wake of a popular rebellion in
Venezuela against neoliberal economic policies and state repression.
Economic inequality, rampant in Venezuela throughout the 20th century,
came to a breaking point in 1989, when right-wing President Carlos Andres Perez
arrived in office. Perez implemented harmful International Monetary
Fund structural adjustments, accepted a massive loan and subsequent
debt which plunged the country into an economic recession. The Caracazo,
a February 1989 uprising in Caracas against the Perez government and
his economic policies, was met with brutal military repression. Hugo
Chávez, then a young colonel in the army, refused to participate in the
Caracazo crackdown. He led an attempted coup d'état against the Perez
government in 1992. When the coup failed Chávez took the blame for it
and was imprisoned until 1994.

Soon after his release Chávez
began a presidential campaign that took him across the country, gaining
support from diverse sectors of society. He started out with little
financial backing, often traveling in a broken-down pickup truck and
giving speeches out of the back. His humble background - he grew up in
a poor family - and fiery speeches offered a radical alternative to the
wealthy, right-wing politicians in power and gave hope to a
disenfranchised population, 60% of which lived below the poverty line.

Shortly
after winning the 1998 presidential election, Chávez re-nationalised
the country's oil reserves. Under the new constitution, the state was
granted full ownership of the Petroleos de Venezuela SA
(PDVSA) gas and oil company. This keeps the government, instead of
corporations, in control of the industry. The constitution also
established that revenue from the oil business should be used primarily
to finance social and development programmes that alleviate poverty.

With
the new funds, Chávez's government began literacy campaigns, undertook
land reform, constructed free dentist offices, hospitals and schools in
the poorest neighbourhoods and created systems of subsidised
supermarkets and business cooperatives all over the country.

The
Chávez government has faced many challenges, particularly from the
disenfranchised elite that used to run the country. In April of 2002, a
US supported coup d'etat
was staged against Chávez. Yet the rebellion was short-lived. After an
outpouring of support among civilian and military Chavistas, the
illegitimate government was pushed from office. Chávez was back in the
presidency within two days.

During one visit to Venezuela, I
stopped by a newly built community center in a Caracas neighborhood. In
one room, women over the age of 70 were attending literacy classes
decorated with murals of Chávez. The literacy campaign, known as Mission Robinson,
has reached millions of people of all ages. Other occupational classes
teach carpentry, auto repair and other skills to help people gain
employment. Programmes in education and literacy have lowered
Venezuela's poverty rates by giving citizens new skills to improve
their standard of living.

Nearby the literacy classrooms were
the octagonal health clinics that are located throughout the country.
In the clinics, Cuban doctors offer emergency medical care,
vaccinations, check-ups and medicine for common illnesses. Free
healthcare improves the quality of life for many Venezuelans. The work
of Cuban doctors in Venezuela's new clinics and healthcare systems
has allowed for the quick expansion of services. In some cases, poor
families are able to visit the doctor or a dentist for the first time
in generations.

A local resident led me to a building under
construction that was soon to be a Mercal. Mercals, government
subsidised supermarkets providing basic food for low prices, are now
all over the country. Beans, bread, milk, vegetables and other
products, largely from Venezuelan producers, are available in the
markets.

Everywhere I went across the country, I ran into Chávez supporters. William Barillas, a tall, bearded volunteer at Radio Horizonte,
a community radio station in Merida, Venezuela, believed the Chávez
administration was a significant improvement from previous governments.
"This government has left the era when governments never did anything
for the country. They used to just help capitalists, which were a
minority of the population. This government actually cares about the
education and health of poor people."