As the year closes and Venezuela moves into its 13th year with Hugo Chavez as President, it behooves us to reflect on some of the highlights of the past 12 months while drawing attention to the many challenges facing the nation's Bolivarian Revolution into 2012. We begin with the advances.
Above all, 2011 will be known as the year of housing in Venezuela. Facing the difficulties of more than 130 thousand people left displaced by torrential rains at the end of 2010, the national government created its most ambitious social program to date - Mission Housing Venezuela.
Promising to provide not only rain victims but all Venezuelan residents with an affordable and "dignified" home, the Chavez administration launched its public housing initiative in May and quickly went to work to ensure the construction and financing necessary to put the new "Great Mission" into action.
The program first committed the government to building 2 million homes by 2017, an astounding number that, if not enough, was then augmented to 3 million by 2019. Of course, in order to reach this lofty goal, the Chavez administration must dedicate a massive amount of public resources to the program and boost its national production to meet the demands of its expanding housing market.
The government's executive Housing Commission has been busy building a coalition made up of private businesses, government agencies and international partners to guarantee the feasibility of its nation-wide plan, entering into contractual agreements with domestic and foreign firms to develop the country's natural resources and provide the technical knowledge to meet its goal.
In 2011 Mission Housing Venezuela successfully built more than 144,000 homes and will need to up that pace considerably in subsequent years if it is to achieve three million by 2019. It is also important to point out that each home built under the auspices of the program is subsidized in accordance with a family's size and income. The homes are not provided “for free”, but rather with subsidized mortgages and down payments that vary per household financial capacity. In some instances, if a family has no possibility of paying an initial percentage of the cost of the home, then the down payment is waived by the state and just the mortgage is assumed.
Chavez’s Biggest Battle
Although Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution has been known for its emphasis on participatory democracy and grassroots politics, Venezuela's decade- long movement away from neo-liberalism and towards socialism is firmly anchored in the presidency of Hugo Chavez.
This fact was made soberly clear last June when the head of state informed the nation that a cancerous tumor was removed from his pelvic area during an official visit to Cuba.
The surprising news struck the country with gripping force, stiffing disbelief and unity from the President's base while igniting a flurry of speculation and intrigue in the domestic and international press.
For months onlookers watched as the defiant socialist leader faced his greatest challenge to date, undergoing a series of chemotherapy treatment cycles in Cuba that forced him out of the public eye for weeks at a time. But as with almost every challenge laid before him over the past decade, Chavez took the disease head on, eschewing the speculative attacks and emerging cancer-free from his treatment in just under five months since the detection of the tumor.
Bolivar’s Dream: Latin American Unity & The CELAC
On December 2, 2011, a new hemispheric alliance that excludes the United States and Canada was born in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, solidifying the growing movement towards pan-Latin Americanism that has been spreading throughout the region for more than a decade.
The newly formed Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) unites 33-nations together in an integrationist block that will focus its energies on building democracy and mutually beneficial economic relationships between countries in the region as opposed to answering to US policy interests.
The birth of Celac coincided with Venezuela's bicentennial independence year and is the Chavez's government's most visible manifestation of its commitment to the integrationist dream of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Caracas-born military leader who is attributed with having freed current day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Bolivia from Spanish rule.
Chavez, who has modeled his "Bolivarian Revolution" after the example of the independence hero, has been an adamant internationalist, signing hundreds of bilateral agreements with allied governments in Latin America and the Caribbean in efforts to fortify regional cooperation and liberate his country from the social and economic hegemony of the United States.
Good Neighbor Policy
As part of its internationalist stance, the Venezuelan government made great strides in 2011 in repairing its bilateral relationship with its western neighbour after a series of unfounded allegations by former rightwing Colombian president Alvaro Uribe led to a breakdown in diplomatic relations between the two nations.
With the election of Manuel Santos to the presidency in August 2010, the two neighboring countries have gotten to work mending divides. A meeting brokered by the now deceased Nestor Kirchner, Secretary General of the Unasur alliance, put Venezuelan-Colombian relations back on track as both Santos and Chavez have displayed their willingness to work together despite political differences.
In 2011, the two nations agreed to create a new set of preferential tariffs to maintain their robust commercial relations which account for more than $2 billion annually. A series of other agreements designed to strengthen security, fight narco-trafficking and stimulate infrastructure development in border areas have also been signed as the sister nations re-establish their historic ties.
Social Programs and Spending
As President Chavez recovered from his cancer treatment, his ability to create new legislation geared towards addressing the needs of the Venezuelan people increased. As such, a series of new missions were introduced at the end of 2011 to expand on the government's anti-poverty measures and provide new benefits for previously excluded populations.
Both Mission Children of Venezuela and Mission Greater Love were inaugurated to give a helping hand to the nation's children and seniors. The first program provides a monthly stipend to mothers with up to three children living in extreme poverty while the second provides a pension for workers and residents over retirement age unable to claim benefits for a variety of reasons including not making the sufficient number of payments into the public insurance program or having held non-traditional jobs such as artisans, fishermen and freelancers.
In addition to these initiatives, the government has continued to invest in its healthcare infrastructure and education, spending billions on the renovation and construction of more than 140 hospitals throughout the national territory while providing millions of discounted school supplies to families everywhere.
Yet despite these gains, the Chavez government is also facing a range of upcoming challenges in 2012 that will demand a good deal of attention and define the direction of the country for the coming years.
Of course, the most significant test facing the two-term incumbent Chavez is his presidential reelection bid. On October 7, 2012, voters will go to the polls to decide if they wish to maintain the current leader of the Bolivarian Revolution at the helm of government or if they favor a change for a still undetermined opposition candidate.
Polls currently give the advantage to Chavez over any opposing contender, but, as always, the government must be prepared for Washington's perennial attempts to delegitimize elections results as the State Department continues to aid opposition groups and their attempts to create a potentially destabilizing electoral atmosphere.
In terms of strategy, the Chavez camp has put together a network of more than 10,000 grassroots organizations known as the Great Patriot Pole to push its campaign ahead. The organization and mobilization of the GPP, working hand-in-hand with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), will be the key for a socialist victory in October 2012.
As wages have increased in Venezuela, so too has demand, creating the need for greater domestic production to match the population's growing purchasing capacity. Apart from facing an inflation rate of 27 percent, the government must also confront the difficult task of fighting price speculation while ensuring the availability of commodities to what can be considered a highly consumptive society.
The Chavez administration has recently introduced a price controls law which seeks to limit usurious business practices in the private market, but it will be a challenge to enforce the legislation and even more challenging to guarantee the supply of products which retailers will simply not sell as a result of the regulations.
Without a public manufacturing and retail sector large enough to ensure the availability of products, consumers may be caught in the middle of a cat and mouse game as profit-driven venders seek to evade government price controls.
This will especially be true as the government devotes more and more resources to its national housing project. The capacity of the national production apparatus must increase if the government is to attain its housing goal while ensuring the distribution of other important products to its internal market.
Insecurity and Impunity
The kidnapping of Major League Baseball player Wilson Ramos last November brought international attention to the problem of extortion and violent crime in Venezuela, something that the government has struggled to resolve over the past decade.
The creation of the new Bolivarian Police Force has made tremendous strides in implementing a new model of community law enforcement in the country, but more needs to be done to successfully combat this deep rooted social problem in the South American nation.
The same is true of the nation's judicial system which continues to grant impunity to the landowners responsible for the murder of more than 300 small farmers since the implementation of the country's Land Law in 2001. While Venezuela's Attorney General's Office continues to promise investigations into these and other crimes, there seems to be little progress on the topic.
Without a functioning judicial system to prosecute criminals, justice for those who hail from economically disadvantaged backgrounds will continue to be elusive. In contrast, widespread reform to the nation's Attorney General's Office, if successful, would go a long way in boosting government support from those of humble origins who have been victimized by crime.
Transportation and Infrastructure
Another important area that must be addressed is the nation's infrastructure, especially with respect to transportation. As the Venezuelan population grows, the demand for public transportation continues to rise as does the need for improvements in the nation's highways and streets.
The government has embarked on the expansion of the Caracas metro and has begun construction
on a variety of new rail projects, but a greater focus on the nation's transportation infrastructure would vastly improve the quality of life for many residents.
The 2012 budget has allocated a great deal of resources - over $1 billion - specifically to the question of transportation improvements but the country must also confront a cultural problem of corruption between local officials and private contractors that hampers the efficient execution of many public works projects for the spending to be effective.
Overall, 2011 was a year of great social advances for Venezuela. The battles overcome by President Hugo Chavez against cancer and against attempts to destabilize his government and regional relations evidence a solid platform to jumpstart his reelection campaign in 2012.
There is no doubt that Venezuela will continue to make international headlines throughout this new year.