If the the international press is to be believed, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is a dictator, a menace to the region and is driving his country to the ground. If that is so, why do his people vote for him in landslide numbers? Why does he have an enormous following of the women of his country? Are they all deluded? Are they all paid or coerced to vote? It would seem so to the casual reader of headlines because the achievements of the Chávez government are treated like a top secret: Venezuela’s new participatory democracy should not be advertised. A new form of economic and social development that does not pay homage to global capital should be shunned. Nevertheless, a new world is being formed in a Latin America that has refused to be any power’s “back yard”. These developments are not ignored in Latin America where the Venezuela revolution has had a deep impact. The women of Venezuela have especially embraced the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela, not because they are “followers” but because actually, they have become protagonists of a social, economic and, cultural revolution that has transformed Venezuela and the region.
It all started with the Constitution of 1999, written by an elected assembly in clear and inclusive language, which contained legislation that would transform the lives of Venezuelans and particularly, of women. It gave women the right of equal pay for equal work, (Article 91); the right to a life without violence, according to International Convention against Discrimination against Women (Article 21): the right to protection and public assistance for during maternity in all its phases (Article 76); and the now world famous Article 88 that recognizes women’s domestic work as productive economic activity entitled to public pensions. The constitution also adheres to the International UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child.
When the Constitution was only two years old and by no means was its mandate entirely implemented in law, in April of 2002, President Chávez was deposed and kidnapped in a coup d’etat orchestrated by the financial elites and abetted by the United States. It lasted 48 hours. The catalyst for its end was the tens of thousands of ordinary people who took to the streets to demand the return of their democratically elected president. They faced sharpshooters who were shooting indiscriminately at the crowds to create chaos. Masses of these people were women – women who realized that this government that they had elected now had been taken from them. The loyal armed forces then chose to side with the people and not the elites, and President Chávez was returned to his rightful position, becoming the first president in modern history to be deposed only to brought back due to widespread popular protest.[i]
There have been many accounts of heroic interventions during this critical time in which women figured prominently. Such as the older women of the slum area of El Valle who assumed leadership of the multitude that surrounded the country’s largest military headquarters, Fuerte Tiuna, and diffused a potentially deadly situation by shaming soldiers to put down their guns. Or the girl who gathered together her friends with motorbikes and actually took back the government’s TV station that had been ransacked and shut down by the coup supporters. President Chávez has often paid tribute to the extraordinary role women assumed in fighting the coup.
Today, 13 years after President Chavez’s first election, the lives of Venezuelan women have dramatically changed. The constitutional promises have been implemented in regulation and policy concerning gender equality and for the prevention violence against women. Laws have outlawed discrimination and have categorized 19 types of violence against women and created the institutions necessary to make the rights of women a reality.[ii] Granted, these issues all call for cultural and attitudinal changes in the relationships between men and women, which take time and education, but a clear legal basis is a strong impulse for such changes.
One of the main factors for the popularity of the Chávez Government is the reduction of poverty. This was largely attained because the government took back control of the national petroleum company PDVSA, and has used the abundant oil revenues, not for benefit of the rich as previous governments had done, but to build needed infrastructure and invest in the social services that Venezuelans so sorely needed. During the last ten years, the government has increased social spending by 60.6%, a total of $772 billion. [iii]
Women tend to be the majority among the poor all over the world due to their economic and social disadvantages and Venezuela has not been an exception. The Chavez government has significantly reduced general poverty from 49% in 1998 to 27% in 2011 and extreme poverty has been reduced from 27.4% (5.5 m) in 1998 to 7.3% (2.5m) today. [iv] The Organization of American States and the UN Development Program have both stated that Venezuela is at the head of the list of countries of the region that have reduced poverty the most.[v]
Economic milestones these last ten years include a reduction in unemployment from 11.3% to 7.7%; doubling the amount of people receiving social insurance benefits, and the public debt has been reduced from 20.7% to 14.3% of GNP. [vi] In general, the Venezuelan economy has grown 47.4% in ten years (4.3% per annum).
Among the many initiatives to promote popular economic enterprises, BAN MUJER was established in 2001, a bank solely for women. A very successful instrument helping women create their own businesses, it has given out 150,000 micro-credits to 2.5 million women, along with technical expertise and support for cooperatives.[vii] The substantive land reform also favours women, as women head of households are given priority when it comes to land redistribution. Furthermore, Venezuela is the country in the region with the least inequality (0.389 Gini index) and best redistribution of wealth between social classes.[viii]
Women in Venezuela have become not only the majority of the users but also the majority of providers of social services and anti-poverty programs[ix]. They are the majority in the election units of the governing party (PSUV) and very impressively, 70% of the members of the approximately 30,000 Communal Councils in the country are women. These Communal Councils play a pivotal role in decision making at the grass roots level to satisfy community social and economic needs and are the basis of participatory democracy.
Women hold some key and powerful positions in the government: as several ministers, President of the Supreme Court, Attorney General, National Ombudsman, National Elections Council, and Vice-presidency of the governing party PSUV are all women. Indeed, Venezuela is the country in the region with the highest inclusion of women in education and professional fields, according to the UN Human Development Program.
Health is an issue very dear to women’s hearts. In the new Venezuela, it is considered a human right, which the government is obliged to promote. Perhaps the most important, anti-poverty program that has galvanized women’s support is the government’s health care services and policies.
In 1998, access to medical care was abysmal and expensive, with only 20 physicians per 100,000 inhabitants. A creative arrangement with Cuba whereby in exchange for 100,000 barrels of petroleum, Cuba sends to Venezuela 45,000 health care workers, mostly physicians, [x]has made possible the health delivery program Barrio Adentro that places experienced physicians throughout urban poor neighborhoods, rural villages, and indigenous settlements. The huge majority of Cuban physicians in Venezuela are women. This program since its inception in 2003 has saved 302,171 lives and reduced maternal mortality as 99.3% of women giving birth attended by the Barrio Adentro physicians survive. [xi]
Today there are 59 physicians per 100,000 inhabitants, new clinics, and renovated and new hospitals throughout the country. There are now hundreds of emergency clinics, primary health clinics, and rehabilitation centres where a decade ago they were scarce. There is a new medical curriculum with the help of Cuban medical professors that emphasizes health as a human right and medical services grounded in the community. And, 70% of the new physicians graduating in the country are women.
One of the most important indicators of the welfare of a nation is the infant mortality rate. In 1998, that rate in Venezuela was 21 baby deaths per 1000 births. In 2011, the rate is 13.7 per 1000 births, the third lowest in Latin America, and an astounding achievement. [xii] Infant malnutrition went from 7.7% in 1998 to 3.2% in 2011, that is a 58.5% reduction, the 5th lowest in the region. [xiii] There are five laws that protect and promote breastfeeding, which is considered the very first act of food sovereignty. Breastfeeding increased from 7% a decade ago to 40% in 2010, and there are breast milk banks for babies at risk. In 70% of public schools, 4 million children are provided with free quality hot breakfast, hot lunch, and a nutritious snack before they leave school. There are 6,000 food dispensaries that feed 900.000 people in dire need– in total, about 5 million Venezuelans are provided with free food. [xiv] Thirteen years ago, there were approximately 8,000 children living on urban streets, and today they are practically negligible due to the programs to support street children.
Malnutrition in general has decreased due to these government food security measures plus others such as a real land reform, investment in agriculture, and promotion of cooperatives among rural workers and fishermen, and breaking up food distribution monopolies with a public food distribution network.
The better health of the population is not entirely due to medical services, but to the combined action on the social determinants of health: better nutrition, clean water and sanitation, more jobs and income per families, greater educational and training facilities, and greater social support and networking at the local levels, a literate and politically active and conscious population. And the government has had environmental initiatives and policies like no other previous administration, including, environmental assessments and protection, tree planting, water protection, energy efficiency and educational campaigns.
The government’s educational policies have rendered sterling results. Backed by UNESCO, Venezuela can claim to have eliminated illiteracy using the Cuban method of adult education with which 2 million people learned to read in less than 2 years. There are programs to help students finish High School, adult education to help people go to university, and a number of new universities in the country. The rate of students in primary school has increased from 85% to 93.6% and students in high school has increased even more, a 14% increase equivalent to 400.000 adolescents who are now continuing their studies.[xv] There are 20% more women than men continuing their studies.[xvi] And in the military field, which was a decade ago an exclusively masculine domain, today the majority of students at the military university UNEFA, are women. It is estimated that about 1/5 to 1/3 of the population of the country is enrolled in some educational program. Venezuela has met its educational Millennium Goals.
The United Nations has rated Venezuela among the countries with high level of human development, ranked #69 in its Human Development Index having advanced six places in ten years. [xvii]This indicator is supported by the Gallup Poll measuring happiness published by the Washington Post this year, that ranks Venezuela as the 5th most happy county tied with Finland.[xviii] This in itself should have made headlines around the world, but unfortunately, the international campaign to discount and denigrate everything related to the present Venezuelan government, denies the public knowledge of its considerable achievements.
While problems inherent to developing countries still persist in Venezuela, the progress that its government has made to satisfy its people’s real needs is impressive, and it is the reason that it has overwhelming support of women because it has improved their lives and those of their families. It is an indictment of the sorry state of the media in the northern developed countries, supposedly “independent” but prisoners of their political biases, that those achievements are not better known. On October 7 of this year, when President Chávez is elected with a handsome majority, those who have been fed by the mainstream media distorted views of the situation in Venezuela will be shaking their heads, not understanding that there are pivotal reasons why people in Venezuela vote for him, especially the women.
Maria Páez Victor, Ph.D., lives in Toronto.
[i] Se video: The Revolution will Not be Televised” http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5832390545689805144
[ii] George Gabriel, Gender Advance in Venezuela: a two-pronged affair, 13 March 2009, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/gender-advance-in-venezuela-a-two-pronged-affair
[iii] National Institute of Statistics, AVN March 4, 2012
[iv] AVN Prensa, 27 March 2012; National Institute of Statistics, AVN November 14, 2011
[v] Adrián Carmona, Algunos datos sobre Venezuela, Rebelión, marzo 2012
[vi] Adrián Carmona, Algunos datos sobre Venezuela, Rebelión, marzo 2012
[vii] Alba Carosio, Banmujer: 10 años impulsando la economía popular con igualdad, Rebelion, Feb. 4, 2011
[viii] National Institute of Statistics, AVN/ November 17/2010
[ix] The Guardian, Women Back Chávez, Feb. 25, 2005,
[xi] AVN Prensa 26 August 2010; YVKE Mundial/AVN/18 April 2011
[xii] Adrián Carmona, Algunos datos sobre Venezuela, Rebelión, marzo 2012
[xiii] YVKE/ 1 April 2011
[xiv] Statement by the Vice-President Elías Jaua, AVN April 23, 2012
[xv] Adrián Carmona, Algunos datos sobre Venezuela, Rebelión, marzo 2012
[xvi] UNESCO report, 2012
[xvii] AVN , January 13, 2009