When Hugo Chávez was first elected President of Venezuela in 1998, it might well have been on a promise of “education, education, education”. Tripling the budget has meant an extra 1.5 million children attending school and over 300,000 poor Venezuelans going back into secondary education, as well as the virtual eradication of illiteracy.
The healthcare budget has also tripled, funding programmes like Barrio Adentro (“Into the Neighbourhoods”) in which over five thousand Cuban doctors live and work in the ghettos. Although most Venezuelan doctors refuse to participate, this is in fact the foundation of a new Venezuelan NHS.
Despite the media screaming “Casto-Communist”, Chávez’ economic programme is far from radical. No nationalisation of the banks or private industry, just investment of Venezuela’s oil wealth in the Venezuelan people, and giving them a say in how they want their country run. As Chávez himself describes it, truly a “third way”.
With so much in common, you might think that Tony Blair and his cronies would be falling over themselves to offer support to this fledgeling progressive movement. Even without Britain’s huge oil interest in Venezuela, a productive and comradely relationship between the two countries would be in everyone’s interest.
So it came as quite a surprise to some when during the botched coup of 2002, which happened right after a UK visit appealing for international solidarity, Foreign Office spokes-minister Dennis McShane described Chávez as “a ranting populist demagogue”.
Writing in The Times on April 14th, while Chávez was being held hostage at gunpoint on a military island in the Caribbean, McShane elaborated on meeting the Venezuelan leader: “He was dressed in a red paratrooper’s beret and rugby shirt and waved his arms up and down like Mussolini – an odd, disturbing spectacle.”
It has also emerged that in the run-up to the recent recall referendum, the Foreign Office was privately and surreptitiously briefing that Chávez was “on the rocks”. Venezuelan Ambassador to London, Alfredo Toro-Hardy, was shocked when informed of this by activists, insisting that all the professional polls were predicting a government victory. Chávez was reaffirmed with almost 60% of the vote.
John McDonnell MP, who sponsored the Early Day Motion 854 in support of Chávez which was signed by thirty MPs, is placing solidarity with Venezuela central to the demands of the newly-launched Labour Representation Committee. At a meeting in Westminster, he proposed “putting down Parliamentary questions, seeking debates on the floor of the House of Commons, and holding ministers to account about why they’re doing nothing to support the Chávez government.”
Also at the meeting, which was organised by solidarity campaign Hands Off Venezuela, Jeremy Corbyn MP explained why he had proposed inviting President Chávez, instead of Iraq’s Allawi, to speak at this year’s Labour Party conference: “Because he’s democratically-elected, he represents social movements, he represents something positive around the world, and he’s not a stooge of the United States. I haven’t heard back yet from Tony Blair on this one.”
With Chávez now looking more solid than either Blair or Bush, and Big Oil making much more money in Venezuela than Iraq, the Labour Party must be wondering whether they backed the right horse. At least Venezuelans have a leader who keeps his promises, is supported by the people, and can stand up to Bush’s blackmail. Here in the UK, that all seems quite far away.