Halfway through President Hugo Chávezs term in office, Venezuela faces many challenges, but it also has made significant progress in a number of areas.
Since Venezuela provides a critical 14 percent of the U.S. oil supply and could be providing substantial natural gas in the future, progress in this sector is important to Americans. Our state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, is currently operating at full capacity, producing nearly 3.4 million barrels of oil per day. By 2008 we expect to raise that to 5.5 million barrels per day. Venezuela made an incredible and successful effort to restore production after an illegal stoppage of oil production that harmed not only our people but also consumers worldwide.
Our domestic programs are also beginning to show results. A literacy campaign that started three years ago is now benefiting more than 200,000 people and will reach 800,000 by the end of this year. With a tripling of the education budget, we have completed construction of 1,300 schools and repaired hundreds of others. School enrollment has increased by 12 percent in just four years. More than one million Venezuelans were incorporated into the educational system.
We are also proud of our land-reform program, which has benefited more than 130,000 families this year alone. With 10 percent of the land in Venezuela owned by the state, we will continue to make land available to many more of our citizens who never had any hope of owning their own land.
One of our biggest accomplishments was adopting a new constitution that was approved by more than 70 percent of voters. It’s one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It recognizes the value of women’s housework and the rights of indigenous people to their own land and court system. It even gives military officers the mandate to refuse any order that violates international human-rights laws. It also provides for a process by which any elected official, including the president, can be recalled in a referendum.
If constitutional procedures are followed correctly, there could be as many as 60 recall initiatives brought forward involving officeholders from various political parties. Our government is committed to following all the laws of the land, including those that pertain to recall referendum procedures.
A FALSE IMPRESSION
Recent statements by some U.S. officials and discussions in the press have created a false impression about what is happening in Venezuela. To clarify: The Venezuelan government did not make an agreement with anyone to hold a recall referendum, nor would such an agreement be constitutional. Just as in California, Venezuelans who wish to have a recall referendum will have to gather the required signatures and follow the constitutionally mandated procedures.
U.S. officials have been trying to cast doubt on the Venezuelan government’s commitment to respecting this constitutional process. These allegations not only are false and without evidence; they also pose a threat to our democracy. They encourage elements of the Venezuelan opposition to use illegal methods to gain power, as they have already done with the military coup of last year and a 64-day oil strike that ended in February.
Venezuela is a constitutional democracy, with complete freedom of the press, speech, assembly and association. As former President Jimmy Carter noted last year, “freedom of speech is as alive in Venezuela as it is in any other country I’ve visited.”
CONTROL OF THE MEDIA
Opponents of the government control not only the vast majority of the media but also about 48 percent of the National Assembly (Congress). The Supreme Court, which is the final arbiter of any dispute over elections, has repeatedly demonstrated its independence from the government — even dismissing charges against military officers who led last year’s coup.
Despite an attempted coup and an economically damaging oil strike aimed at toppling our democratically elected government, we are moving forward. We continue to enjoy much support from our citizens, many of whom feel that for the first time their voices are being heard by their government.
Good political relations are based on mutual respect. Venezuela and the United States should expand our common interests and manage our differences.
I will continue to work toward these goals.
Bernardo Alvarez Herrera is the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States.