CARACAS, Sep 8 (IPS) – Not even the debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), specific poverty reduction targets adopted by the international community in 2000, has escaped the political polarisation that divides Venezuela between the supporters and detractors of President Hugo Chávez.
The government is upset that in its assessment of Venezuela’s progress towards the MDGs, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) cited the 2002 infant mortality rate.
Education Minister Aristóbulo Istúriz, the head of the ministerial cabinet’s social team, noted that the 2002 infant mortality rate of 17.3 per 1,000 live births was cited "without mentioning the political events that had an impact on that statistic."
In April 2002, Chávez was removed from office for two days by a short-lived coup d’etat, and in December of that year, the opposition movement began a two-month general strike that brought the oil industry – the backbone of the Venezuelan economy – to its knees and caused economic losses of more than 10 billion dollars.
Istúriz and Health Minister Francisco Armada visited ECLAC headquarters in Chile in July to protest the U.N. regional body’s evaluation of Venezuela’s compliance with the MDGs.
They noted that in the past two years, 17 million of Venezuela’s 26 million people have benefited from the "Barrio Adentro" (Into the Neighbourhood) programme that has brought primary health care, provided by 15,000 Cuban doctors, and the free delivery of 120 different medicines to poor urban and rural areas.
One of the eight MDGs, agreed at the 2000 U.N. General Assembly in New York, is to reduce by 2015 the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds, taking 1990 levels as the baseline.
According to ECLAC, the under-five infant mortality rate in Venezuela stood at 25 per 1,000 live births in 1990 and 17.3 per 1,000 in 2003 (actually the 2002 figure).
With respect to the first MDG, halving the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day, ECLAC reported that Argentina, with 16.9 percent extreme poverty in 2004 (compared to 8.2 percent in 1990), and Venezuela (22.2 percent in 2004 compared to 14.6 percent in 1990) are lagging behind in Latin America.
Istúriz and Armada protested to ECLAC Executive Secretary José Luis Machinea that the report was "biased" and did not reflect the real situation in the country, and that it "has begun to be used by third parties as part of the smear campaign" against the government.
Istúriz said "The report is based on statistics that do not take into account the ‘missions’," the government’s name for the social programmes implemented in the past two years.
ECLAC officials admitted that its report, "The Millennium Development Goals in the Context of Latin America and the Caribbean", was based on statistics from 2003 or earlier, which were used to formulate projections for 2005, said Venezuelan officials.
The health programme is just one of the broad range of social initiatives carried out by the Chávez administration, which analysts say have a great deal to do with the fact that the leftist president’s popularity ratings remain so high, between 60 and 80 percent according to the latest opinion polls.
The Mercal programme makes food products available at subsidised prices to some 15 million people, while hundreds of thousands of impoverished Venezuelans receive free meals in soup kitchens, according to official figures.
In addition, 1.5 million adults have learned how to read and write in a massive literacy drive, and Venezuela will soon be declared "an illiteracy-free territory," said Istúriz.
Altogether, the government’s educational programmes "have incorporated four million people who were previously excluded, 500,000 of whom receive scholarship grants of 100 dollars a month," he said.
A total of 1.3 million adults are now attempting to complete their primary school education, 800,000 have returned to their secondary school studies, and 350,000 have returned to the university, while over one million are taking part in skills and vocational training programmes, said Istúriz.
The Venezuelan government not only questions the statistics cited by ECLAC, but the conceptual basis of the MDGs as well. "We see poverty as a complex process that transcends the monetary focus that seems to predominate in the MDGs," said Deputy Minister of Health Carlos Alvarado.
"We should not resign ourselves to a minimum subsistence-level income," said Alvarado. "One or two dollars a day do not guarantee quality of life, and we are proposing new indicators for analysing and following up on the MDGs, to measure quality of life and access to education, health, housing, work and participation."
The government and U.N. agencies in Caracas are working together to design a mechanism for measuring the impact of the social programmes on poverty reduction.
A source with the U.N. commented to IPS, on condition of anonymity, that "we are designing the mechanism on the supposition that the missions should be reducing poverty, and I hope we don’t come up with a different result."
Venezuela brought up its criticism of the way the country’s compliance with the MDGs has been evaluated, in the debate on a hemispheric social charter.
In the context of the proposed social charter, which is being discussed in the Organisation of American States (OAS), Chávez suggested a programme to train, along with Cuba, 100,000 new doctors from Latin America and the Caribbean over the next 10 years.
Istúriz also called for a continent-wide plan to fight illiteracy, which affects 36 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to ECLAC.
The government’s social programmes, as well as its regional proposals, have received a major boost from the windfall earnings from record high oil prices that have pushed Venezuela’s foreign reserves up to 32 billion dollars, which would be enough money, for example, to cover the country’s imports for three years.
But the availability of funds does not necessarily mean they are being administered effectively. Chávez himself, when delivering the order for credits to carry out improvements in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Caracas, told the local residents: "If in two weeks the funds haven’t arrived, block the highway in protest."