Good Things Happening in Venezuela




E

ven
before I arrived in Venezuela for a recent visit, I encountered
the great class divide in that country. On my connecting flight
from Miami to Caracas, I found myself seated next to an exquisitely
dressed Venezuelan woman. Judging from her prosperous aspect, I
anticipated that she would take the first opportunity to hold forth
against President Hugo Chavez. Unfortunately, I was right. 


Our
conversation moved along famously until we got to the political
struggle going on in Venezuela. “Chavez,” she hissed,
“is terrible, terrible.” He is “a liar.” He
“fools the people” and is “ruining the country.” 


She
owns an upscale women’s fashion company with links to prominent
firms in the United States. When I asked how Chavez has hurt her
business, she said, “Not at all.” But many other businesses,
she quickly added, have been irreparably damaged as has the whole
economy. She went on denouncing Chavez in sweeping terms, warning
me of the national disaster to come if this demon continued to have
his way. 


Other
critics I encountered in Venezuela shared this same mode of attack:
weak on specifics, but strong in venom, voiced with all the ferocity
of those who fear that their birthright (that is, their class advantage)
is under siege because others below them on the social ladder are
now getting a slightly larger slice of the pie. 


In
Venezuela over 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty
level. Before Chavez, most of the poor had never seen a doctor or
dentist. Their children never went to school, since they could not
afford the annual fees. The neoliberal market “adjustments”
of the 1980s and 1990s only made things worse, cutting social spending
and eliminating subsidies in consumer goods. Successive Administrations
did nothing about the rampant corruption and nothing about the growing
gap between rich and poor, the growing malnutrition and desperation. 


Far
from ruining the country, here are some of the good things the Chavez
government has accomplished: 


  • A land reform
    program designed to assist small farmers and the landless poor
    has been instituted—this past March a large landed estate
    owned by a British beef company was occupied by agrarian workers
    for farming purposes 

  • Education is
    now free (right through to university level), causing a dramatic
    increase in grade school enrollment 

  • The government
    has set up a marine conservation program and is taking steps to
    protect the land and fishing rights of indigenous peoples 

  • Special banks
    now assist small enterprises, worker cooperatives, and farmers
     

  • Attempts to
    further privatize the state-run oil industry—80 percent of
    which is still publicly owned—have been halted and limits
    have been placed on foreign capital penetration 

  • Chavez kicked
    out U.S. military advisors and prohibited overflights by U.S.
    military aircraft engaged in counterinsurgency in Colombia 

  • “Bolivarian
    Circles” have been organized throughout the nation, neighborhood
    committees designed to activate citizens at the community level
    to assist in literacy, education, vaccination campaigns, and other
    public services 

  • The government
    hires unemployed men, on a temporary basis, to repair streets
    and neglected drainage and water systems in poor neighborhoods
     


        


Then
there is the health program. I visited a dental clinic in Chavez’s
home state of Barinas. The staff consisted of four dentists, two
of whom were young Venezuelan women. The other two were Cuban men
who were there on a one-year program. The Venezuelan dentists noted
that in earlier times dentists did not have enough work. There were
millions of people who needed treatment, but care was severely rationed
by one’s ability to pay. Dental care was distributed like any
other commodity, not to everyone who needed it, but only to those
who could afford it. 


When
the free clinic in Barinas first opened it was flooded with people
seeking dental care. No one was turned away. Even opponents of the
Chavez government availed themselves of the free service, temporarily
putting aside their political aversions. 


Many
of the doctors and dentists who work in the barrio clinics (along
with some of the clinical supplies and pharmaceuticals) come from
Cuba. Chavez has also put Venezuelan military doctors and dentists
to work in the free clinics. Meanwhile, much of the Venezuelan medical
establishment is vehemently opposed to the free clinic program,
seeing it as a Cuban communist campaign to undermine medical standards
and physicians’ earnings. That low-income people are receiving
medical and dental care for the first time in their lives does not
seem to be a consideration that carries much weight among the more
“professionally minded” practitioners.



I
visited one of the government-supported community food stores that
are located around the country, mostly in low income areas. These
modest establishments sell canned goods, pasta, beans, rice, and
some produce and fruits at well below market price, a blessing in
a society with widespread malnutrition.  


Popular
food markets have eliminated the layers of middlepeople and made
staples more affordable for residents. Most of these markets are
run by women. The government also created a state-financed bank
whose function is to provide low-income women with funds to start
cooperatives in their communities. 


There
is a growing number of worker cooperatives. One in Caracas was started
by turning a waste dump into a shoe factory and a T-shirt factory.
Financed with money from the Petroleum Ministry, the coop has put
about 1,000 people to work. The workers seem enthusiastic and hopeful. 


Surprisingly,
many Venezuelans know relatively little about the worker cooperatives.
Or perhaps it’s not surprising, given the near monopoly that
private capital has over the print and broadcast media. The wealthy
media moguls, all vehemently anti-Chavez, own four of the five television
stations and all the major newspapers. 


The
person most responsible for Venezuela’s revolutionary developments,
Hugo Chavez, has been accorded the usual ad hominem treatment in
the U.S. news media. An article in the

San Francisco Chronicle

described him as “Venezuela’s pugnacious president.”
An earlier

Chronicle

report (November 30, 2001) quotes a
political opponent who calls Chavez “a psychopath, a terribly
aggressive guy.” The London

Financial Times

sees him
as “increasingly autocratic” and presiding over something
called a “rogue democracy.” 


In
the

Nation

(May 6, 2002), Marc Cooper—one of those Cold
War liberals who nowadays regularly defends the U.S. empire—writes
that the democratically-elected Chavez speaks “often as a thug,”
who “flirts with megalomania.” Chavez’s behavior,
Cooper rattles on, “borders on the paranoiac,” is “ham-fisted
demagogy” acted out with an “increasingly autocratic style.”
Like so many critics, Cooper downplays Chavez’s accomplishments
and uses name-calling in place of informed analysis. 


Other
media mouthpieces have labeled Chavez “mercurial,” “besieged,”
“heavy-handed,” “incompetent,” and “dictatorial,”
a “barracks populist,” a “strongman,” a “firebrand,”
and, above all, a “leftist.” It is never explained what
“leftist” means. 


A
leftist is someone who advocates a more equitable distribution of
social resources and human services and who supports the kinds of
programs that the Chavez government is putting in place. (Likewise
a rightist is someone who opposes such programs and seeks to advance
the insatiable privileges of private capital and the wealthy few.)
The term “leftist” is frequently bandied about in the
U.S. media, but seldom defined. The power of the label is in its
remaining undefined, allowing it to have an abstracted built-in
demonizing impact, which precludes rational examination of its political
content. 


Meanwhile
Chavez’s opponents, who staged an illegal and unconstitutional
coup in April 2002 against the democratically elected government,
are depicted in the U.S. media as champions of “pro-democratic”
and “pro-West” governance. We are talking about the free-market
plutocrats and corporate-military leaders of the privileged social
order who killed more people in the 48 hours they held power in
2002 than were ever harmed by Chavez in his years of rule. 


When
one of these perpetrators, General Carlos Alfonzo, was hit with
charges for the role he had played, the

New York Times



chose to call him a “dissident” whose rights were
being suppressed by the Chavez government. Four other top military
officers charged with leading the 2002 coup were also likely to
face legal action. No doubt, they too will be described not as plotters
or traitors who tried to destroy a democratic government, but as
“dissidents,” decent individuals who are being denied
their right to disagree with the government. 


President
Hugo Chavez, whose public talks I attended on three occasions, proved
to be an educated, articulate, remarkably well-informed and well-read
individual. He manifests a sincere dedication to effecting some
salutary changes for the great mass of his people, a person who
in every aspect seems worthy of the decent and peaceful democratic
revolution he is leading. Millions of his compatriots correctly
perceive him as being the only president who has ever paid attention
to the nation’s poorest areas. No wonder he is the target of
calumny and coup from the upper echelons in his own country and
from ruling circles up north. 


Chavez
charges that the United States government is plotting to assassinate
him. I can believe it.



 





Michael Parenti’s
recent books include



Superpatriotism



(City Lights)
and



The Assassination of Julius Caesar



(New Press),
which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His forthcoming book,



The
Culture Struggle



will be published by Seven Stories Press
in the fall of 2005.