Mérida, January 18th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – In his annual address to the National Assembly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced a 25% increase in the minimum wage this year, promised that funding to health care, education, and other anti-poverty programs will not be cut, and spoke of the influence of both Christianity and Marxism on his government’s policies.
“In the year 2009 we declared ourselves in a position of economic defense, that we would do all we can to defend ourselves as a people, guarantee employment, protect salaries, social security, and social investment, which we define as of maximum priority,” said the president.
Chavez alluded to his government’s maintenance of social spending even as it reduced the national budget by more than 6% and nearly tripled its domestic debt in early 2009 in response to a sharp drop in the price of oil, Venezuela’s chief export, as a result of the world financial crisis.
14 million Venezuelans, who constitute approximately half the population, regularly benefit from the government’s subsidized and regulated-price food production and distribution networks and food cafeterias, which manage 27% of all Venezuelan food consumption, Chavez said.
“We have to achieve the expansion of [the state-run food networks] Mercal and PDVAL so that we continue to provide cheap and high quality foods for the people,” the president added, emphasizing that the social programs must be “transitory” and channel people out of poverty.
“There is an important, appreciable difference between the poor of the past and the poor who remain now. Now, they have food, medical care, and free medicines,” Chavez said, mentioning the expansion of primary health care coverage to nearly 100% of the population. “Some day, they will get out of their situation, through these transitory programs.”
In addition, Chavez said the minimum wage would be increased by 10% on March 1st, then by 15% in September. This will bring the minimum wage from approximately 950 bolivars per month to nearly 1,200 bolivars per month, and it comes in addition to a 20% minimum wage increase in 2008.
The announcement came a week after the government initiated its a plan to devalue the national currency and increase public investments in non-oil exports and domestic manufacturing to substitute imports and wean off oil dependence. It also came as Venezuela’s cumulative inflation in 2009 decreased by nearly six percent compared to the year before, although it remains the highest in Latin America.
National worker unions, including the country’s largest national union federation UNETE, released several communiqués expressing their support for the measures last week, but strongly urged wage increases to counter the potential inflation caused by the devaluation.
New Electricity Minister
To improve the government’s management of the current national electricity shortage, Chavez announced that he will transfer his current finance minister, Ali Rodriguez, to direct the Electricity Ministry, which was created last month to handle the crisis. Chavez said he would merge the Finance Ministry and the Planning Ministry into one, which will be directed by current Planning Minister Jorge Giordani.
Last week, Chavez asked for the resignation of his first minister for electricity, Angel Rodriguez, after irregularities in the management of programmed power outages nation-wide caused public dissent and confusion. In his address on Friday, he reiterated that the government “does not have any complex about recognizing errors. I became aware of a reality, a poorly executed plan… in no more than 24 hours we rectified it.”
Rodriguez will be charged with executing a series of electricity-saving measures, including scheduled power outages, mandatory limits on consumption and operating hours in public and private institutions, public education and incentive for consumer conservation, and public investments in energy production.
What makes the current state of global affairs historically unique, said Chavez, is that it represents “all crises united into one… it is much more than an economic crisis; it is a moral crisis, a crisis of values, that engulfs the entire world; it is a financial, food, environmental, and climate crisis.”
This crisis is also “a demonstration that not only is capitalism not the only alternative for humanity… twenty years have passed since the ‘end of history,’ and this crisis is a demonstration that capitalism and neo-liberalism constitute the most horrifying perversion!”
Venezuela’s construction of “21st Century Socialism,” commonly referred to as the “Bolivarian Revolution” in reference to Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar, is responding to this crisis with an approach that is influenced by both Christianity and Marxism, said the president.
“This revolution, and I say this as a Christian, is profoundly Christian. Long live Christ the revolutionary redeemer!” Chavez exclaimed. “Christ was a socialist, I believe it. Who could imagine that Christ was capitalist? Christ was more radical than all of us combined.”
Chavez mentioned the influence of other heroes from Latin American history, including Cuba’s Jose Marti, Venezuela’s Francisco de Miranda, and Nicaragua’s Augusto Sandino, but he made special mention of German philosopher Karl Marx, saying, “Marxism is the most advanced proposal toward the world that Christ came to announce more than 2,000 years ago.”
With regard to Venezuela’s strained diplomatic relationship with its top oil customer and political opponent, the United States, Chavez criticized the administration of President Barack Obama for backing the coup regime that overthrew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya last June, and for unleashing “a thrust of seven stab wounds in the heart of Latin America,” in reference to the seven Colombian military bases that the U.S. will use to expand its spying and military operations across the South American continent.
“As the months passed in 2009, the enigma of President Obama, an enigma in which the United States people believed, crumbled to pieces,” Chavez said. “The events clarified the panorama for those who might have had illusions about the new U.S. government.”
At the start of his address, President Chavez asked for a moment of silence for the people of Haiti who are suffering the deadly effects of a series of recent earthquakes, with estimates indicating hundreds of thousands of dead and missing.
Chavez urged the world not only to provide aid to Haiti, but to ask, “Why is Haiti such a poor country, why does its population depend on family remittances from abroad for almost 50% of its income, why don’t we analyze the realities that led to the current situation in Haiti?”
Reading from a letter written by former Cuban President Fidel Castro, Chavez said, “Nobody says a word to remember that Haiti was the first country where four hundred thousand African slaves trafficked by the Europeans revolted against 30,000 white owners of coffee and sugar cane plantations, carrying out the first great social revolution in our hemisphere.”
“Haiti is a net product of colonialism and imperialism over more than a century; of military interventions and the extraction of its riches,” Chavez read.