(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 22, 2009
Venezuela: One Decade and a Yes for More
R Arun Kumar
HUGO Chavez has won yet another victory in the referendum to amend the constitution and pave way for the removal of term limits for the election of a person to all the elected posts. The 'yes' vote secured 54.4 per cent of the nearly 67 per cent votes polled on February 15, 2009. That means 6.31 million people of Venezuela had voted 'yes'. The 'yes' vote triumphed by over 8 per cent vote, a remarkable margin considering the fact that this amendment was one of the 69 articles that were put for referendum in December 2007 and narrowly defeated. It should also be remembered here that this is Chavez’s 14th victory in the 15 elections that were held during his ten years in power.
We should not fall for the imperialist claptrap that castigates all these victories as achieved by the use of force and making a farce of democracy. This victory is a result of significant achievements of the 'Bolivarian revolution'. In 1998, when Chavez won the election, nearly 75 per cent of his countrymen were living in poverty, one in every five children were malnourished, high infant, child, neo-natal mortality rates and huge income differentials were prevalent. A decade after, due to the emphasis on social sector spending and steps to correct the income inequities, Venezuela registered considerable achievements.
SOCIAL SECTOR SPENDING
MORE THAN TRIPLED SINCE 1998
People living in poverty decreased by more than 50 per cent and most significantly this period witnessed a 72 per cent fall in the number of people living in extreme poverty. Infant and child mortality rates have fallen by one-third and neo-natal rates have fallen by more than a half. Average caloric intake increased and deaths due to malnourishment have fallen by more than a half. One of the reasons is a programme providing free breakfast, lunch and snacks to children in schools covering four million children. The subsidised supply of food through government stores too had played an important role in this. 30-50 per cent subsidy is given to the people who buy food from these network stores and in 2008, 62.9 per cent of the population utilised this service.
The number of primary health care physicians in public sector increased by 12 times and nearly 400,000 people were restored their eye sight free of cost. Cuba provided substantial help by sending its doctors to help the Venezuelans. In the field of education, Venezuela became the second country in Latin America to eliminate illiteracy completely. The most strikingly visible gains were made in the field of higher education where the enrolment rates had increased by 138 per cent in this decade. Education that was a privilege, restricted only to the rich was made a right with free access to all.
Unemployment had fallen from 11.3 per cent to 7.8 per cent. More than fifty per cent of the workforce is employed in the formal sector. Minimum monthly wage that was $118 in 1998 was increased to $286, the highest in the entire Latin American continent. The reach of old age and disability benefit programmes has more than doubled in this decade. 60-80 per cent of the minimum wage is given as aid to senior citizens who had never worked before, defenceless women and physically challenged. Housewives over 61 years receive complete pension, with priority given to the poor. Social spending on each person has more than tripled from 1998. Half of this year's budget goes to social spending and poverty reduction.
The earlier decline in the economic growth was halted and in these ten years, according to conservative estimates GDP grew on an average by 4.3 per cent annually. In the realm of agriculture, Chavez had nationalised two million out of 6.5 million hectares of arable land that has to be nationalised from the big landowners. 49 per cent of this land was distributed to the peasants and the rest to various projects and co-operatives.
A TOP PRIORITY
In these ten years, starting with the Petróleos de Venezuela S A (PDVSA) in 2003, the government had initiated the process of nationalisation of key industries and sectors. Nationalisation of hydrocarbons placed enormous reserves of money in government's hands. After the workers takeover of Venepal, a paper manufacturing factory in 2005, Chavez had stated: “I invite the worker’s leaders to follow on this path” openly encouraging workers to occupy factories. Production through workers cooperatives is encouraged with more than 84,000 of those in operation.
In the political arena, grassroots level democracy was strengthened. People were organised in nearly 25,000 community councils. Revolutionary flame was kindled among the masses who have sustained the revolution as its chief driving force. All these measures empowered people and raised their consciousness to a new height. Along with their confidence, their aspirations too are increasing. People trained in the democratic spirit are critically evaluating the progress of the revolution.
One of the most significant achievements of Chavez was to break the decades long power swapping between Accion Democratic and Coppei, the two ruling class parties in Venezuela. People previously considered elections as a process 'to decide once every few years which members of the ruling class are to repress and crush the people through parliament'. This is slowly being changed as can be witnessed in the high voting percentages in the elections. This belief among the people ignited by the revolution can be retained only by 'the conversion of the representative institutions from talking shops into “working” bodies'.
Venezuelan state today is a real battleground of ideas. It is a theatre where the 'irreconcilability of class antagonisms' are getting manifested more sharply. It is also a laboratory where the course for the emancipation of humankind is being experimented. At test is the principle whether the working class can or 'cannot lay hold of the readymade state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'. Also being tested is whether it is a 'pre-condition for every peoples' revolution' to 'smash the bureaucratic-military machine'. As scientific socialists, we should expect 'the experience of the mass movement to provide the reply to the question'. As outsiders observing the unfolding events, we should scientifically analyse the actors and the factors but not hastily jump to conclusions.
A big ideological debate is going on in PSUV, Chavez's political party. There are elements in the PSUV who are against the revolution and all its stated objectives. They, of course, do not want Chavism without Chavez but want Chavez without socialism. These elements of the right are in some cases occupying key posts both in the party and the government. Opposed to them is another section that wants to hasten the pace of revolution. Then there are the centrists who want to adopt a cautious approach and protect the unity of the revolution. One common factor uniting all of them, of course, is their loyalty to Chavez.
The intensity of the debate and the fissures in the party increases as the pressure from below increases on the government to translate its rhetoric into action. In the recent regional elections, people in most instances defeated the rightist elements in the PSUV. People easily saw through their hypocritical adherence to the revolutionary ideals, corruption, lavish lifestyles and booted them. This is an important lesson for the revolution. Unfortunately, some of these defeated candidates were later appointed as ministers by an executive order of president Chavez.
A similar debate is ranging between the alliance partners - PSUV, PCV and PST. The recent elections brought into open the strained relationship of the allies. Setting aside his initial reluctance, Chavez took the initiative for rebuilding unity and was, in fact, partly successful. Still, serious differences persist.
The Bolivarian revolution is facing severe resistance in its attempts to 'reduce the role of state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions'. Sections of the bureaucracy, police, army and other state organs are still against revolution due to their class interests. They are trying their utmost to sabotage the progress of the revolution. Corruption and lethargy in the implementation of the decisions benefiting the poor is rampant. This was glaringly reflected in the way the decision to provide houses to the homeless was implemented. Such acts naturally fuel discontent among the people. This is identified as one of the reasons in the defeat of the constitutional amendment referendum in 2007.
The government is trying to counter these attempts by further empowering the people. The community councils and the cooperatives of the working men are empowered to sit and decide collectively their problems, identify their needs and priorities and decide on plans to achieve them. Government is providing them with the necessary finances. A section of the officials and politicians are afraid of this process, as they look at it as an erosion of their power. They are trying to 'impose' their view from above under the pretext that the common people or workers do not know anything about management. This attitude of the government representatives generates a mistaken impression that the government acts against what it says.
Another such example, though isolated, is the failure of the state machinery to shed its legacy of oppression. In spite of clear orders from the government in many areas, specifically in the areas controlled by the opposition, police is using repression on workers. In some instances, there were reports that policemen were involved in the killing of workers who have played an important role in factory occupations. These are attempts to project the revolution in the same light as the previous regimes preceding it and also terrorise the people.
The opposition representing the capitalist class, too, is playing its part with active connivance of the media and the US. USAID has allocated $20 million for the 'restoration of democracy' in the country. The violent demonstrations, attacks on the supporters of the government, brutal murders of the trade union leaders and stopping the work of various missions in the states where they had won, are all attempts to derail the revolutionary process.
It is still the private sector that is growing at a faster rate, in spite of the expansion of the government sector during this period. This has been the case for the entire period except for the three quarters of 2008. Though efforts to diversify production from being dependent on oil are carried, oil is still the chief source of income for the state. 93 per cent of its exports are petroleum products.
The enemies of the revolution are biding for their time hoping that the present economic crisis would provide them a perfect chance to defeat the revolution. They are desperately praying for the oil prices to fall further hoping that they dry up the monetary resources available to the government and throw a spanner in its poverty alleviation programmes. Venezuelan government states that there is no immediate threat perceived with the fall in oil prices because of vast foreign exchange reserves. But, if the situation does not change by 2010, they admit there will be reasons for concern.
These ten years were a roller coaster ride for Chavez. The coup of 2002, the three month long oil strike called by the managers, coupled with the sabotage of oil production and the various elections in this period are not just milestones in the history of Venezuela but are also practical tutorials. They taught many invaluable lessons. They had sharpened Chavez’s critique on imperialism, strengthened his commitment towards socialism, his zeal to work for the betterment of his country and shape his ideas.