COHA: A Decade in Power: An Assessment of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution

  • Chávez celebrates a decade of power
  • Venezuela’s progress over the last 10 years
  • Chávez’s social and economic reforms
  • Trouble in Chávez Presidency
  • Future U.S.-Venezuelan relations

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a former paratrooper turned socialist revolutionary and regional leader, declared a national holiday for February 2, the tenth anniversary of his being in power. On the day of the newly mandated celebration, Chávez reminded Venezuelans of the prosperity the country has witnessed over the last decade. He rallied his supporters with a speech proclaiming that his administration had encapsulated ‘three words: revolution, independence and socialism.’ He proclaimed to the thousands of sympathizers lining Caracas’ streets that the spirit of Venezuela’s forefather, Simon Bolivar, had been revived in him ten years ago, and assisted in the effort to liberate the Venezuelan people. Chávez, the founder of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), also used the occasion to issue a new document, ‘The Achievement in 10 years of Revolution.’ It outlines the government’s accomplishments such as economic reform, social welfare, and the prospect of major land reform. Chávez triumphantly told his followers that, ‘We have done in 10 years what couldn’t be done in one century.’

Social Reforms
After the recuperation of the control of the national petroleum company PDVSA and nationalization of foreign-held petroleum deposits and drilling sites, the resulting vast increase in governmental revenue began to be allocated towards critical achievements in living conditions for Venezuela’s poorest citizens, through public health, education, and job training programs. Initiatives such as the ‘Mission Vuelta al Campo’ permitted the funding, construction, expansion and refurbishment of healthcare facilities nationwide that ultimately benefited tens of thousands of ordinary Venezuelans. Free medical care allowed nearly two hundred thousand surgeries for cataracts and other ocular diseases that were performed nation-wide.

A poor Caracas native testified that thanks to Chávez’s ‘Rescatando La Sonrisa’ dentistry program, which arose out of universal healthcare, she was able to get her teeth fixed for the first time in her life. Olivia Delfino, an impoverished Caracas native, voted to re-elect Chávez in 2004 due to her new-found literacy. ‘Can you imagine what it has meant to me, at 52 years old, to now have a chance to read? It’s transformed my life,’ she cried to an American reporter, just after the election. Delfino was not the only one affected by universal education and programs such as ‘Mission Robinson.’ By 2005, illiteracy was essentially eradicated in the country. State sponsored literacy and educational programs also resulted in substantial gains in middle and higher education enrollment. Enrollment rates nearly doubled from 1999 to 2008, the period of time spanning Chávez’s term.

Aside from improvement in everyday life, Chávez secured longer lasting social welfare programs like the ‘social stability funds’ that guaranteed workers ‘fundamental rights such as retirement, pensions, vacations, and prenatal and postnatal leave.’ Under the non-exploitative workers’ program, the work week was shortened from 44 hours to 36 hours, and employers were prohibited from forcing wage earners to work overtime (Prensa Latina). He also raised the minimum wage to $286 per month, boasting the highest wage in Latin America. In addition to subsidizing basic food stuff by 40 percent, his decree on land reform, which aimed to eliminate Venezuela’s largest estates, while still allowing the plantation owners to hold huge swaths of land, permitted him to re-distribute 3 million hectares of land to the rural landless. For those most impoverished, Chávez put roofs over their heads by building block housing projects. To many observers, Chávez achieved the seemingly impossible over the course of a decade.

Economic Reforms
Even though Chávez has been mainly successful in aiding the poor of Venezuela while decreasing the overall poverty rate to less than one third of the population, he has been aggressively criticized for his inability to significantly reduce the country’s reliance on oil revenue and faulted for the nationalization of numerous private businesses, which seemed to be not worth the effort. Venezuelans have seen the governmental takeover, or partial takeover, of major electricity and telephone companies, reversing much of the privatization that occurred in the 1990s. Chávez bought an 82.14% stake in Electricidad de Caracas (AES Corp.) and a 28.5% stake in CANTV (Verizon Communications) back in 2007. Such takeovers – some dating back as early as 2003, and with the real GDP nearly doubling (growing an astronomical 95 percent in about six years) – were wildly popular and appreciated. On the other hand, foreign investments have plummeted in Venezuela while sky rocketing in many other Latin American countries. Peru, comparable in population to Venezuela, had an intake of nearly US$5.4 billion, with Venezuela taking in a meager US$500 million. Such down plunges have angered Chávez opponents who claim that his socialized businesses and government-subsidized products have hurt their small businesses. A Venezuelan native and Chávez adversary reported to the BBC that a newly opened and government-subsidized Mercal supermarket will put her modest food shop out of business.

Chávez’s revolution has alienated foreign governments by intervening into the external affairs of other countries. But his revolution showed a generosity of spirit which was almost unparalleled in terms of the often significant financial contributions and sharing of the country’s petroleum revenues for educational and medical services, in addition to a wide roster of foreign aid and acts of goodwill. In 1999 he agreed to export cheap oil to the Caribbean and Castro’s Cuba, America’s mortal foe. In 2007, Chávez upset the U.S. again by sending oil to Iran after riots erupted regarding petrol shortages. Chávez also has intentionally tried to isolate himself from the U.S. in order to generate authentic indigenous customs and practices. He then created the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a trade bloc including members from Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominica, and Cuba. Currently, ALBA is discussing the possibility of a regional currency which member states would use for intra-bloc trade. The primary goal of introducing a monetary union to Latin America is to reduce their dependence on the U.S. dollar.

Regardless of what critics may report, most of the population has reaped some of the many rewards that nationalization has provided in the form of governmental surplus. This, in turn, has created numerous social programs, which has had him promote social endeavors that have managed to stimulate the Venezuelan economy, evident in statistical data from the CEPR, showing that social spending in Venezuela per person has more than tripled from 1998-2006.

Presidential Challenges
Although the anti-American leader and close friend of Fidel Castro, has maintained the longest running presidential term since the country restored democracy over four decades ago, numerous beneficial changes have been generated. But Chávez’s presidency has not gone unchallenged. Chávez, who had first led a failed coup before being elected at the polls, faced a military coup of his own in 2002. Against the backdrop of Chávez supporters clashing with anti-Chávez protestors, he was forced to resign his power and was detained at a Venezuelan military base, while business leader Pedro Carmona was being introduced as the country’s interim president. Venezuelan soldiers loyal to Chávez, and of course those from the shanty towns who had been deprived of much information about what was happening downtown by the chicanery of the anti-Chávez television channel RCTV, succeeded in mounting a counter-coup that returned Chávez to power. Later, Chávez adamantly insisted, with objective evidence to support him, that the U.S. was involved in the attempt to overthrow him.

Just a year later, 3.2 million Venezuelans demanded a recall referendum to end Chávez’s presidential term prematurely. The National Electoral Council (CNE) dismissed the petition, stating that many signatures had been gathered before the mid-point of Chávez’s term, a constitutional technicality that the government was able to make use of. Furthermore, pro-Chávez groups reported being coerced into signing the petition at their workplace, which led to more questioning as to the validity of the document. Three months later, 3.6 million signatures were gathered in a span of four days once again to protest Chávez’s presidency. Although riots broke out because Chávez had accused the petitioners of fraud, the CNE granted a recall referendum. However, Chávez was able to mobilize 59% of the voters in a record voter turnout to put down the recall motion.

Despite a backing of 50 percent and a landslide victory in 2006, Chávez failed to gain enough support for the passage of an amendment to the constitution that would allow him to run for the presidency in 2007. Chávez’s fluctuating popularity would now be put to the test in the upcoming February 15 continuous re-election referendum, which calls for the removal of term limits on a long roster of popularly elected positions. If the referendum were to pass, the results of the election would still be unpredictable. If the referendum fails, then Chávez would be required to leave office at the end of his six year term in 2013, culminating almost a decade and a half as Venezuela’s leader.

Regardless, Chávez now has even further challenged the opposition by indicating that he may not even accept a referendum defeat and, in such an eventuality, would attempt to again try to pass it sometime in the future, stating that ‘there’s no limit in the constitution regarding the number of times that an amendment can be attempted,’ although some of his opponents would fiercely disagree.

The Future of Venezuela
Alberto Barrera, a reputable writer, accused the Venezuelan leader of ‘promising Venezuelans paradise but that paradise, which he calls socialism, depends on oil above $120.’ Now, although such a tart remark may be more revealing of Barrera’s skeptical politics than a telling insight into reality, he might have a point. As of only days ago, world oil prices stood at a meager $40 per barrel. Nonetheless, Chávez assured the world that his revolution will withstand the American-fueled economic crisis. He may be right. The Burlington County Times, amongst others, have projected oil prices might ascend to $60 per barrel. If gas prices are truly on the rise, Chávez won’t have to wait it out too long before the national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, starts raking in money once again. As long as oil is being bought and sold at a profitable price (around $60 per barrel), Chávez’s social programs can stay afloat even after his $42 billion in hard currency savings run out.

In regards to ties with the United States, Chávez has had a rocky history with his Northern neighbor. In an appearance before the United Nations, Chávez dubbed President George W, Bush ‘the devil.’ With such saucy language in the background leaving a troubled legacy, interactions with the U.S. since President Obama’s inauguration have failed to improve. While Obama offered to open talks with Venezuela to foster better relations, Chávez seemed almost uninterested to the U.S. leader’s previous green light for diplomatic talks, perhaps due to Obama’s perception of Chávez as a destructive force. Specifically, Obama has recognized him as ‘being a force that has interrupted progress in the region.’ Chávez responded, arguing that Obama had the ‘same stench’ as Bush. The prospect of Obama and Chávez conversing and forging the beginnings of a diplomatic relationship is encouraged by the fact that the U.S. leader has promised to no longer ignore Latin America and its multiple plights. Obama has already met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and speaks publicly about engaging in talks with longtime U.S. adversary Cuba. Hugo Chávez’s ten year legacy culminates with the February 15 vote on a re-election referendum, which to an extent will decide the future course of himself and his Revolution.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Ashley Wagner

February 13th, 2009
Word Count: 1900

Source: Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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