When the rule of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was reaffirmed in a landslide 58-42 percent victory on Sunday, the opposition who put the recall vote on the ballot was stunned. They obviously don’t spend much time in the nation’s poor neighborhoods.
I knew Chavez would win the referendum when I met Olivia Delfino in a poor Caracas barrio that our international election delegation visited. Olivia came running out of her tiny house and grabbed my arm. “Tell the people of your country that we love Hugo Chavez,” she insisted. She went on to tell me how her life had changed since he came to power. After living in the barrio for 40 years, she now had a formal title to her home and a bank loan to fix the roof so it wouldn’t leak. Thanks to the Cuban dentists and a program called “Rescatando la sonrisa”—recovering the smile—for the first time in her life she was able to get her teeth fixed. And her daughter is in a job training program to become a nurse’s assistant.
Getting more and more animated, Olivia dragged me over to a poster on the wall showing Hugo Chavez with a throng of followers and a list of Venezuela’s new social programs that read: “The social programs are ours, let’s defend them.” Then slowly and laboriously, she began reading the list of social programs: literacy, health care, job training, land reform, subsidized food, small loans. I asked her if she was just learning to read and write as part of the literacy program. That’s when she started crying. “Can you imagine what’s it has meant to me, at 52 years old, to now have a chance to read?” she said. “It’s transformed my life.”
Walk through poor barrios in Venezuela and you’ll hear the same stories over and over. The very poor can now go to a designated home in the neighborhood to pick up a hot meal every day. The elderly have monthly pensions that allow them to live with dignity. Young people can take advantage of greatly expanded free college programs. And with 13,000 Cuban doctors spread throughout the country and reaching over half the population, the poor now have their own family doctors on call 24-hours a day—doctors who even make house calls. This heath care, including medicines, are all free.
The programs are being paid for with the income from Venezuela’s oil, which is at an all-time high. Previously, the nation’s oil wealth benefited only a small, well-connected elite who kept themselves in power for 40 years through an electoral duopoly. The vast majority in this oil-rich nation remained poor, disenfranchised, and disempowered. With the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 on a platform of sharing the nation’s oil wealth with the poorest, all that has changed. The poor are now not only recipients of these programs, they are actively engaged in running them. They’re turning abandoned buildings into neighborhood centers, running community kitchens, volunteering to teach in the literacy programs and organizing neighborhood health brigades.
Infuriated by their loss of power, the elite have used their control over the media to blast Chavez for destroying the economy, cozying up to Fidel Castro, antagonizing the US government, expropriating private property, and governing through dictatorial rule.
They also accuse Chavez of using the social programs that have so improved the lives of the poor as a way to gain voters. In this, the opposition is right: providing people with free health care, education, small business loans and job training is certainly a good way to win the hearts and minds of the people.
Sunday’s overwhelming victory for Chavez has given him an even stronger mandate for his “revolution for the poor.” It should also give George Bush and John Kerry reason to rethink their attitude towards Hugo Chavez. Rather than demonizing him as a new Fidel Castro and stoking the opposition, US leaders should embrace Venezuela’s social transformation and the way it is empowering people like Olivia Delfino.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the women’s peace group CodePink, is an election observer in Venezuela.