Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Why Hugo Chavez Won a Landslide Victory

Medea Benjamin

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.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Medicare for All Advocates Take to the Streets of Over 50 US Cities

"How can we have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when we live in constant fear of illness, bankruptcy, or homelessness because of the outrageous for-profit healthcare system?"

Jessica Corbett ·


Thousands Join Budapest Pride Parade to Protest Attacks on LGBTQ+ Hungarians

"A lot has happened over the last few years, and it's time to show that we're not okay with it," said one of the organizers.

Jessica Corbett ·


US Lawmakers Demand $34 Billion for Global Vaccine Equity Funding in Reconciliation Package

"No investment in the fight against Covid-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible."

Jessica Corbett ·


Ilhan Omar Demands Answers After First Somalia Airstrike of Biden Era

"It is critical that we realize we are not going to simply drone the al-Shabaab problem to death," the Somali-American congresswoman asserted.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Huge Legal Win': Court Stops Police From Blockading Line 3 Protester Camp

One attorney described the blockade as "an outrageous abuse of law enforcement authority serving the interests of the Enbridge corporation against its environmental opponents."

Kenny Stancil ·