"Chavez is a miracle!"
"Someone should shoot Chavez in the head!"
We heard both these opinions on a single day during a recent trip to Venezuela to check out the revolution there. Our group was a delegation of Witness for Peace, an organization that has sent fact-finding missions to Latin America for 23 years. What we found both exhilarated and worried me.
Venezuela is wealthy, a major oil exporter, and yet, before Chavez, the majority of the people were very poor; there was more poverty than in most of the rest of South America. Chavez is dedicated to ending poverty in Venezuela, and is spending oil money chiefly on the poor. The poor, in return, support him: They have elected him four times: in 1998, 2000, 2004 (the recall election), and 2006. They stuck with him from 1999 to 2002, when oil prices were low and Chavez could not do much for them. They supported him against the 2002 coup and defeated it. They suffered through the opposition oil strike of 2002-2003 and the lean years of recovery in 2003 and 2004, and still supported him. In the latest election, Chavez got 63 percent of the vote, with 75 percent voting.
The oldest and most successful of Chavez's programs for the poor is the medical mission. Staffed mainly by Cuban doctors, it has opened clinics all over the country. We visited one such clinic in a poor area of Caracas. It had well-equipped examining rooms, x-ray and other treatment rooms, and the patients were satisfied.
An effort has been made in education. In La Magdalena, a poor community outside of Caracas, we heard people speak with enthusiasm about the improvements. The primary school, which had operated half days, was now operating from 8 to 4, and serving breakfast, lunch and a snack. Afternoons were mostly devoted to arts, crafts, music and physical education.
We talked to Carolina, the arts and crafts teacher at the school, who had blossomed with the new support for education. Evenings, she was taking college courses, and teaching adult literacy as a volunteer. Eradicating illiteracy is one of the major aims of the government.
The government also helps out with food. They have established an extensive network of food markets, called Mercals, where people can shop for the basics at 40 percent to 45 percent off regular prices. These programs are available to people of any income or politics.
Another aim of the government is decent housing. Money for new housing, as well as for rebuilding, comes half as grants, and half as loans under generous terms: 0 percent interest with a two-year grace period. We were shown two new houses by their proud owners in Piar, a poor village near the coast. But this program lags; the need is too great.
In this community, 85 percent to 90 percent supported Chavez. Could opponents have received houses or government jobs? "Yes," said the supporters. "No" said opponents — and we talked to many opponents. More than 3 million Venezuelans signed the petition to remove Chavez as president, and the government has that list. So far as houses were concerned, we were never able to answer the question. So far as government jobs were concerned, we heard some pretty convincing evidence that being on the list hurts.
Central to Chavez's economic vision, which he calls "Bolivarian socialism", are workers' cooperatives. The government gives training, and offers 0 percent interest loans. Co-ops have been a great source of hope and pride for the workers. Nellys, a baker in La Magdalena, told us, "I would give my life for Chavez". Unfortunately, her co-op's bakery and cafe was seeing little business. We had to wonder how many of these co-ops will last long enough to repay their loans. We did see more successful co-ops in Caracas.
At the same time, the traditional capitalist part of the economy is booming. GDP has been growing at close to 10 percent per year for several years, unemployment is down, and inflation, though high, is not as high as it was.
There is currently a controversy over freedom of the press, and Chavez's decision not to renew the license of RCTV, the only opposition TV station broadcasting over the airwaves in Caracas. The government claims that RCTV has failed in its public duty under the broadcast licensing law. During the coup, they gave blanket coverage to demonstrations against Chavez, and zero coverage to demonstrations for Chavez. They also falsified their coverage. In spite of that, the government did not move against RCTV for five years, when their broadcast license ran out, and RCTV will still be permitted on cable and satellite.
In the end, I decided that it is not my job to pass judgement on Chavez or his Bolivarian Revolution. Our country should stay neutral as well. We should neither support nor attack Chavez, but allow the process in Venezuela to work itself out. Any pressure against Chavez will encourage him to become more militant, to further centralize power, to identify domestic opponents with the United States, and to militarize in self-defense. American pressure is on, and these things are beginning to happen: There is a Draconian press law (so far unenforced), and last year, Venezuela bought 100,000 AK-47s from Russia.
Venezuela is going through an experiment in government for the benefit of the poor. We should wish it well, and leave it alone.
Rufus Wanning lives in Orland, Maine.
© 2007 The Bangor Daily News