Venezuela marks the first death anniversary of its charismatic, outspoken and hugely popular President, Hugo Chavez, in the midst of relatively small but persistent street protests that have turned violent and even deadly, originating from well-to-do municipalities, and led by Opposition figures that unabashedly want to bring down the government of Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’ successor.
Most international media coverage of the unrest in Caracas, the capital, highlights the death toll of 18 including a former beauty contestant, the purportedly large number of students participating, and the issues being raised centering around criminality, inflation, product shortages and alleged state repression of the protests. Maduro’s accusation that the demonstrations are US-instigated and led by “fascists” is also invariably mentioned. This is corroborated by Venezuela’s expulsion of high-ranking US embassy officials that was quickly followed by the US’ expulsion of Venezuelan diplomats.
Nonetheless, there is grudging acknowledgement that while the Maduro government appears “weakened” by the protests, the Opposition is not strong enough to bring about “regime change,” the US government’s buzz word for the overthrow of what it deems to be an “illegitimate” government. What it really means is the taking down of a government unfriendly or hostile to US interests in a coup d’etat by disgruntled, foreign-backed military officials, sparked by orchestrated anti-government demonstrations and fueled by the creeping demonization even of democratically elected governments like Chavez’ and now Maduro’s.
For Venezuelans, both supporters of the Maduro government that is continuing the essentially pro-poor, pro-people and anti-neoliberal globalization policies of the 14-year Chavez presidency, and those who oppose it, led by the socio-economic elite that engineered crippling strikes, a coup, and several failed attempts to oust Chavez through recall referenda, the scenarios unfolding would be familiar by now given the events of the last 15 years. Since 1999, Chavez had counted mainly on active grassroots support and it is this strong backing that the Opposition is now hoping it could break with Chavez gone.
But the struggle of either side to prevail also counts a lot on international public opinion that unfortunately is subject to manipulation and distortion by the global media. The Maduro government is at a disadvantage in this regard since global media is largely dominated by ideological and political views hostile to the Bolivarian Revolution (as Chavez’ wide-ranging socio-economic and political reforms have been named) given its control by Western corporate interests.
That is why any objective appraisal of the Chavez legacy, and the efforts of the Maduro government to defend and entrench it in the face of unrelenting attacks by its enemies, requires a familiarity and understanding of the phenomenon of Hugo Chavez, the impact of his radical reform movement on Venezuelan society, and what fuels the continuing political conflicts that have managed to grab international media attention in the first quarter of the year.
Hugo Chavez began inauspiciously as the son of primary school teachers who lived in a dirt-floor adobe house in a cattle state in Western Venezuela. As a young military officer he saw action against the Maoist rebel group called Red Flag and objected to the military’s brutal war against the guerillas even as he saw the validity of their struggle against the inequities of Venezuelan society.
Chavez launched a coup in 1992 together with young military officers he had organized secretly but it failed and Chavez was sent to prison. Released after two years, he set up a political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, quickly gaining nationwide grassroots support that eventually catapulted him to the presidency in the 1998 elections with 56% of the votes.
Chavez was reelected to office three times, each with majority votes. First, in 2000, after he introduced a new constitution which increased rights for marginalized groups and major political reforms including the right of the people to recall its elected officials from the highest to the lowest positions through a referendum. Chavez’ second term would be hallmarked by democratic initiatives, i.e. a system of Bolivarian Missions, Communal Councils and worker-managed cooperatives, as well as a program of land reform and the nationalization of various key industries.
In 2006, Chavez won a third term after he survived a 2002 coup that saw him returned to power in 48 hours. Finally in 2012, he was elected to another six-year term which he was unable to serve because of worsening cancer that led to his demise on March 5, 2013.
The strong support by the Venezuelan masses of the Chavez government (which the Maduro government continues to enjoy) is a testament to how the lives of the ordinary people had improved under the Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolutionary Government. Another measure which might be seen as more objective, being independent and more quantifiable, is the UN Human Development Index (HDI) for Venezuela.
From 2000 to 2012, the GNI (Gross National Income) per capita income increased by 24% from $9,446 to $11,745. Life expectancy at birth increased 3% from 72.4 to 74.6 years. Expected years of schooling went up by 37% from 10.5 to 14.4years; mean years of schooling by 29% from 5.9 years to 7.6. All in all, the HDI of Venezuela rose by 13% from 0.662 to 0.748, placing it in the “high human development” category, ranking 71 out of 187 countries and territories.
Venezuela’s HDI values are generally higher than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean. Just for comparison, the Philippines is in medium human development category, ranking 114 out of 187 countries. Its HDI is 0.654 where average life expectancy is 69 years; mean years of schooling is 8.9 years; expected years of schooling is 11.7 years; and GNI per capita is $3,752.)
The Chavez presidency is derided by the Western press as “polarizing” or “divisive” even as they make mention of how Chavez had definitely uplifted the lot of two-thirds of the Venezuelan people who had been mired in poverty and backwardness with redistributive programs funded by the oil wealth of the country hitherto enjoyed only by the economic and political elite of the old order.
In a society with a yawning chasm of income disparity and the social inequalities that accompany it, together with the political exclusion and repression that have been part and parcel of the Venezuelan political landscape, social unrest, turmoil and armed resistance are a fact of life. Chavez did not bring about such a state of affairs. In fact 1989 saw the Caracazo or “the big one in Caracas,” a wave of protests, riots, looting, shootings and massacres by state security forces of hundreds of people protesting the effects of IMF-World Bank neoliberal policy prescriptions on the people’s standard of living.
The qualitative difference is that the Chavez government then, and now the Maduro government, champion the right of the people to what the UN calls the three basic dimensions of human development — a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living — against the wishes and machinations of the retrogressive US-sponsored elite who are hurting from the Venezuelan government’s democratizing reforms.
In short, the elite (and those among the middle class who, wittingly or unwittingly, have been lured into thinking like the elite) simply want a return to the benighted pre-Chavez era wherein generations of the poor and exploited masses of Venezuelans had no rights, no hope and no future.
In an ironic twist, the same elite, utilizing its high-profile media advantage and, of course, moral, political and funding support from the US, are currently mounting street demonstrations and violent attacks on Chavistas and government officials, in a bid to pass themselves off as anti-authoritarian, peaceful protesters with “legitimate” grievances.
Part 2 of this column will focus on the current destabilization moves by the US and local oppositionists versus the Maduro government.
Published in Business World
March 6, 2014