Good Things Happening in Venezuela
by Michael Parenti
Z magazine, July/August 2005
Even before I arrived in Venezuela for
a recent visit, I encountered the great class divide in that country.
On my connecting flight from Miami to Caracas, I found myself
seated next to an exquisitely dressed Venezuelan woman. Judging
from her prosperous aspect, I anticipated that she would take
the first opportunity to hold forth against President Hugo Chavez.
Unfortunately, I was right.
Our conversation moved along famously
until we got to the political struggle going on in Venezuela.
"Chavez," she hissed, "is terrible, terrible."
He is "a liar." He "fools the people" and
is "ruining the country."
She owns an upscale women's fashion company
with links to prominent firms in the United States. When I asked
how Chavez has hurt her business, she said, "Not at all."
But many other businesses, she quickly added, have been irreparably
damaged as has the whole economy. She went on denouncing Chavez
in sweeping terms, warning me of the national disaster to come
if this demon continued to have his way.
Other critics I encountered in Venezuela
shared this same mode of attack: weak on specifics, but strong
in venom, voiced with all the ferocity of those who fear that
their birthright (that is, their class advantage) is under siege
because others below them on the social ladder are now getting
a slightly larger slice of the pie.
In Venezuela over 80 percent of the population
lives below the poverty level. Before Chavez, most of the poor
had never seen a doctor or dentist. Their children never went
to school, since they could not afford the annual fees. The neoliberal
market "adjustments" of the 1980s and 1990s only made
things worse, cutting social spending and eliminating subsidies
in consumer goods. Successive Administrations did nothing about
the rampant corruption and nothing about the growing gap between
rich and poor, the growing malnutrition and desperation.
Far from ruining the country, here are
some of the good things the Chavez government has accomplished:
* A land reform program designed to assist
small farmers and the landless poor has been instituted-this past
March a large landed estate owned by a British beef company was
occupied by agrarian workers for farming purposes
* Education is now free (right through
to university level), causing a dramatic increase in grade school
* The government has set up a marine conservation
program and is taking steps to protect the land and fishing rights
of indigenous peoples
* Special banks now assist small enterprises,
worker cooperatives, and farmers
* Attempts to further privatize the state-run
oil industry-80 percent of which is still publicly owned-have
been halted and limits have been placed on foreign capital penetration
* Chavez kicked out U.S. military advisors
and prohibited overflights by U.S. military aircraft engaged in
counterinsurgency in Colombia
* "Bolivarian Circles" have
been organized throughout the nation, neighborhood committees
designed to activate citizens at the community level to assist
in literacy, education, vaccination campaigns, and other public
* The government hires unemployed men,
on a temporary basis, to repair streets and neglected drainage
and water systems in poor neighborhoods
Then there is the health program. I visited
a dental clinic in Chavez's home state of Barinas. The staff consisted
of four dentists, two of whom were young Venezuelan women. The
other two were Cuban men who were there on a one-year program.
The Venezuelan dentists noted that in earlier times dentists did
not have enough work. There were millions of people who needed
treatment, but care was severely rationed by one's ability to
pay. Dental care was distributed like any other commodity, not
to everyone who needed it, but only to those who could afford
When the free clinic in Barinas first
opened it was flooded with people seeking dental care. No one
was turned away. Even opponents of the Chavez government availed
themselves of the free service, temporarily putting aside their
Many of the doctors and dentists who work
in the barrio clinics (along with some of the clinical supplies
and pharmaceuticals) come from Cuba. Chavez has also put Venezuelan
military doctors and dentists to work in the free clinics. Meanwhile,
much of the Venezuelan medical establishment is vehemently opposed
to the free clinic program, seeing it as a Cuban communist campaign
to undermine medical standards and physicians' earnings. That
low-income people are receiving medical and dental care for the
first time in their lives does not seem to be a consideration
that carries much weight among the more "professionally minded"
I visited one of the government-supported
community food stores that are located around the country, mostly
in low income areas. These modest establishments sell canned goods,
pasta, beans, rice, and some produce and fruits at well below
market price, a blessing in a society with widespread malnutrition.
Popular food markets have eliminated the
layers of middlepeople and made staples more affordable for residents.
Most of these markets are run by women. The government also created
a state-financed bank whose function is to provide low-income
women with funds to start cooperatives in their communities.
There is a growing number of worker cooperatives.
One in Caracas was started by turning a waste dump into a shoe
factory and a T-shirt factory. Financed with money from the Petroleum
Ministry, the coop has put about 1,000 people to work. The workers
seem enthusiastic and hopeful.
Surprisingly, many Venezuelans know relatively
little about the worker cooperatives. Or perhaps it's not surprising,
given the near monopoly that private capital has over the print
and broadcast media. The wealthy media moguls, all vehemently
anti-Chavez, own four of the five television stations and all
the major newspapers.
The person most responsible for Venezuela's
revolutionary developments, Hugo Chavez, has been accorded the
usual ad hominem treatment in the U. S. news media. An article
in the San Francisco Chronicle described him as "Venezuela's
pugnacious president." An earlier Chronicle report (November
30, 2001) quotes a political opponent who calls Chavez "a
psychopath, a terribly aggressive guy." The London Financial
Times sees him as "increasingly autocratic" and presiding
over something called a "rogue democracy."
In the Nation (May 6, 2002), Marc Cooper-one
of those Cold War liberals who nowadays regularly defends the
U.S. empire-writes that the democratically-elected Chavez speaks
"often as a thug," who "flirts with megalomania."
Chavez's behavior, Cooper rattles on, "borders on the paranoiac,"
is "ham-fisted demagogy" acted out with an "increasingly
autocratic style." Like so many critics, Cooper downplays
Chavez's accomplishments and uses name-calling in place of informed
Other media mouthpieces have labeled Chavez
"mercurial," "besieged," "heavy-handed,"
"incompetent," and "dictatorial," a "barracks
populist," a "strongman," a "firebrand,"
and, above all, a "leftist." It is never explained what
A leftist is someone who advocates a more
equitable distribution of social resources and human services
and who supports the kinds of programs that the Chavez government
is putting in place. (Likewise a rightist is someone who opposes
such programs and seeks to advance the insatiable privileges of
private capital and the wealthy few.) The term "leftist"
is frequently bandied about in the U. N. media, but seldom defined.
The power of the label is in its remaining undefined, allowing
it to have an abstracted built-in demonizing impact, which precludes
rational examination of its political content.
Meanwhile Chavez's opponents, who staged
an illegal and unconstitutional coup in April 2002 against the
democratically elected government, are depicted in the U.S. media
as champions of "pro-democratic" and "pro-West"
governance. We are talking about the free-market plutocrats and
corporate-military leaders of the privileged social order who
killed more people in the 48 hours they held power in 2002 than
were ever harmed by Chavez in his years of rule.
When one of these perpetrators, General
Carlos Alfonzo, was hit with charges for the role he had played,
the New York Times chose to call him a "dissident" whose
rights were being suppressed by the Chavez government. Four other
top military officers charged with leading the 2002 coup were
also likely to face legal action. No doubt, they too will be described
not as plotters or traitors who tried to destroy a democratic
government, but as "dissidents," decent individuals
who are being denied their right to disagree with the government.
President Hugo Chavez, whose public talks
I attended on three occasions, proved to be an educated, articulate,
remarkably well-informed and well-read individual. He manifests
a sincere dedication to effecting some salutary changes for the
great mass of his people, a person who in every aspect seems worthy
of the decent and peaceful democratic revolution he is leading.
Millions of his compatriots correctly perceive him as being the
only president who has ever paid attention to the nation's poorest
areas. No wonder he is the target of calumny and coup from the
upper echelons in his own country and from ruling circles up north.
Chavez charges that the United States
government is plotting to assassinate him. I can believe it.
Michael Parenti's recent books include
Superpatriotism (City Lights) and The Assassination of Julius
Caesar (New Press), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
His forthcoming book, The Culture Struggle will be published by
Seven Stories Press in the fall of 2005.
Michael Parenti page