Mr. Danger and Socialism for the New Millennium

The Venezuelan Bolivarian revolution

by Maria Páez Victor

Z magazine, June 2006


Throughout most of its history, there has been very little interest in North America about Venezuela except as a supplier of oil. With the election of Hugo Chávez in 1999 all this changed. He ushered in the Bolivarian Revolution, founded on ideas expounded in the 19th century by Simón Bolívar, the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Perú. Its basic principles are that natural resources are for the benefit of all citizens, the state is guardian and promoter of civic and social human rights, and citizens are fundamental protagonists in political life. Its foreign policy is based on Latin American and Caribbean integration and solidarity. With the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela has become the most exciting, innovative, and progressive developing country in the world.

On June 1, 2002 in a speech at West Point, President George Bush made an unprecedented assertion that the U.S. has the right to overthrow any government in the world that is seen as a threat to U.S. security. This may have been startling news to the world, but not to Latin Americans. Since 1846 the United States has carried out no fewer than 50 military invasions and destabilizing operations involving 12 different Latin American countries. Yet, none of these countries has ever had the capacity to threaten U.S. security in any significant way. The U.S. intervened because of perceived threats to its economic control and expansion. For this reason it has also supported some of the region's most vicious dictators, such as Batista, Somoza, Trujillo, and Pinochet.

The Venezuelan people have chosen President Hugo Chávez and his government in nine free, transparent, and internationally observed elections and referenda during the seven years since he was first elected. President Bush supported a 2002 bloody coup against the Chavez government, financed and supported a devastating oil lockout that cost the country $14 billion in export revenues, and assisted numerous opposition maneuvers, disturbances, and a recall referendum. The U.S. continues to finance the opposition there.

Recently, the Bush administration has stepped up its aggressive stance against Venezuelan democracy. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has compared President Chávez with Hitler and U.S. Director for National Intelligence John Negroponte stated that Venezuela is the main security challenge in this hemisphere. U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice told a Senate committee last February 16 that Venezuela is "a particular danger to the region" and that she is "working with others" to try and make certain that there is a united front against Venezuela. To this President Chávez has responded by saying, "Mr. Danger, you form your front and we will form ours." (Mr. Danger was the name Hugo Chávez gave to Bush during his 2005 visit to Latin America. Mr. Danger is a longstanding figure in Venezuelan, a character in the novel Doña Barbara by Venezuelan writer Romulo Gallegos. The character typifies the scornful foreigner who usurps locally-owned land.)

The main reason behind President Bush's aggression towards this small country that has minimal armed capacity is quite obvious: oil. Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporting country in the world and is sitting on the largest oil reserves in the hemisphere. It supplies the U.S. with 1.2 million barrels daily; supply that has not been in any danger of stopping-until President Bush came along.

Another reason for the Bush administration's aggressive stance towards Venezuela is that President Chávez has made possible a new political and economic reality that directly challenges globalization and neo-conservative policies (or neo-liberal as they are referred to in Latin America) pushed by the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and multinational corporations. The so-called Washington Consensus-consisting of privatization of public services, deregulation, lifting of tariffs, unrestricted investment flows, and free access of large corporations to public contracts and domestic markets-were measures foisted on Latin American governments by making them conditions of international loans and even by threats.

Touted as instruments of development, they have been a spectacular failure by almost any indicator:

* Between 1960-80 income per person in Latin America grew by 82 percent whereas in the next 20 years, it grew only by 9 percent and in the last 5 years, it has grown by only 1 percent
* In one decade, the number of poor increased by 14 million
* From 1990 to 2002 U.S. banks and multinational corporations remitted $1 trillion in profits, interest payments, and royalties from Latin America
* In the 1990s more than $178 billion of state-owned industries were privatized, more than 20 times the value of privatization in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union

None of this could have occurred without the willing collaboration of Latin American elites and their satellite middle classes. Venezuela, in particular, has the most Americanized middle class on the continent by virtue of the penetration of the oil industry early on. The sham 40-year elite-driven democracy left oil-rich Venezuela in 1998 with: *

* 80 percent of its population in poverty
* 75 percent of arable land in the hands of 5 percent of the population
* crumbling schools and hospitals
* 70 percent school dropout rate
* 7 percent illiteracy rate
* 60 to 70 percent of the people without access to basic medical care

A study of Venezuela's elites in the 1960s by U.S. sociologist Frank Bonilla, The Failure of the Elites, details how oil companies and others in the U.S. community in Venezuela acted as a socializing agent to produce leaders for Venezuela in business, politics, the armed forces, and the police. Bonilla describes an elite whose perspective was totally devoid of a role for the mass of the people, that had little or no sustained contact with them, and that felt no obligation to meet the needs of the population. Analysts observing the Venezuelan situation ten years later described the majority of the population as "spectators to politics, marginal recipients, subject only to the bounty of election campaigns."

President Chávez's Achievements

Venezuelans have set up a model of electoral revolution for participatory democracy that has reverberated throughout Latin America and the entire developing world. This is a peaceful revolution, or as Venezuelans affectionately call it, "la revolution bonita" (the pretty revolution), which is now a viable and visible alternative, a new model. It challenges the U.S. hegemonic ideology promoted by the neo-conservatives who control the state power in the U.S.

By using oil revenues for the public good, the government of President Chávez has done what previous elite-dominated governments failed to do: provide for the basic political, economic, and social needs of the population. Oil revenue is now used for universal health services, education at all levels, clean water, food security, micro credits, support for small and middle range industry, land distribution and deeds for de-facto owners, worker cooperatives, and infrastructure, such as roads and railways and support for independent community radio. Most importantly, there is promotion of citizen participation in all government programs, including policy consultation. This has never been done before in Venezuela and is rare throughout the developing world. As President Chávez has asserted, "Si queremos acabar con la pobreza hay que darle poder a los pobres" (If we want to get rid of poverty we must give power to the poor). The results have been spectacular:

*Venezuela has been declared free of illiteracy by UNESCO
* Infant mortality has been significantly lowered
* 70 percent of its citizens now have free health services in their communities
* Almost half the population is studying
* Poverty dropped to 37 percent in 2005
* The economy grew by 9.4 percent in 2005, the highest in Latin America, with most of this growth occurring in the non-oil sector (increased by 10.3 percent, while the oil sector increased 1.2 percent)

President Chávez's foreign policy is based on Bolivar's idea of Latin American integration. Venezuela is trading oil for goods, oil for physicians with Cuba, and investing in joint ventures with its neighboring nations. It has given preferential oil prices to impoverished Caribbean countries, has set up PetroSur, a consortium of state oil companies, and TeleSur, a regional TV channel that will allow Latin Americans to broadcast to each other unmediated by CNN. The achievements of its domestic policies and the solidarity-based foreign policy of the Chávez government take on profound significance in contrast to the effects of the Washington Consensus.

The bedrock of the Venezuelan government is its constitution, created by an elected constitutional assembly, with widespread public consultation and ratification in a referendum. Lauded as the most progressive constitution in Latin America, it has some elements that make it unique in the world. It guarantees the rights of women as well as children; full rights over land, culture, and language to aboriginal peoples; environmental rights; and the enshrining of public participation. It also guarantees social human rights, such as the right to health care, education, work, and food. It has given the state a role as a promoter of civic and social rights. It is unique in that it recognizes the right of "housewives" to social benefits and it specifically uses both female and male nouns and pronouns, thereby asserting the active role of women. It gives constitutional parity to all international human rights treaties signed by Venezuela-this is the constitution that the leaders of the 2002 coup temporarily suspended with the support of the U.S. government.

No government is perfect, certainly not one that has inherited a weak, inefficient state bureaucracy, which is battling underdevelopment, struggling to maintain the rule of law amid a culture of corruption, and where key and powerful elements of civil society are anti-democratic and backed by the U.S. Nevertheless, the government of President Chávez has not once suspended constitutional guarantees, despite the extreme provocation of a coup d'etat, irresponsible media calls to violence and racism, crippling lockouts, and street riots. While rights abuses may occur, as they do in the region, Venezuela's record on human rights is excellent compared to Colombia, Peru, Honduras, México, and other neighboring countries.

In Venezuela there are no illegal political prisoners, no secret prisons, no displaced populations, no practice of torture, no illegal detentions, and no invasions of other countries. With the support of the International Development Bank, Venezuela is undergoing a comprehensive judicial reform to modernize and correct a judicial system that had long been disreputable.

The majority of Venezuelan citizens are judging President Chávez's government not by some ideal concept of democracy, revolution, or socialism, but by the wasteland of their recent history. The previous supposed democracy was a façade for plunder and abuse by wealthy upper classes that reaped the benefits of the nation's oil wealth while caring very little for the impoverished majority. Neither are they following any model from Russia, China, or Cuba. In contrast Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution is distinguished by eager citizen participation, which closes any gulf between politicians and the people they are to serve. This is the foundation for the socialism of the 21st century that Venezuelans hope to develop. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Danger to derail them, the Venezuelan people are going their own way and they deserve the chance to determine their destiny in a peaceful and democratic manner.


From Maria Victor's lecture at the Walter Gordon/Massey Symposium, University of Toronto.

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