By Peter Bohmer / Special to the OB Rag
The 2012 Election
It is very important that Hugo Chávez get reelected President in the upcoming October, 2012 election for the revolution to move forward. I am quite certain that Chávez will be reelected as he continues to be very popular and deservedly so with the large majority of Venezuelans from the popular classes.
The popular classes comprise as much as 80% of the people of Venezuela. President Chávez has dealt with two serious bouts of cancer in the last year, yet he continues to be an active and involved president. If at some time during his next term in office because of health reasons, Chávez cannot continue as president, there does not seem to be another person that has both the vision of Chávez and also the strong support of the people.
I found it revealing that the opposition candidate for president, Henrique Capriles Radonski, is running on a platform that supports the social programs but with the claim that he will run them better and without the Cubans who are most of the medical staff in the Barrio Adentros (community health clinics) and community health centers. This shows the popularity of these programs and is very different from the 2006 election where the opposition ran on a more open neoliberal platform. Of course, the right-wing totally supports Capriles.
There is a coalition of social movements, community groups, the PSUV and the Communist Party of Venezuela called the Gran Polo Patriotico (Great Patriotic Pole, GPP) that is working on Chávez’s reelection. There is some hope this bloc will continue past the 2012 elections and become more than just an electoral vehicle but this is not that likely as the GPP has been organized with one objective–to win this important election. What is perhaps more hopeful for the future is that there are many individuals and groups organizing in Venezuela who are anti-capitalist with a belief and practice in popular education, building grass-roots organizations and popular power. One important site for this is community media, which is growing in numbers and audience.
The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Venezuela has been growing again for a year although at a slower rate than from 2003 through 2008. Output fell from the second quarter of 2009 through 2010 and only has begun to grow rapidly in 2012 (data from Central Bank of Venezuela, www.bcv.org.ve).
After rapid improvement from 2003 to 2008, there was little or no improvement but no decline in the major social indicators– life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty, access to sanitation, and clean water from 2009 to 2011 (www.ine.gob.ve). Measures of income equality, which also greatly improved from 2003 through 2008, have not improved since. During the recent recession, the real wage (purchasing power of wages) fell by a few per cent a year although the social wage continued to grow. The real wage has begun to grow again in 2012. The minimum wage is being increased by 32% this year, 2012.
From what I read and observed, production of goods is again growing but seems to be primarily in public construction and the related private and state industries. It is difficult to spur production in Venezuela as the currency is still significantly overvalued as prices are continuing to grow at about 25%-30% a year although less so far this year, 2012. Price controls are increasingly being used. The official rate for the currency is 4.3 bolivars to the dollar but we were consistently offered 8 Bolivars or more for our dollars. Using the official rate of 4.3 Bolivars to the dollar, prices of most goods and services are very high.
The attempt to diversify production and be less dependent on oil has not yet been very successful and food production is not growing enough to reduce the 70% of food consumption that is imported. Yet, Venezuela is very close to achieving food security, the right for all to have enough food not to be hungry. However, food sovereignty, producing most of one’s food locally and nationally, also a goal, has a long way to go.
To me, a socialist economy in Venezuela would require the continued growth of the state and social economy at the expense of the private sector. By the social economy I mean cooperatives, and firms that are jointly run and owned by the workers and the state, and production organized by communal councils and comunas. The state sector and social economy would merge to become one sector where there is self-management by workers, increasingly equal incomes and an orientation towards living in harmony with the environment.
The objective of production would be to meet human needs not maximizing revenues or profits. There would be limited differences in income and alternatives to market determined prices and wages. This merged sector would eventually grow to be the entire Venezuelan political economy. As indicated throughout this paper, there has not been much progress in this direction in the last three years. (See my 2009 article, cited in the introduction to this article for further elaboration.)
Democracy and Human Rights
In terms of the more general issue of democracy in Venezuela, the U.S. and right wing-charges of Venezuela as a dictatorship are ridiculous and hypocritical. We saw demonstrations and protests against specific government policies, and against local or national leaders, almost every day we were there. Some could be called from the left, others from the right; others could not be identified ideologically but were protesting in various ways such as hunger strikes, camping out near government buildings for reasons like not getting paid their salary as public employees for six months or more. For the most part, there was little or no repression of these protests.
There continues to be a thriving oppositional private media—television, newspaper and radio with occasional but not common harassment. There are communal councils that are primarily oppositional and get public funds; there are others where funding follows loyalty. It is hard to generalize about Venezuela.
One slightly troubling sign– the word, “escualido” is used more commonly than three years ago against those who criticize Chávez and the PSUV. Escualido means squalid one and is sometimes used to stigmatize honest critics. However, Venezuela does not have the feeling of a repressive state. For the most part, people are not afraid to criticize Chávez, the PSUV, the economic and political system, etc.
Violent crime continues to be a very serious problem and certainly the police and a dysfunctional criminal justice system contribute to it. A government estimate of violent crimes committed by the police is that it is 20% of the total violent crimes; some community groups estimate even a higher proportion are committed by the police. Few murders or other serious crimes are solved. The good news is that the Chávez led government is now realizing that crime and insecurity is a serious problem that decreases public participation and support, and needs to be addressed as a priority. We visited a new national police university (UNES) that has a significant number of human rights activists as faculty and leaders and are committed to popular education pedagogy. This is hopeful.
It is not clear why poverty has declined significantly over the last nine years but violence has increased. There are still millions of marginalized male youth. They make up most of the victims and also most of the perpetrators. In some barrios where there are high levels of popular power and participation and strong community organizations with activities for youth, violent crime has decreased. In most urban communities this is lacking. There is a growing commitment to reduce the number of guns in Venezuela but they are everywhere. It is essential that violent crime decrease substantially in the next few years for popular power to grow and the government to continue to have legitimacy and support by the majority.
Internationally, Chávez and the Venezuelan government and that part of the media that is pro-Chávez have been very outspoken against U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya, and against covert intervention and threats against Syria and Iran. This is commendable. On the other hand, this has sometimes led to verbal support for Kaddafi, Assad, or the rulers in Iran. This is troubling but the Venezuela emphasis has been and continues to be on a strong anti-interventionist stance.
Venezuela’s leadership in challenging U.S. global domination in Latin America and beyond continues. For example in December, 2011, Venezuela hosted the formation of CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Its purpose is to be a regional bloc that is a strong voice for its members, that furthers more cooperation amongst them and actively challenges U.S. domination of the region. Unlike the Organization of American States (OAS), CELAC excludes the United States and Canada.
Hugo Chávez and the construction in Venezuela of Socialism for the 21st Century, the ongoing although uneven transformation there, deserve critical support. There are some real problems and violations of individual rights but the criticisms by many human rights organizations are overly harsh and also hypocritical as a stricter standard is often applied to Venezuela than other places, e.g., Honduras. So while the limited progress towards a participatory democracy and democratic socialism since my 2009 visit is somewhat worrisome, Venezuela has not moved backwards.
It was inspiring to see so many Venezuelans whose lives have improved so substantially over the last 13 years, who believe that the lives of their children and communities will continue to improve in major ways. There are concrete and real reasons for this hope and optimism about the future in Venezuela.
I remember stopping in Quibor in the State of Lara on March 11th, 2012 where a communal council was just concluding its election and beginning to count the votes. I was with a group of students from the Evergreen State College program that I am co-teaching, which was concluding two months of study and travel in Venezuela. A few residents who had just voted pulled me aside.
These women told me that before 1998 and Hugo Chávez’s election, their lives had no value whatsoever to the people who ruled Venezuela, economically and politically, nor did their rural community and that Venezuela had been insignificant in the eyes of the world. These residents of Quibor said they now had a voice in Venezuela, that their lives had improved and changed significantly, and that they mattered to a government that valued poor and rural people. They were proud that Venezuela was a model and experiment that people all over the world were interested in. They felt they were no longer second class citizens of Venezuela and that Venezuela was no longer a second class citizen of the world. It made them feel valued, proud and important that a class from the Evergreen State College had come all the way to Quibor to visit and observe these profound changes.
Venezuela is a hopeful place and its people are very inspiring.
Peter Bohmer, a former resident of Ocean Beach, is now a professor at Evergreen State College in Washington.