Endogenous development centres hold the key here, 1 March 2005
Caracas: In most places, the word globalisation conjures up images of businessmen and corporate consultants on six figure salaries making offers that governments cannot refuse. But in Nuevo Horizonte, a vast barrio, or slum, strung out like dirty linen high above the Venezuelan capital, globalisation means Martha Perez Miranda, a smiling 50-something Cuban dentist, who fixes poor folks’ teeth for free.
Along with three other Cuban doctors and a small team of local nurses and medicos, Dr. Perez helps run a clinic which provides a range of primary healthcare services to a population that until now had to travel several kilometres away for a basic check-up. Despite a steady stream of patients the whole day, the small clinic is spotlessly clean. Marco, an unemployed man in his 20s having a filling put in was in no mood to talk to a journalist. But an older woman waiting her turn was full of praise for the clinic, which opened its doors just six months ago. ``The doctors live right in the barrio so if we need some help at night, they’re always available.
Doctors in exchange for oil
Across Venezuela, several thousand Cuban doctors are involved in this novel experiment called Barrio Adentro (literally, `into the barrio’) aimed at bringing free healthcare to some of the country’s poorest - and sickest - communities.
The Cubans work here for two years on equipment provided, for the most part, by the Cuban Government. In exchange, Venezuela, which is poor in doctors willing to forsake the private sector’s high fees but is rich in oil, makes sure the beleaguered socialist island doesn’t lack for energy. Though this unique collaboration is a textbook example of two countries using comparative advantage to mutual benefit, politicians opposed to the President, Hugo Chavez, see things differently.
The Opposition - who did precious little to provide healthcare or education to the poor when they were in power - say the social programmes, including Barrio Adentro, are a waste of money. They are also critical of Mr. Chavez’s decision to make PDVSA, the State oil company, directly fund a part of these programmes.
Incredibly, some of Mr. Chavez’s opponents even see the involvement of Cuban doctors as part of a sinister plot to indoctrinate the Venezuelan poor in Marxism. In April, the International Monetary Fund declared Venezuela had to take immediate measures to scale back government spending to what it felt were more prudent levels.
And last week, Agustin Carstens, Deputy Managing Director, IMF, said the Chavez Government’s social expenditures were "unsustainable".
So far, however, there is no sign that Mr. Chavez intends to follow this advice. The IMF and World Bank, he says, are part of imperialism’s project of global domination and people around the world must resist the pressure they exert. For the Venezuelan President, his well-funded social programmes not only improve the lives of millions of people but also help extend and cement the political base of the `Bolivarian movement’ that he leads.
At the Fabricio Ojeda `nucleus of endogenous development’ in a working class neighbourhood of Caracas, another of Mr. Chavez’s unique experiments is slowly taking shape.
A derelict warehouse compound and oil storage terminal of PDVSA has been turned into a community centre, complete with a state-of-the art secondary health care centre and large workshops for teaching unemployed youth how to make shoes and clothes. Several hundred boys and girls get on-the-job training here every day, making around $90 a month (Rs. 4,000) in the process. By way of comparison, a woman running a small fruit and vegetable shop in Nuevo Horizonte said she made $100 a month working 12 hours a day. Asked about what she thought of `Commandante’ Chavez, Flora, a plump teenager who was deftly working a sewing machine, smiled broadly and said, "Everybody here is a Chavista".
With poverty and unemployment all pervasive - half the urban population of Venezuela is believed to work in the `informal’ sector - the poor appear solidly behind the commandante. A charismatic and even messianic leader who often delivers speeches that are two or three hours long, Mr. Chavez knows the mere promise of a better life is not enough.
Venezuelan officials say the endogenous development centres hold the key to improving the lives of the poor, and that the Government plans to set up as many as a thousand centres across the country.
The population of Venezuela is 24 million. As long as oil sells for $40 a barrel, finding the money for these social programmes should not be difficult. But even if the price of oil falls, they are confident the positive spin-offs from social expenditure will put the country onto a higher growth path.