Venezuela: Chavez And The Bolivarian Revolution

Thursday 10 February 2005, by Prakash KARAT

VENEZUELA hosted “A World Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity” from December 1 to 5, 2004 in Caracas. 350 prominent intellectuals and artists from 52 countries attended the meeting. All those who went to attend the meeting in Caracas did so to show solidarity with the Bolivarian Republic headed by President Hugo Chavez. I had the opportunity to attend the meeting alongwith three others from India.

Venezuela, with a 25 million population, is at the epicenter of the struggles being waged in Latin America against imperialist globalisation and neo-liberalism. The conference was held in the background of the victory of President Chavez in the referendum held on August 15 rejecting the demand to remove him. 59 per cent of the people who voted said `no’ to the recall of the president. “Chavez no seva” - Chavez is not going,
was the battle cry of millions of activists who mobilised the people against the right-wing opposition.

Since Hugo Chavez won the presidential election in December 1998, a number of important legislative and social projects have been initiated which are
laying the foundations for a major social transformative process. A new Constitution which reinforces popular sovereignty and participation, land laws for land reforms and the distribution of land to the landless, social
missions to abolish illiteracy, provide health care, education and housing to the poor and steps to break the oligarchic power of the big business and landed elite have all attracted worldwide attention.

WIDER SOLIDARITY

The support for Venezuela among the progressive intelligentsia and cultural workers was evident in the type of participation in the meeting in defence of humanity. Some of the best-known names in literature, music and the creative arts in Latin America were present in Caracas. They included the Argentinian poet and Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, the Cuban musician Pablo
Milanes and many others. From other parts of the world came a host of writers, film makers, actors and economists. Among them were the US novelist Alice Walker, the Spanish musician Manu Chao, the film actor
Danny Glover, Ramsey Clark, former US attorney general and anti-war organiser, Robin Blackburn, Tariq Ali, the Brazilian economists Attilio Baran and Dos Santos and Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart (nuclear physicist and
son of Fidel Castro). Among the political leaders present were Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua, Ben Bella, the founder of the FLN in Algeria, Ricardo Alarcon, Speaker of the National Assembly in Cuba and many other leaders of Left-wing parties and organisations.

Ten tables for discussions on various subjects were organised on themes such as the impact of neo-liberal economic reforms, the defence of national sovereignty, the protection of the environment, the defence of
consciousness, regional cooperation, alternative media and south-south cooperation, in defence of unity in diversity and culture for all, in defence of popular participation and in defence of peace. After the
discussions in the tables and the adoption of reports by them, there was a plenary session where the final conclusions were incorporated in a document entitled “The Caracas Declaration”. The declaration outlines the
need to build a front for global resistance against imperialist hegemony that is imposed by the United States government and organisations like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the WTO.

President Hugo Chavez, in the inaugural meeting on December 1, spoke for an hour and forty minutes in which he outlined the world situation and spoke of the necessity to go on the offensive in defence of humanity.
Chavez declared that Venezuela and Cuba will always be together. In another workshop with the delegates, Chavez spoke of the inspiration behind the Bolivarian revolution, drawn from the ideas of Bolivar and his
mentor Simon Rodriguez. In a session which extended to five and a half hours, Chavez engaged in an interaction with the delegates replying to all the points raised by the participants and answering their questions. The
intellectual vitality and energy displayed by this charismatic leader impressed all and made a deep impact on all the participants.

At the closing function, Chavez pledged to provide an office in Venezuela to initiate a “network of networks” of social organisations and institutions around the world working to build alternative models of development in the phase of globalisation.

IMPRESSIVE SOCIAL PROGRESS

In between the deliberations at the meeting, all the participants were taken for a day to visit various places in the country to see how the Venezuelan social missions are progressing. I went with a group of ten delegates drawn from Cuba, Argentina and Senegal. We visited the Pedare municipality in Sucre in the outskirts of Caracas. We visited some of the barrios (slums) to see a health centre, a housing project and a departmental store providing food stuffs at reasonable prices.

A group of happy Venezuelans living in barrios

Venezuela is a major oil producing nation. Under President Chavez, the Venezuelan government is utilising the oil revenue for financing various social missions for health, literacy, education, housing and food. Most
of these projects are concentrated in the barrios in the urban areas and among the rural poor in the countryside, including where the indigenous people, the Indians, live.

The health mission is the most impressive. The Venezuelan government, by an agreement with the Cuban government, has deployed around 14,000 Cuban doctors and medical personnel in health centres around the country. These
doctors have come on a two-year contract and live among the people near the health centres with whoever volunteers to offer them accommodation. After two years, they have the option of extending their contract by one
more year if they wish to.

In the health centre we visited, there were ECG facilities, an ultrasound machine and a fully-equipped pathology lab. Behind this health centre was a sports facility for the children of the neighbourhood to come and play. The people of the poor neighbourhood were getting medical attention of a quality, which they could never get earlier. In the past, they would have to go to a hospital 20 kilometers away, where even there was no guarantee of proper treatment. Cuba is training Venezuelan students to become doctors. In the future, Venezuelan doctors will be able to replace the Cuban ones. Already Cuban nursing staff are being replaced by Venezuelans.

The mission Robinson is a literacy project, which drawing on the Cuban experience, is undertaking a mass literacy campaign that covers 1.2 million people. Alongwith this, there is a programme for literate adults to continue their education upto high school and further on to the
university. The food programme, which began in the summer of 2004, entails the government donating food and cooking equipment to five volunteers who cook lunch six days a week out of their homes for 150 children, pregnant women, elderly and handicapped people and those in extreme poverty. In return, the volunteers receive free food for their families.

Venezuela imports 70 per cent of the food requirements of its citizens. As an oil revenue economy, agriculture was neglected and the country depends on food imports. In the anti-Chavez strikes, an effort was made to stop food supplies by the big food companies. The government then set-up a chain of stores which sell a whole range of food products at cheap and reasonable prices. The housing project in the slums has the government providing funds to the shanty dwellers to build their own two-storied
houses with the equality specified by the housing board.

Venezuela is witnessing radical land reforms being implemented. According to the 1998 agricultural census, 70 per cent of good arable land is owned by 20 per cent of landlords, who have more than 500 hectares, while 75 per cent have only 6 per cent of the land. Some 60 per cent of farmers do not have the deed to the land they occupy. Under the Land Law, passed by the National Assembly in 2001, a national land institute was set-up to oversee the implementation of the land reforms. According to this law, all the land lying uncultivated owned by big landlords can be taken over for distribution. Two million hectares were handed over to 130,000 families
in 2003.

POPULAR SUPPORT

Chavez’s plans to use the oil revenues for improving the lives of the people is the bedrock for the popular support for the Bolivarian Republic. Venezuela has a powerful oligarchy consisting of the big business, landed
elite and the upper echelons of bureaucracy. They are bitterly opposed to Chavez and all that he stands for. The last six years have seen an intense class struggle. On the one side are ranged the owners of big property and wealth and a substantial part of the middle classes who are backed by foreign capital and the United States. On the other side are the mass of the people who live in the barrios, the rural poor and those who are waged workers and the rank and file of the armed forces.

After street demonstrations to overthrow Chavez, there was a coup d’état in April 2002. The coup collapsed within 48 hours and Chavez was restored to power. The coup was attempted with the tacit backing of the United
States. This was followed by a strike in the nationalised oil industry which sought to disrupt the economy. After a 56-day strike, this attempt at sabotage also collapsed. The third concerted attempt to remove Chavez was through the referendum. The unique feature of the presidency of Chavez and his government is that every rightwing attempt at disruption has been overcome by democratic mobilisation.

After the 1998 presidential election, Chavez held a referendum in 1999 for a mandate to have a new Constitution. In 2000, Chavez stood for election
under the new Constitution and won with 57 per cent majority. Once again, in 2004, he has won with a 59 per cent majority in the August referendum. In October, recently, elections were held for governorships and mayors. The pro-Chavez forces won 22 out of the 24 governorships in the states.

The United States, after failing to dislodge Chavez through the military coup, is faced with the uncomfortable prospect of having a leader in Venezuela whose democratic legitimacy is the highest in Latin America. While this has put the right-wing forces on the defensive, the bitterness of the class struggle will lead to new conspiracies against the democratic transformation taking place in Venezuela.

The political process in Venezuela is also unique. While the two major ruling class political parties have been discredited, Chavez set-up the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR). This is not a political party but
a movement which is a loose grouping. The Left parties, which include the PPT and the Communist Party, are in alliance with the MVR and support Chavez. It is Chavez’s popularity and charisma which ensures that all the
social programmes and major legislative initiatives are carried through. The existing government bureaucracy and machinery cannot be relied upon. So the Bolivarian revolution is still a project in the making. As of now,
it centres around the political will and endeavours of Hugo Chavez. There is a necessity to build institutions and organisations which can carry forward the radical transformation.

On the last day of the conference, I had a meeting with President Chavez at his residence. Much of the time was spent in briefing the president about India since there is a proposal that he visit the country in the month of February. The 45-minute meeting was also devoted to discussing Venezuela-India relations and their cooperation in the G-15 forum. Chavez has an enormous capacity for reading and retaining information. He called for a map of India to understand the places that he could visit. He expressed interest in visiting Kolkata.

I had also a meeting with Ali Rodriguez, the foreign minister. He is a revolutionary figure who was once a guerrilla leader in the 1960s. Along with him was the oil minister Rafael Ramirez. The discussions concerned
the preparations for President Chavez’s visit to India.

This was for the first time, somebody from the CPI(M) leadership visited Venezuela. Our Party has been following the developments in Venezuela and has extended full support to President Chavez and his government in their bold attempt to break from the neo-liberal model imposed on Latin America and their resolute defence of national sovereignty.

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