Following the example of Cuba’s humanist approach to guaranteeing its people the right to quality education and healthcare, Venezuela has embarked upon a historical mission to eliminate poverty in a country where nearly 70% of the population is poor. As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez consistently reiterates, the only way to end poverty is to empower the poor and marginalized.
Any country in the Global South, with the interest to actively fight poverty by defying the interests of multinational corporations, wealthy elites, and neo-liberal capitalism, are certain to have many enemies, both domestic and international. Yet the Chavez government, despite persistent threats from the ‘Bolivarian revolution’s’ powerful opponents, continues to make progress in redistributing the country’s oil wealth to provide much-needed services to the poorest communities.
The collection of articles in the book, The Venezuela Reader: The Building Of A People’s Democracy, edited by Olivia Burlingame Goumbri, has successfully grasped and articulated the complexity of life in Venezuela. Most notably, The Venezuela Reader highlights the substantial accomplishments of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ through its new Constitution and social ‘Missions’ that serve the poor. In addition, this book has captured the enormity of the opposition to Chavez and the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. The articles bring to life the opposition who privately control nearly all of the media, have high positions within Venezuela’s oil company, and are receiving support and collaboration from the United States government. The value of the book is its ability to critically incorporate these two opposing elements and how they play out in today’s Venezuela.
The first section of this book sets out to highlight how the Bolivarian Constitution—created by the Venezuelan people—along with the Land Laws and Missions have been constructed to bring power to the poor.
The Land Laws permit the government to redistribute land. Private land over a certain size that lay idle—formerly latifundios—is being given to people and cooperatives to cultivate and live on. This marks a total transformation from the colonial order, where the Spanish crown allotted massive estates to wealthy families, resulting in 75% of cultivatable lands concentrated with 5% of the population.
The Constitution guarantees the right to education and quality healthcare for all. Although the Constitution laid out plans, it was the Missions that put words into action. And it is the Venezuelan people through their sheer will, self-sacrifice and commitment to the Missions that have made them successful.
For example, Mission Robinson has significantly reduced illiteracy rates. Primary education is now free and universal. Mission Ribas allows adults to complete their GED free of charge and Mission Sucre provides grants for higher education. These Missions have also led to the construction of thousands of schools throughout Venezuela.
The social program Barrio Adentro, with the help of tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, has provided Venezuelans medical clinics which offer treatment, prevention and education to some of the poorest Barrios. The program also involves training Venezuelans to become doctors and to update the formerly privatized medical system.
In addition, Mission MERCAL has been able to provide state-subsidized food at 25% of market price, providing food to families who could not otherwise afford it.
The Missions and social programs were made possible through the initiative of the Chavez government and the state owned oil company. Venezuela is the world’s fourth largest oil producer, and with the state controlled oil company, PDVSA, profits are redirected to contribute to the well being of the populace.
One article in the book explains how Venezuela has utilized its oil to create cooperation with its neighbors through trade alliances and loans. For example, the Venezuelan government has provided goods at preferential rates to other countries in the Americas and Caribbean. It has also bartered oil with Argentina for cattle, leather, and soy and with Cuba for doctors and medical equipment. Regional alliances and agreements such as these have allowed the Global South to take a stand against U.S. neo-liberal initiatives, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The Bolivarian Constitution, which was approved by 87% of the electorate, incorporates progressive language and acknowledges the rights of people and groups who have historically been disenfranchised. Three articles in the book pay particular attention to the extent of the Constitution.
The first one, written by the international organization, the Global Women’s Strike, gives much deserved praise to Article 88 of the Constitution, being "the first in the world" to recognize the importance of compensating women for the vast social wealth they produce through work in the home.
The Article states: "The State guarantees equality and equity between men and women in the exercise of their right to work. The State recognizes work in the home as an economic activity that creates added value and produces social welfare and wealth. Housewives are entitled to Social Security in accordance with the law."
The constitution’s and government’s acknowledgment of the reproductive labor of women that has gone without remuneration and the desire to right this wrong is another example worth emulating.
In 1498, Christopher Columbus landed in South America, which subsequently resulted in the near annihilation of Indigenous people of the Venezuelan region. For five hundred years they have been terrorized. Under the new Bolivarian Constitution "the social, political, and economic organization of Indigenous communities, as well as their cultures, languages, rights, and land" are protected. Additionally, the government may not encroach upon and in fact, must protect the land, resources, culture and economy.
As mentioned, the Constitution attempts to address the needs of peoples historically disenfranchised. Yet according to the authors of another article on the Constitution, this is not always the case. It is pointed out how the Constitution and the Chavez government have not addressed racism against Afro-Venezuelans and extreme poverty rates amongst Venezuelans of African descent. With support from Afro-Venezuelans, the authors state that the Chavez government has not met the needs of this community in "public education and policy programs to address the marginalized social status and racial and cultural discrimination against Afro-Venezuelans."
The latter half of the book is a series of thorough articles recalling the power and tyrannical tactics and maneuvers of the powerful anti-Chavista interests, simply dubbed ‘the opposition’. The opposition is primarily composed of: elites, the former de facto rulers of Venezuela, owners of the media, corporations and large private firms, managers within the PDVSA, and the not so hidden fist of the United States ruling class. Their primary goal is to reclaim power from Chavez and return to neo-liberal capitalism.
Several of the authors go into detail about the oil strike and the now famous "media coup" as shown in the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Following that is a very detailed analysis of the role U.S. intervention plays in the opposition, and its latest attempt to oust Chavez in a referendum.
April 11, 2002 marks history as on of the first "media coups" ever. Media concentration in Venezuela is so great, that the opposition controls almost all of the media outlets in the country, numbering 95%. Eva Golinger, Esq. constructs an image depicting the extent of the private media’s foreknowledge as well as participation in the April 11, 2002 coup in her article: "All the private media owners were present in the palace cheering on as the coup leaders assumed power and dissembled Venezuela’s democratic institutions."
The opposition in December of 2002 unleashed another decisive blow, this time at the heart of the country’s economy. The Oil Strike, as it was called, was in fact not a strike at all, but a lockout "by bosses, owners and managers" of the workers from PDVSA, the state owned oil company. The Venezuelan private media spun this as a workers strike. The lockout, lasting a little over two months, caused a total crisis to the economy.
In a subsequent article, Golinger, brings to light shocking information connecting the United States government’s support and funding of the opposition. She then goes further by showing the similarities of the U.S. government’s imperial strategy in Venezuela to the tactics used in other Latin American countries.
The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), funded by Congress and the State Department, was initially created during the cold war to quell the ‘communist threat’. The U.S. government through the NED has funneled millions of dollars to Chavez opposition. Similarly, USAID and the AFL-CIO’s international Labor Solidarity center are also guilty of funding and supporting the coup, lockout and referendum.
"Similar to its role in Chile, Nicaragua, Haiti, Panama and the Philippines, amongst other nations, the U.S. has taken it upon itself to influence the future of Venezuelan politics," writes Golinger.
The Referendum, which was supposed to be a victory for the opposition, turned out to be a fait accompli for Chavez and a testament to the success of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Gregory Wilpert, editor of www.venezuelanalysis.com, appropriately concludes the closing article, with a conclusion directed toward those on the Left who are skeptical of the Chavez government or any government: "while individuals and their communities indeed have to change in order to change the world, states also have to give them the space and opportunities to do so."
This may be the essence of the Chavez government’s role in Venezuela which is due critical support.
Although The Venezuela Reader provides a strong collection of articles, at least three articles seem superfluous and could have been left out. Some of the authors fail to provide documentation for their arguments, which could make for skeptical readers.
This book is well worth the read for those interested in learning about the intricacies of the Venezuelan political process and what has been done thus far to empower the people of the Americas in the face of powerful opposition, backed by the U.S. government, the Washington Consensus and transnational capital.
The Venezuela Reader: The Building Of A People’s Democracy is edited by Olivia Burlingame Goumbri, Pages 176 Epica 2005 (www.epica.org)
Greg Rosenthal is currently studying in Venezuela.