Venezuela’s Bolivarian Movement: Its Promise and Perils, Pt. I

Venezuela today, under its democratically elected President, Hugo Chavez Frias, is imbued with the spirit of Bolivarianism. It’s based on the vision of Simon Bolivar, the Caracas born 19th century general who defeated the Spanish, liberated half of South America, believed in redistributive social policies and a united South America—all things Chavez has adopted in his rhetoric and actions. The ultimate objective is to overcome what Bolivar perceptively characterized as the imperial curse "to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty."

Chavez and his Movement for the Fifth Republic Party (MVR) have created the beginnings of a mass social and political revolution based on participatory democracy and social justice. In a nation where 80 percent of the people are poor by any measure, Chavez is a populist hero with mass public support, with the exception being the minority upper classes and business interests.

He openly proclaims his desire and intent to transform Venezuela into a nation based on democratic socialism as an alternative to its capitalist past. However, his policies are more gradualist and closer to the European style social democracy than a textbook type socialist state. And since he took office, the private sector accounts for a larger percent of the total economy than before his election; although Venezuela’s oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), the backbone of the economy, is state owned. Nonetheless, instead of recycling the nation’s petrodollars to the U.S. as past administrations have, Chavez is using them to grow the Venezuelan economy and fund his social programs. It’s little wonder he has drawn the ire of the Bush administration, which is intent on neutralizing him. Washington has already tried to three times and failed.

Chavez was first elected in December 1998 with 56 percent of the vote and began his presidency in February 1999. From the start, he began working to implement his vision for a more democratic state by fulfilling one of his campaign promises, to hold a nationwide referendum. This was done to let the people decide whether to convene a new National Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution that reflected Chavez’s political ideology. It passed overwhelmingly. Three months later Assembly elections followed where members of Chavez’s MVR and selected allied parties formed the Polo Patriotico or Patriotic Axis. It won 95 percent of the seats, thus enabling Chavez and his allies to draft a new constitution that changed the country’s official name from Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and set the nation on its new and revolutionary course.

The new constitution was overwhelmingly approved in a nationwide vote in December 1999. It took effect one year later and established the foundation and legal basis for President Chavez to move ahead with his desired structural changes for political, economic and social justice. A key provision of the new constitution (in Articles 83 – 85) mandated quality health care as a "fundamental social right and…responsibility of the state…to guarantee it…to improve the quality of life and common welfare." It proposed doing so by establishing and administering a national public health system. The constitution also banned discrimination, established the principle of participatory democracy for all Venezuelans, guaranteed free speech and the rights of the indigenous population, and mandated that the government make quality education available to all, as well as housing and an improved social security pension system for seniors.

Chavez gained traction to begin implementing his policies in the elections held in July 2000, when his coalition won a two-thirds majority in the constitutionally mandated and less powerful unicameral National Assembly. Chavez himself ran for a new six-year term (changed from four years under the new constitution) and was reelected with 60 percent of the vote. This victory gave Chavez and his government a mandate to move ahead with his plan to transform the nation in the ways explained below.



Democracy literally means government by the people. It’s the rule by and for common, ordinary people to insure the rights of the majority. In Venezuela, Bolivarian Circles reflect that spirit through direct volunteer public participation in the democratic

process. Articles 166 and 192 of the new constitution establish citizen assemblies as a constitutional right to enable people to fight for rights and issues that concern them most. The assemblies allow ordinary people the right to participate in governing along with their elected officials. Founded as a result of a presidential call for them, these Circles in 2003 had over 2 million members. Many Circle activities are currently taken up by the various Misiones (Missions) that now comprise the heart of the government’s social programs. The Circles, though, play an important part in administering Mission programs in the communities and neighborhoods. They’re autonomous and function independently of political parties with government support, but with no direct government funding. Their purpose is to defend the Bolivarian Revolution and its constitution primarily on a local level. They also encourage and support people with common interests to organize through cooperatives, associations, committees, neighborhood groups and other formations to be partners with their elected officials in the political process and help form the policies that directly affect their lives and well-being.

Bolivarian Circles have included community and labor leaders working cooperatively with the usual disenfranchised people on local issues of providing health care, education, feeding the hungry, helping small business and much more. In addition, President Chavez implemented Plan Bolivar 2000 to grant the President authority to mobilize the Venezuelan Armed Forces to be used in poor areas of the country in order to provide health care, food, construction equipment, school tutoring and other services to those most in need.

In addition, the Chavez government is also promoting the spirit of cooperation further by encouraging privately owned companies to allow employees more direct say in, and control over, company operations in return for the government providing added working capital. Under the Chavez plan, companies would include workers on their boards and share profits with employee cooperatives. So far, almost 200 mostly small

companies in need of financial help have voluntarily agreed to adopt this co-management plan, and the government hopes to attract many more.


The Bolivarian Revolution has significantly improved the lives and welfare of the Venezuelan poor (the great majority of the population) and Chavez’s base of support. They include a broad array of vital and innovative social programs that include: health care, education, food, housing, land reform, job-training and micro-credit programs, among other things. The Chavez government has used its considerable oil profits and increased tax revenue to fund these programs. In 2004 state oil profits were $25 billion

because of high oil prices and are likely to be much higher in 2005 as prices continued to rise. Many oil analysts, in fact, see continued high demand for a shrinking supply of world oil likely to keep prices rising for this commodity. If so, Chavez will get the revenue he needs to continue and expand what he calls a "new socialist revolution." Some of its elements which are illustrated through the country’s various missions include the following:

Mision Bario Adentro (Mission Inside the Neighborhood)

This is a series of initiatives deployed in three distinct stages to provide free, comprehensive and high-quality community health and dental care in hospitals and clinics (aided by 20,000 Cuban doctors). More than 500 centers providing medical care have been built. This mission also provides preventative medical help and advice to the millions of people living in shantytowns and barrios. It also links health to the economy, good nutrition, food security, culture, sports, education, and the environment and stresses the importance of the participation of local organizations and doctors living and working in the same communities.

Mision Mercal

This program provides access to high quality produce, grains, dairy products and meat at affordable prices. It also provides the poor with better access to nutritious and organic locally and nationally grown foods, as well as attempting to increase Venezuela’s food sovereignty.

Mision Robinson I

This mission uses volunteers to teach the poor to read and write. In 2004 it had raised the literacy rate to an impressive 99% of the population, having so far enrolled close to 1.4 million people, nearly 1.3 million of whom have successfully completed the program. In the Americas, only Venezuela and Cuba have virtually eliminated illiteracy. In the U.S., the Department of Education estimates that over 20% of the population is functionally illiterate.

Mision Robinson II

This mission was a continuation of Mision Robinson I and seeks to consolidate the literacy rates achieved, as well as provide primary education in other areas.

It has enrolled 1.2 million people and graduated a large majority of them with an elementary school education.

Mision Ribas

This program has nearly 29 thousand education centers around the country, which provides a high school education to Venezuelans of all ages, enabling them to receive a high school equivalency degree. Enrollment has reached nearly 1.5 million.

Mision Sucre

This mission provides access to higher education to all Venezuelans with a high school or equivalency degree. It has enrolled nearly 275,000 people in various university level programs, and since 1999 has established 5 new universities. Unlike in the pre-Chavez era, education now is completely free through the university level and has been a boon to

school enrollment.

Misiones Guaicaipuro and Habitat

The purpose of Mision Guaicaipuro is to restore communal land titles and human rights to the country’s poor and indigenous peoples, as well as defend their rights against resource and financial speculation by dominant business interests. It’s run by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and has become the nation’s largest organized social movement. This program has led to the establishment of over 5,000 land committees representing 5 million Venezuelans (20 percent of the population).

Urban Land Committees (CTUs) and the law allowing their creation stipulate that Venezuelans who live in homes they built on occupied land (the case for nearly all of the poor) may petition the government for title to the land. This policy affects up to 60 percent of the population, and, for the first time ever, has given the poor in the barrios the legal right of ownership of the land they live on. As of the middle of 2005, some 84,000 titles have been issued to 126,000 families—benefiting about 630,000 people. However, there is much more work to be done as the mentioned achievements only accounts for about six percent of the barrio population.

Through this program, the Chavez government believes it’s repaying a social debt to the poor barrio inhabitants, who in the past 50 years have built more homes (on occupied land) than the government. Granting them titles to this land is the government’s way of recognizing and legalizing their contribution to Venezuelan society. This right is written into the new constitution under Article 82.

Along with granting land title to the poor who have built their own homes, Mision Habitat is the government’s other initiative to help provide public housing for the poor without homes. Its goal is to build thousands of new and free housing units and develop integrated housing zones that provide access to all social services, including health care and education.

Mision Vuelvan Caras (Turn Around)

This is a cooperative program between the people and the government and is intended to transform the country socially and economically. It’s involved in training workers to give them needed skills for future employment. Its main objective is a nation more

focused on social needs and achieving a higher standard of living for all Venezuelans.


It’s not hard to understand why Hugo Chavez currently has the highest approval rating of any president in the Americas—77 percent based on the latest polling numbers. His government’s social programs are providing vital services to millions of people that have never had them in the past.

In the 28 years before Chavez was elected, Venezuelan per capita income fell 35 percent, the worst decline in the region and one of the worst in the world. Since the Chavez government took office in 1999, the decline has been halted and per capita income has been flat through early 2004. It likely has risen since then as a result of the significant economic growth since late 2003. Venezuela’s National Institute of Statistics (INE) reported that in 2004 the economy grew by 17 percent. It then expanded by 7.5 percent and 11.1 percent respectively in the first two quarters of 2005, and about 10 percent in the third quarter. This was a major turnaround from the period preceding it that included the crippling oil strike of 2002-03 and the destabilizing effects of the short-lived coup deposing President Chavez for 2 days in April 2002. During this period of growth, unemployment dropped from 14.5 percent in September 2004 to 11.1 percent one year later. Poverty levels also fell. And it should be kept in mind that these data don’t include the enormous social benefits of Chavez’s economic policies.

Venezuela is one of the world’s leading oil producers and exporters, has the largest hydrocarbon (oil and gas) reserves in the Western Hemisphere and the largest known reserves in the world outside of the Middle East. Since conditions stabilized following the short-lived coup, the economy grew by 17 percent in 2004 and over 9 percent (quarter over quarter) in the first nine months of 2005. This was the fastest growth in the hemisphere.

The government has also managed to increase the taxes it collects, even during the difficult oil strike which caused a deep recession in 2003. The government has required that both foreign and domestically owned companies pay the taxes they owe. Venezuela’s Oil Ministry is currently seeking additional tax payments it believes the nation is entitled to receive and will ask the National Assembly later this year to raise the income tax rate from 30 percent to 50 percent on four foreign-owned heavy oil projects in the Orinoco river basin. These projects account for a fifth of Venezuela’s total oil production. In 2004, the government renegotiated service agreements three of the four foreign-owned oil companies had with the state-owned PDVSA. Only ExxonMobil has declined to go along. Under new joint venture terms, foreign oil companies are limited to a minority 49 percent stake, reserving majority ownership for PDVSA. These new agreements became effective on January 1.

In another move just announced that should irritate Washington, the Venezuelan Central Bank approved using the euro to diversify away from the U.S. dollar. This move will allow the monetary authorities to make payments and purchases in euros as freely as with dollars and help the country reduce its dependence on the U.S., one of President Chavez’s goals.

The revenues from high oil prices and taxes collected have helped the government run a budget surplus while maintaining a high level of social spending. Currency controls imposed in 2003 have also stemmed capital flight. And now, by approving the use of the euro, Chavez is taking one more step toward asserting the independence and sovereignty Venezuela seeks and deserves. As a result of these efforts, the nation’s public and foreign debt are moderate, and over $30 billion of reserves have been accumulated, and are likely rising, that can be used as a buffer if oil prices fall.


Hugo Chavez is pursuing an alternative plan to U.S. favored economic policies that benefit corporate interests at the expense of public interests. He calls it ALBA – the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. It’s aim is to counter the so-called "free market, free trade" agenda the Global North has been pushing on the Global South since the mid 1970’s.

ALBA’s goal is to achieve a process of comprehensive integration among Latin American nations with the aim of developing "the social state" to benefit ordinary people instead of the privileged elite. At its heart, it is based on the principles of cooperation and solidarity rather than competition and social darwinism that dominate capitalist ideology. In addition, ALBA sets out to respect and protect each nation’s sovereignty. Venezuela has also recently joined with Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay the Mercosur trading alliance, which should strengthen the prospects of ALBA further and increase the overall benefits of regional trade for the five participating nations and others being encouraged to join with them like Bolivia.

ALBA is based on participating nations uniting in solidarity for the benefit of empowering their people, providing essential goods and services, achieving real economic growth at the grassroots level and eradicating poverty. A key feature of the plan is the exchange of goods and services outside the usual international banking and corporate trading system. One example of this has been the exchange of Venezuelan oil and building materials to Cuba paid for in kind by Cuba sending 20,000 doctors to work in medical clinics and hospitals in the barrios as well as staffing literacy programs to teach Venezuelans to read and write. Venezuela is also currently negotiating an agreement with Argentina to trade its oil for Argentine cattle and dairy products. In both examples, no hard cash or currency changes hands. Participating nations can either trade with each other in these barter-like transactions or purchase with currency at reduced and affordable prices. Both parties in the transaction gain and their people reap the benefits.

Hugo Chavez has been at the epicenter of this innovative change and is enlisting support of other leaders in the region to join with him. Discussions have been held about establishing a Bank of the South to finance "real" development projects without the suffocating and constricting burdens of debt that come with IMF loans. In fact, innovative programs are being created in agriculture, health, education, energy security and other sectors to overcome the problems created by decades of IMF structural adjustment mandates and centuries of colonization. At the recent Summit of the Americas, Chavez proposed an Alliance Against Hunger and Poverty plan and offered $10 billion over the next decade to finance it.

For ALBA to succeed it will have to overcome major obstacles. The Bush administration will not sit idly by and just watch a continental restructuring take place that will harm U.S. corporate interests.

In Part II of this article, Lendman will explore some of the threats Venezuela faces

Steve Lendman can be reached at

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