Chávez ‘s Social Policy and the Social Transformation of Venezuela
By Rachel Boothroyd for LAB
When Hugo Chávez ran in the Venezuelan presidential elections in 1998, he stood on a nationalist platform, promising to reform the country’s Constitution and redistribute its oil wealth to the poor. Since then, his government’s actions and rhetoric have become much more radical, openly calling for the construction of ’21st Century Socialism’ at home and the creation of a ‘multi-polar’ world abroad.
Social policies to implement this have hugely increased levels of investment in public services and produced a sharp decrease in poverty and inequality. International bodies such as the United Nations and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) have recognised that government social spending has managed to cut poverty and malnutrition by half, reduce extreme poverty by around 60%, and dramatically increase high school and university enrolment levels and voter participation.
Behind these impressive figures lie the country’s various ‘missions’—social programmes aimed at alleviating poverty in Venezuela’s most deprived areas, such as the countryside and the self-constructed shantytowns or barrios surrounding the country’s main cities.
One of the most popular and successful of these social programmes is known as ‘Mission Barrio Adentro’, which provides free and accessible medical treatment and preventive healthcare to the population. Born of an agreement with the Cuban government in 2003, the mission has seen over 7,000 walk-in-centres and 500 diagnostic clinics opened in Venezuela’s most isolated areas; as well as up to 34,000 Cuban medical personnel, including doctors, nurses, dentists and ophthalmologists, deployed across the country.
Although rarely acknowledged, in the past three years the government has also spent over US$230 million to combat the spread of HIV in Venezuela, creating the PENVIH plan and providing free and universal access to antiviral treatment for all those diagnosed with the virus. Whereas in 1999 fewer than 1100 people had access to these vital drugs, in 2010 almost 38,000 Venezuelans received free antiviral treatment.
In education, the government’s achievements have been equally impressive. Managing to reverse attempts to privatise Venezuela’s higher education system during the 1990s, when universities became more elitist and the participation rate of the country’s poor fell to around 7%, the Chávez government has almost tripled enrolment level in higher education, with Venezuela now boasting the fifth highest level in the world. This jump has mainly been achieved through the creation of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, founded in 2003 to offer free undergraduate and graduate courses throughout the country in an attempt to provide education for traditionally marginalised groups.
Teaching at this University takes place in ‘university villages’, purpose-built by the state, or in community spaces such as the local church or school.Timetables are flexible so that degrees can be pursued part-time, making it easier for single-mothers and others to gain qualifications. Crucially, students at the university are also given scholarships and food and transport vouchers in a bid to tackle social injustice as a barrier to educational access. This approach, which entails tailoring higher education to suit community needs, has enabled the Chávez government to increase the number of citizens with university-level qualifications from 785,000 in 1998, to approximately 2,480,000 today, with the Bolivarian University having graduated more than 144,000 students in the past 8 years.
These missions, combined with other government initiatives, such as funding for community media groups, increased employment and training, and the provision of government stores called Mercals, where Venezuelans can buy non-branded food items at up to 50% below the market price, help to explain why, after more than 12 years in power, the Chávez government still wins approval ratings of over 57%.
21st Century Socialism
Yet, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Chávez government’s social policy has been its ability to encourage and, at least in part, give political structure to community organisation in Venezuela, which has flourished since Chávez came to power and placed the country’s social movements in the driving seat for some of the country’s most radical initiatives. It is this aspect of the government’s social policy which allows us to understand more clearly how 21st Century Socialism is developing, what is meant by ‘revolution as a process’ and how the experience of Venezuela differs from the rest of Latin American.
In a notable divergence from the state-centric socialist experiments of the past, one of the main pillars of 21st Century Socialism is the concept of participatory democracy, or the people making their own decisions in aspects of everyday life, from the running of their own communities to participating in drawing up national legislation. Drawing on Antonio Negri’s concept of the ‘constituent power’ or collective will of the people, the Venezuelan government’s strategy has been to channel the revolutionary energy of grassroots organisations into political action and thus render it an effective agent of social and political change.
Various democratic structures have been created in an attempt to institutionalise this popular participation, with the government usually responding to grassroots agitation for legal recognition of their new organisational formations. Bodies such as community councils, popular assemblies for the newly established ‘Great Patriotic Pole’ and workers’ councils, are some of the initiatives which go beyond the country’s traditional model of representational democracy.
This participatory democracy s also extends to the economic sphere, where certain factories such as SIDOR, Inveval and Alcasa, are currently making radical experiments in workers’ control. In some factories workers’ councils, legalised in 2010, are made up of elected worker representatives who discuss and take decisions relating to production, maintenance of the workplace and marketing. Council members are held accountable to the other workers at the plant and can be recalled at any time.
In Bolivarian Venezuela, democracy also goes hand in hand with social inclusion, and the 1999 Constitution (ratified by popular referendum) deliberately expands upon the idea of democracy to include social justice. As such, many of the government’s social programmes possess a strong community and political component and encourage, indeed depend on, popular participation to implement them.
For instance, the Bolivarian University follows a syllabus which is designed to create a social and political consciousness and students are expected to engage in community work in their given field as part of their course. For instance, medical students will be given a placement in their local Barrio Adentro clinics, whilst students of architecture will work on construction projects for their local community.
The convergence between government social policy and popular participation is perhaps most palpable in the country’s mass house building project, launched last year with the aim of building 2.7 million homes in the next 7 years in order to tackle the country’s housing deficit. Interestingly, last year over 144,000 houses were built with the direct participation of the country’s organised communities, from community councils to PDVSA workers, who sourced possible construction sites, and actively participated in the building of houses.
These forms of popular participation are also starting to expand into key areas of the state, with the government’s new pilot police force, ‘the People’s Guard’, currently working directly with community councils in order to address local problems. Officers have also been carrying out youth work in local communities, as well as being subject to a certain level of civilian control through a series of ‘Citizen Police Control Committees’.
Although the media often charge the Chávez government with clientelism, the reality of the Bolivarian revolution is much more complex, with the Venezuelan people expected to play a leading role in virtually every aspect of society. It is through this interaction between state and civil society, and the reproduction of these new forms of community organisation, that a true social transformation of Venezuela is taking place.