Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

DEVELOPMENT-VENEZUELA: Chavez Launches Military-Led Social Plan

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Feb 23 1999 (IPS) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez launched his grand civic-military plan, involving around 150,000 troops and public employees and a similar number of volunteers, and designed to tackle the country’s social emergency.

The first stage of the plan, ‘Proyecto Bolivar 2000’ (for Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar), begins Saturday. It will be geared to providing coverage in health and education as well as housing and safety to the roughly six million Venezuelans trying to scrape by in extreme poverty.

The first phase involves around 70,000 troops – more than half of the armed forces – and some 85,000 civil servants, mainly in the areas of infrastructure, education and health.

Chavez, the first military officer to be democratically elected as president of Venezuela, added that the troops and functionaries would be joined by 200,000 volunteers, who have begun to sign up in the 26 zones into which the country has been divided for the project.

The president denied that the proposed “civil-military fusion” would open the door to a militarisation of Venezuela, as alleged by critics of his government, which took office Feb 2.

Chavez, 44, a charismatic retired lieutenant-colonel, attempted to sieze power by force seven years (minus two days) before riding to the presidency on a crest of fervent popular support and an alliance of the left and former coup-leaders.

At a nearly three-hour news conference Monday, Chavez denied that the project was inspired by Cuba or any other country. “It is made in Venezuela, and arose from Venezuela’s needs. We are not copying models,” he stressed.

On numerous occasions, the president has called on the citizens and civil society to actively join the project that aims to rescue the country, whether through participation or by contributing financial resources.

The initial financing of the project has come from funds earmarked for the presidency, several ministries and regional governments, and voluntarily reassigned to the project. So far the special fund contains around 26 million dollars.

Chavez said the basic condition for the success of ‘Proyecto Bolivar 2000’ was “the union of all Venezuelans,” without distinction of social condition or divisions between “the uniformed and the civilian people.”

The project’s central command will be based in the seat of government, and personally headed by Chavez because “it represents the start of a social revolution,” he explained.

After receiving his first two-week paycheck for 608 dollars (his net salary), Chavez announced that he had decided not to draw his salary as president because he received a pension for a similar amount as a retired officer. He explained that his salary would go toward scholarships for three students.

The president said he had taken over “a country without bearings” on any front, where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, in spite of Venezuela’s wealth in oil and other natural resources.

Of that 80 percent of the 23 million inhabitants living below the poverty line, 35 percent struggle to get by in extreme poverty – that is, they fail to meet their nutritional needs – while 14 percent are homeless.

To illustrate the gravity of the “social emergency,” Chavez also pointed out that 15 percent of the economically active population are unemployed, while 50 percent work in precarious conditions in the informal economy.

Furthermore, 37 percent of Venezuela’s children are malnourished, infant mortality stands at 21 per 1,000 live births, and 30 percent of children and teenagers drop out of school.

“The armed forces will not be the fundamental component of the project, but one of its motors, where the grand turbine and fuel will be the population” – without which the project would be a failure or would enjoy only intermittent success, the president underlined.

Defence Minister Gen. Raul Salazar said the military would have tasks of coordination, but would not usurp civilian functions of management and operations. “We will not run hospitals or schools. We will do what those schools and hospitals need to operate well,” he explained.

Chavez said the project would have three intertwining levels of action. The first will begin on Feb 27, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of bloody protests that were cracked down on by the army at a cost of some 400 lives, according to human rights groups.

That first phase is the “Plan of Immediate Sustainable Action” (or ‘Propais’). It seeks to “raise the standard of living of the most depressed sectors,” and address their most urgent needs in the areas of health, education, housing and safety, he said.

In the first two weeks alone, more than 70 schools and dozens of health clinics are to be repaired in the metropolitan area of Caracas, while roads will be cleaned and areas of public hospitals renovated, the president said.

The second stage, ‘Propatria’, will support the smooth functioning of centres of health and education, the generation of small businesses, the distribution of arable public land left idle, and the insertion of those registered as unemployed into the labour market at specific points throughout the country.

The last phase, ‘Pronacion’, will promote and operate sustainable development projects designed to generate structural changes and set up special programmes in areas like fishing, agriculture, ecotourism and the tapping of natural gas.

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