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Poverty & SDGs

Fighting Poverty Was Chávez’s Crusade

Thousands of people line up to enter the Military Academy chapel where the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez lies in state. Credit: Raúl Límaco/IPS

CARACAS, Mar 8 2013 (IPS) - The struggle against poverty was the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s top political priority, and at the same time a tool to consolidate his power and project his strategies abroad.

As well as drawing attention to the plight of the poor and placing them at the centre of the national agenda, his administration left a mixed legacy with positive and negative aspects, overshadowed by an economy dependent on oil as its sole resource, and political action marked by acute polarisation and the burning of bridges for dialogue with the opposition.

“Chávez cared about us, he made us visible, he spoke up for us, he launched health programmes, provided low-cost food and gave us housing,” Gregorio Sánchez, a street vendor and one of the hundreds of thousands of followers who formed long lines Thursday to say a last goodbye to “my commander-in-chief,” who died Tuesday, told IPS.

Chávez first became president in 1999 and was embattled early in his presidency with opposition business shut-downs, protests and a short-lived coup. From 2003 on, Chávez adopted a broad range of “missions” or social programmes in the areas of health, literacy, education, nutrition, work grants, and aid to poor mothers and the extremely poor, with which he consolidated a consistent electoral majority in his favour.

Over the last decade, according to official figures, the 1998 poverty rate that stood at 48 percent and the extreme poverty rate of 20 percent were each halved.

Under Chávez, 1.5 million adults in this country of 30 million people learned to read and write, 700,000 completed primary education, and 600,000 extremely poor people received assistance.

Sixty percent of the population buys subsidised food in government outlets, 7,000 health centres were opened in economically depressed areas, 200,000 families received farmland and another 200,000 received urban housing without paying a cent up front.

Adamant critics like former socialist leader Teodoro Petkoff have told IPS that Chávez’s chief merit was his support for the poor and marginalised, calling attention to their situation and attending to their most pressing needs.

The political opposition, which made inroads to the point of capturing 45 percent of the vote for their candidate Henrique Capriles in the presidential election against Chávez last October, gave up their blanket criticism of the government’s social programmes and promised to maintain them, although they said they would improve them and make them more sustainable.

“(Chávez’s) merit is that he took up poverty as a major issue when, at the end of the 20th century, most political organisations, and not only in Venezuela, had abandoned it and embraced the (free market) liberal ideas of the Washington Consensus,” Alexander Luzardo, former head of the association of sociologists and anthropologists, told IPS.

“The diagnosis of global poverty already existed, arrived at by the system of United Nations conferences in the 1990s, and Chávez made it the main focus of his political strategy,” Luzardo said.

“He battled against the prescriptions of liberals and social democrats in the international arena, and domestically he used his gifts as a communicator to turn the poor into political protagonists; hence his strength,” Luzardo said.

His political heirs want to take up the baton and are proposing to “listen to the demands of the poor” – the majority of the mourners filing past his casket – and modify the constitution in order to put his remains to rest immediately in the National Pantheon beside those of liberation hero Simón Bolívar, instead of waiting 25 years as prescribed by law.

The other side of this coin is that Chávez had fantastic wealth at his disposal, over a trillion dollars, more than all the Venezuelan governments of the 20th century together – according to former Central Bank president José Guerra – arising from the oil bonanza that provided up to 95 percent of the country’s foreign revenue and anchored the monoproducing and monoexporting economy more than ever.

President Chávez oversaw the nationalisation of some 1,500 companies ranging from banking, the steel industry, fossil fuels, electricity and telecommunications to modest food outlets. The country also has tight exchange and price controls in operation.

However, 40 percent of the economically active population works in the informal sector; inflation is the highest in the Americas at over 20 percent a year; and after 10 years of land reform and the expropriation of more than three million hectares that were in private hands, over half of the food consumed in Venezuela is imported.

Jorge Botti, president of the employers’ association Fedecámaras, told journalists that in 2002 there were 614,000 businesses in Venezuela and by the end of 2012 there were only 377,000.

Public sector debt has increased five-fold to over 150 billion dollars, while the debt of state oil giant PDVSA has multiplied almost 10 times, to 40 billion dollars, said economics Professor Orlando Orchoa. The company is having difficulty coming up with the amount previously agreed on with Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil company, for investing in a refinery in the northeast of Brazil.

Amid voracious consumerism – with the cheapest gasoline in the world, at two cents of a dollar per litre, as its emblem – Chávez strove, unavailingly so far, to build a “socialist economic sector” based on barter and cooperatively owned businesses.

Another black mark in a decade and a half of government is the rise in crime, with between 16,000 and 20,000 homicides a year, three times the rate before 1999, and deplorable prison management with an overcrowded inmate population of 45,000 and an average of at least one prisoner murdered per day.

Luzardo gave credit to Chávez for “promoting a new constitution in 1999 that expanded rights, particularly for indigenous people and the environment, but only on paper because the government’s approach to the oil and mining industries is developmentalist (focused on economic growth), and it has not carried out the constitutional provisions for demarcating the territories of native peoples.”

On the political front, Chávez’s legacy is his ideology of “21st century socialism” and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, which attempt to combine the ideas of Bolívar with Marxist principles and the causes closest to the heart of the Latin American left throughout the 20th century.

However, they obviate the trade unions and instead seek an alliance between the populace and the armed forces.

Chávez was criticised for preferring rhetoric and confrontational behaviour to dialogue, a trait that intellectuals like writer Alberto Barrera explain by saying “polarisation brought him political dividends and was the basis of his electoral strategy.”

The Venezuelan leader was victorious in 15 out of the 16 elections held since he first won the presidency in 1998.

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