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YOU won’t read about it much in those parts of the media currently arguing for war on Venezuela, but when Hugo Chavez first became president in 1999, Venezuela had endured a wave of economic and social catastrophes in the preceding two decades.
Up to seven in 10 people had been left in poverty. Income per head had collapsed to the levels of the 1950s. Millions were left to live in barrios dangerously clinging to the mountainsides, often without clean water or sanitation. Many had no proper access to healthcare and education
After Chavez’s election in 1998 with a 57 per cent vote, he set about his mission to transform the country.
Two key pillars of progressive change in Venezuela were transformations in healthcare and education, funded by a massive programme of wealth redistribution that redirected Venezuela’s oil revenues to collective social purposes.
Under Chavez, the government built thousands of new clinics, hospitals, and diagnostic centres across the country.
Through Mission Barrio Adentro (Into the Neighbourhood Mission), the main healthcare programme established in 2003, care and treatment were provided free. In Chavez’s lifetime it saved as many as 292,000 lives, cut infant mortality by a third and increased life expectancy by over two years. Mission Sonrisa (Mission Smile) provided free dental care, while Mission Milagro (Mission Miracle) restored eyesight to about 300,000 Venezuelans.
In education, tackling illiteracy was an early priority. In just 18 months, 1.6 million adults learned to read and write, two thirds of whom were women. Beyond meeting this basic need, free education at all levels was made a constitutional right.
Investment in education doubled from 3 per cent of GDP in 1999 to 6 per cent of a much greater GDP in 2011, funding provision such as free nurseries, free school meals and the constriction of more than 3,000 new schools and 40 new higher education institutions. Two million children were added to school rolls, a 25 per cent increase.
Millions of adults were also enabled to return to school to complete their basic education, while Unesco data recorded Venezuela as achieving the fifth highest level of university enrolment in the world.
Free education as a legal right was just one measure of a new progressive constitution instituted by Chavez that guaranteed a wide range of human rights and prohibited discrimination. Turning these provisions into everyday reality against a background of decades of deep-rooted discrimination was never going to be easy, but huge advances were made under Chavez’s leadership.
Women were the main beneficiaries of the social programmes tackling poverty and disadvantage, such as entitlements to social security, help to set up small businesses and co-operatives and advancements of women’s rights in the workplace, particularly through the 2012 Labour Law legislation.
Coupled with these material improvements was a drive to ensure that the concerns of women were represented at the heart of the political process. This led to women substantially increasing their representative and leadership roles, particularly in the 35,000 community councils that form the backbone, along with 130,000 grassroots “Bolivarian Circles” in neighbourhoods and workplaces across the country, of Venezuela’s constitutional commitment to being a participatory democracy.
The new progressive constitution also provided protection for indigenous people and those of African descent, within an acknowledged multi-ethnic and multicultural society. Parliamentary political representation was guaranteed; a Ministry for Indigenous People set up in 2007 and service provision such as medical care tailored to meet specific community needs.
Alongside redistributing 1.4 million acres left idle in large landed estates to 15,000 peasant families, Chavez’s government returned one million hectares to indigenous communities through 40 collective title deeds
While a specific law against racial discrimination was passed in 2011, Chavez — proud of his own African heritage — also promoted the celebration of indigenous and African ancestry and culture.
The 1999 constitution’s fundamental provision that “The state shall guarantee to every person, in accordance with the progressive principle and without discrimination, the enjoyment and inalienable, indivisible and interdependent human rights,” also enabled Venezuela’s LGBT communities to strengthen their struggle against homophobia and transphobia.
The 2012 Labour Law explicitly prohibited “exclusion or restriction in access to work and work conditions” based on sexuality, as well as other forms of discrimination.
Chavez’s programme also included advancing rights for disabled people, rooted in the new constitution’s commitment that “any person with disabilities or special needs has the right to the full and autonomous exercise of his or her abilities.” The 2007 Law for Disabled People helped translate this commitment into effect through various measures, not least the establishment of a specific Mission to meet the medical and social needs of disabled people.
Taken together, all these policies had lifted five million Venezuelans out of poverty by 2011 and transformed the lives of many more.
But to help realise his vision that “another world is possible,” not just for Venezuela, Chavez also led the creation of key regional organisations to unite Latin American voices and provide progressive economic alternatives to neoliberalism, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac), a regional bloc made up of 33 nations, and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (Alba), a trade alliance made up of eight countries.
On the global scale, he opposed the disastrous US wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, becoming ever more an enemy of the Bush administration, who (like New Labour’s Denis MacShane) backed the shortly successful coup against him in 2002.
Of course, like any other leader, he made mistakes — and he was known to have regretted not doing more to diversify the economy away from its historical overreliance on oil, which has caused so many difficulties in recent years — but we mustn’t let enemies of socialism delete from history what he achieved.
I was proud to host Chavez as mayor of London when he visited here, and I’m proud to write this article on his achievements and legacy today.
Chavez was the spark for a revival of the Left and Latin American liberation in the 21st century and for that he will always be remembered.
You can follow Ken at www.twitter.com/Ken4London and www.facebook.com/KenLivingstoneOfficial. Hear Ken speak – alongside an update on why we must oppose the coup in Venezuela – at a North London VSC film showing of Mi Amigo Hugo by Oliver Stone on February 27 at 7pm — tickets at http://bit.ly/kenonchavez.
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