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A Decade in Power: An Assessment of

Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Ashley
Wagner

-Chávez celebrates a decade of power
-Venezuela’s progress over the last 10 years
-Chávez’s social and economic reforms
-Trouble in Chávez Presidency
-Future U.S.-Venezuelan relations

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a former paratrooper turned
socialist revolutionary and regional leader, declared a national holiday
for February 2, the tenth anniversary of his being in power. On the
day of the newly mandated celebration, Chávez reminded
Venezuelans of the prosperity the country has witnessed over the last
decade. He rallied his supporters with a speech proclaiming that his
administration had encapsulated “three words: revolution,
independence and socialism.” He proclaimed to the thousands of
sympathizers lining Caracas’ streets that the spirit of Venezuela’s
forefather, Simon Bolivar, had been revived in him ten years ago, and
assisted in the effort to liberate the Venezuelan people. Chávez, the
founder of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist
Party of Venezuela), also used the occasion to issue a new document,
“The Achievement in 10 years of Revolution.” It outlines the
government’s accomplishments such as economic reform, social
welfare, and the prospect of major land reform. Chávez triumphantly
told his followers that, “We have done in 10 years what couldn’t be
done in one century.”

Social Reforms
After the recuperation of the control of the national petroleum
company PDVSA and nationalization of foreign-held petroleum
deposits and drilling sites, the resulting vast increase in governmental
revenue began to be allocated towards critical achievements in living
conditions for Venezuela’s poorest citizens, through public health,
education, and job training programs. Initiatives such as the “Mission
Vuelta al Campo” permitted the funding, construction, expansion and
refurbishment of healthcare facilities nationwide that ultimately
benefited tens of thousands of ordinary Venezuelans. Free medical
care allowed nearly two hundred thousand surgeries for cataracts and
other ocular diseases that were performed nation-wide.

A poor Caracas native testified that thanks to Chávez’s “Rescatando
La Sonrisa” dentistry program, which arose out of universal
healthcare, she was able to get her teeth fixed for the first time in her
life. Olivia Delfino, an impoverished Caracas native, voted to re-elect
Chávez in 2004 due to her new-found literacy. “Can you imagine what
it has meant to me, at 52 years old, to now have a chance to read?
It’s transformed my life,” she cried to an American reporter, just after
the election. Delfino was not the only one affected by universal
education and programs such as “Mission Robinson.” By 2005,
illiteracy was essentially eradicated in the country. State sponsored
literacy and educational programs also resulted in substantial gains in
middle and higher education enrollment. Enrollment rates nearly
doubled from 1999 to 2008, the period of time spanning Chávez’s
term.

Aside from improvement in everyday life, Chávez secured longer
lasting social welfare programs like the “social stability funds” that
guaranteed workers “fundamental rights such as retirement,
pensions, vacations, and prenatal and postnatal leave.” Under the
non-exploitative workers’ program, the work week was shortened
from 44 hours to 36 hours, and employers were prohibited from
forcing wage earners to work overtime (Prensa Latina). He also raised
the minimum wage to $286 per month, boasting the highest wage in
Latin America. In addition to subsidizing basic food stuff by 40
percent, his decree on land reform, which aimed to eliminate
Venezuela’s largest estates, while still allowing the plantation owners
to hold huge swaths of land, permitted him to re-distribute 3 million
hectares of land to the rural landless. For those most impoverished,
Chávez put roofs over their heads by building block housing projects.
To many observers, Chávez achieved the seemingly impossible over
the course of a decade.

Economic Reforms
Even though Chávez has been mainly successful in aiding the poor of
Venezuela while decreasing the overall poverty rate to less than one
third of the population, he has been aggressively criticized for his
inability to significantly reduce the country’s reliance on oil revenue
and faulted for the nationalization of numerous private businesses,
which seemed to be not worth the effort. Venezuelans have seen the
governmental takeover, or partial takeover, of major electricity and
telephone companies, reversing much of the privatization that
occurred in the 1990s. Chávez bought an 82.14% stake in Electricidad
de Caracas (AES Corp.) and a 28.5% stake in CANTV (Verizon
Communications) back in 2007. Such takeovers – some dating back as
early as 2003, and with the real GDP nearly doubling (growing an
astronomical 95 percent in about six years) – were wildly popular and
appreciated. On the other hand, foreign investments have plummeted
in Venezuela while sky rocketing in many other Latin American
countries. Peru, comparable in population to Venezuela, had an intake
of nearly US$5.4 billion, with Venezuela taking in a meager US$500
million. Such down plunges have angered Chávez opponents who
claim that his socialized businesses and government-subsidized
products have hurt their small businesses. A Venezuelan native and
Chávez adversary reported to the BBC that a newly opened and
government-subsidized Mercal supermarket will put her modest food
shop out of business.

Chávez’s revolution has alienated foreign governments by intervening
into the external affairs of other countries. But his revolution showed
a generosity of spirit which was almost unparalleled in terms of the
often significant financial contributions and sharing of the country’s
petroleum revenues for educational and medical services, in addition
to a wide roster of foreign aid and acts of goodwill. In 1999 he agreed
to export cheap oil to the Caribbean and Castro’s Cuba, America’s
mortal foe. In 2007, Chávez upset the U.S. again by sending oil to Iran
after riots erupted regarding petrol shortages. Chávez also has
intentionally tried to isolate himself from the U.S. in order to generate
authentic indigenous customs and practices. He then created the
Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a trade bloc including
members from Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominica, and Cuba.
Currently, ALBA is discussing the possibility of a regional currency
which member states would use for intra-bloc trade. The primary goal
of introducing a monetary union to Latin America is to reduce their
dependence on the U.S. dollar.

Regardless of what critics may report, most of the population has
reaped some of the many rewards that nationalization has provided in
the form of governmental surplus. This, in turn, has created numerous
social programs, which has had him promote social endeavors that
have managed to stimulate the Venezuelan economy, evident in
statistical data from the CEPR, showing that social spending in
Venezuela per person has more than tripled from 1998-2006.

Presidential Challenges
Although the anti-American leader and close friend of Fidel Castro,
has maintained the longest running presidential term since the
country restored democracy over four decades ago, numerous
beneficial changes have been generated. But Chávez’s presidency
has not gone unchallenged. Chávez, who had first led a failed coup
before being elected at the polls, faced a military coup of his own in
2002. Against the backdrop of Chávez supporters clashing with anti-
Chávez protestors, he was forced to resign his power and was
detained at a Venezuelan military base, while business leader Pedro
Carmona was being introduced as the country’s interim president.
Venezuelan soldiers loyal to Chávez, and of course those from the
shanty towns who had been deprived of much information about what
was happening downtown by the chicanery of the anti-Chávez
television channel RCTV, succeeded in mounting a counter-coup that
returned Chávez to power. Later, Chávez adamantly insisted, with
objective evidence to support him, that the U.S. was involved in the
attempt to overthrow him.

Just a year later, 3.2 million Venezuelans demanded a recall
referendum to end Chávez’s presidential term prematurely. The
National Electoral Council (CNE) dismissed the petition, stating that
many signatures had been gathered before the mid-point of Chávez’s
term, a constitutional technicality that the government was able to
make use of. Furthermore, pro-Chávez groups reported being coerced
into signing the petition at their workplace, which led to more
questioning as to the validity of the document. Three months later,
3.6 million signatures were gathered in a span of four days once again
to protest Chávez’s presidency. Although riots broke out because
Chávez had accused the petitioners of fraud, the CNE granted a recall
referendum. However, Chávez was able to mobilize 59% of the voters
in a record voter turnout to put down the recall motion.

Despite a backing of 50 percent and a landslide victory in 2006,
Chávez failed to gain enough support for the passage of an
amendment to the constitution that would allow him to run for the
presidency in 2007. Chávez’s fluctuating popularity would now be put
to the test in the upcoming February 15 continuous re-election
referendum, which calls for the removal of term limits on a long roster
of popularly elected positions. If the referendum were to pass, the
results of the election would still be unpredictable. If the referendum
fails, then Chávez would be required to leave office at the end of his
six year term in 2013, culminating almost a decade and a half as
Venezuela’s leader.

Regardless, Chávez now has even further challenged the opposition
by indicating that he may not even accept a referendum defeat and,
in such an eventuality, would attempt to again try to pass it sometime
in the future, stating that “there’s no limit in the constitution
regarding the number of times that an amendment can be
attempted,” although some of his opponents would fiercely disagree.

The Future of Venezuela
Alberto Barrera, a reputable writer, accused the Venezuelan leader of
“promising Venezuelans paradise but that paradise, which he calls
socialism, depends on oil above $120.” Now, although such a tart
remark may be more revealing of Barrera’s skeptical politics than a
telling insight into reality, he might have a point. As of only days ago,
world oil prices stood at a meager $40 per barrel. Nonetheless,
Chávez assured the world that his revolution will withstand the
American-fueled economic crisis. He may be right. The Burlington
County Times, amongst others, have projected oil prices might ascend
to $60 per barrel. If gas prices are truly on the rise, Chávez won’t
have to wait it out too long before the national oil company, Petroleos
de Venezuela, starts raking in money once again. As long as oil is
being bought and sold at a profitable price (around $60 per barrel),
Chávez’s social programs can stay afloat even after his $42 billion in
hard currency savings run out.

In regards to ties with the United States, Chávez has had a rocky
history with his Northern neighbor. In an appearance before the
United Nations, Chávez dubbed President George W, Bush “the devil.”
With such saucy language in the background leaving a troubled
legacy, interactions with the U.S. since President Obama’s
inauguration have failed to improve. While Obama offered to open
talks with Venezuela to foster better relations, Chávez seemed almost
uninterested to the U.S. leader’s previous green light for diplomatic
talks, perhaps due to Obama’s perception of Chávez as a destructive
force. Specifically, Obama has recognized him as “being a force that
has interrupted progress in the region.” Chávez responded, arguing
that Obama had the “same stench” as Bush. The prospect of Obama
and Chávez conversing and forging the beginnings of a diplomatic
relationship is encouraged by the fact that the U.S. leader has
promised to no longer ignore Latin America and its multiple plights.
Obama has already met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and
speaks publicly about engaging in talks with longtime U.S. adversary
Cuba. Hugo Chávez’s ten year legacy culminates with the February 15
vote on a re-election referendum, which to an extent will decide the
future course of himself and his Revolution.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Ashley
Wagner
February 13th, 2009