Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Maduro wins in Venezuela

Maduro certain to win

With the sudden death of Hugo Chavez on 5th March Venezuela was plunged into crisis and, as obliged under the constitution, has to hold new presidential elections which are to take place on 14 April. Few doubt that on that day Nicolas Maduro, the acting president, will be elected. He has been accepted with little if any dissent by those who voted for Chavez and by the progressive political leadership.

Little time was left for mourning before the country was gripped yet again by election fever. Hugo Chavez was president of the country for fourteen years, but in that short time he literally transformed the country. There is hardly another world leader in either the twentieth or twenty-first centuries who could claim to have had an equally positive impact not only nationally but on an international level too. There is a consensus that Chavez’s real lasting legacy will be the system of ‘Misiones’ or ‘missions’ that have been the main tool in transforming the lives of so many poor Venezuelans.

Most critics of Chavez seem to ignore the fact that Venezuela was and still is a very under-developed country, scarred by mass poverty, despite its enormous oil wealth. The difference now is that, thanks to Chavez’s intervention, the gulf between the super rich elite and the majority of the population has been narrowed.

When we visited the ‘barrio’ of Petaré in Caracas – allegedly the biggest shanty town in the world – young members of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), in their colourful patriotic T-shirts, were holding an impromptu event in the central square and giving interviews to a local television team about how they were going to implement the goals Chavez had set them.

Just off the square we discovered an old colonial building with a quiet courtyard laced with palm trees and a lower ground floor with shelves full of children’s books on all sorts of subjects from fairly tales to philosophy and science. It was a newly established free library. The white walls were colourfully painted by local children with views of their city. At a table a teacher was helping another in mastering French. This was another example of the transformations that the Chavez government has introduced. Nearby we saw new clinics and a pharmacy where patients can obtain subsidised medicine.

However voices like those like the Guardian’s Rory Carroll, echoing the White House, accuse Chavez of ‘squandering’ the country’s vast oil wealth and of ‘buying popularity’. The mainstream western media ignore the enormous internationally-validated progress achieved during Chavez’s presidency. The right wing presidential candidate, Capriles accuses Chavez and his party, the PSUV of ‘dividing the country’ that he is promising to ‘reunite’. This is to ignore the century-old chasm there has always been between rich and poor. What Chavez has done is to empower the poor to challenge that divide and to wage the ‘class struggle’ more effectively. While his detractors decry him as a dictator, they wilfully ignore his government’s immense achievements. The statistics of these improvements are not only impressive, but seemingly endless. Of course, Venezuela is still, despite all that has been done, a severely underdeveloped country, despite its enormous oil wealth. Over decades, well before Chavez, the country’s oil wealth had been funnelled out of the country into the US and offshore bank accounts of the oligarchic super rich. Slowly over the Chavez period years that is being reversed.

Luckily the fourteen years of the Chavez presidency have brought forth a whole new generation of capable, knowledgeable and committed socialist politicians has been schooled and who are determined to continue the country’s transition to socialism.

Let me list just a few of the achievements of the last ten years:

  • Over 1.7 million people were taught to read and write through Mission Robinson;
  • over 820,000 people have been included in secondary school studies and over 565,000 have entered higher education through mssion Ribas and Sucre;
  • In the last two yeaars alone, under Mision Vivienda (the project responsible for building new apartments for those in desperate need 300,000 new homes were built by the end of 2012; 20 new universities have been created;
  • a subsidised food production and distribution network (Mercal) has been established;
  • As a result of Project Canaima, two million computers and seven million free school textbooks have been distributed to school students;
  • under Mision Barrio Adentro, more than 3 million free eye surgeries and over 560 million medical consultations have been carried out over nine years;
  • child mortality rates in the country have declined by 34%;
  • the inclusion of an additional 520,00 new pensioners into the country’s pension system through mission Greater Love, meaning that now more than 2 million people get a state pension;

And it was announced that by February unemployment had fallen to 7.6% - compare that with the rates in Spain of Greece as a result of the crisis of capitalism. These statistics are not based on internal government figures; most have been validated by international institutions like the UN and UNESCO. The promotion of women in new and active roles in successive Chavez administrations and at local levels too is also an impressive achievement.

If one compares, for instance the minimal progressive changes Blair and the Labour government brought in during their 10 years in power, then the Chavez governments’ achievement is all the more impressive. He set in motion a genuine socialist revolution in the face of implacable and vitriolic opposition, given succour by its supporters in Washington.

One could go on and on, but the above examples should serve to demonstrate the immensity of the achievements of the past decade. In a recent report (The Rise of the South) by the United Nations Development Programme categorises Venezuela as exhibiting a ‘high’ score on the Human Development Index in the context of economic growth in the global south. Venezuela has seen some of the greatest poverty reduction and quality of life increases over the past decade. Acting president Maduro has said he is committed to maintaining and expanding the missions programme and is setting up a co-ordinating body to optimise the use of resources and to increase their efficiency even more.

The right-wing opposition candidate Capriles is so desperate to get elected that he is making the wildest promises such as offering to raise the minimum wage by 40% (it was Chavez who introduced the concept of a minimum wage in the first place) and that he will ‘recapture the acquisitive power of the workers’! He continually patronises former bus driver and trade union leader, Maduro, with ruling class arrogance. He said having Maduro at the helm ‘is like putting a junior doctor in the pilot’s seat of a plane because he happens to be the son of a pilot.’ Echoing Bush, he says he is, ’ undertaking a crusade to ensure that the country ‘is not governed by lies’.
In recent months Venezuela had opened up a new channel of communication with the US in order to attempt to mend fences, but these were broken off at the end of March in response to interfering and insulting comments by US State department Assistant Secretary for Latin America, Roberta Jacobsen who said, in an interview with the Spanish daily El Pais that it would be ‘a little difficult’ for Venezuela to conduct ‘clean and transparent elections’.  Shortly before this US secretary of state John Kerry had said that ‘depending on what happens in Venezuela, there could be an opportunity for a transition’. There is no doubt that the US is doing all it can to boost the chances of Capriles and undermine Maduro, but even it realises his chances are slim. Maduro has constantly warned his supporters to remain peaceful and avoid violent confrontations or provocations by the opposition.
It is always dangerous to predict political outcomes, but most opinion polls and sober assessments put Maduro well ahead of his opponent. If nothing earth-shattering happens between now and 14th April Maduro is most likely to be the next president. National representatives of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela have endorsed Maduro and he has the full support of the other left parties in the government coalition, including the Communist Party which usually polls around half a million votes. By the end of March an opinion poll conducted on behalf of  Barclays Bank international put Maduro ahead of Capriles by 14.4 points.

Chavistas are those who read

Chavistas are those who read

‘As long as you read, the more you will know and the more you will liberate yourself.’ This is just one of the many pertinent quotations by Chavez that adorn the walls of buildings all over Caracas. It could also be the leitmotif of this year’s international book fair in the city.

Caracas has a population of between three and six million people, depending on whose statistics you want to trust. Whatever the true figure, it feels big. Many of its citizens live in the densely populated and sprawling ‘barrios’ (shanty towns) that cover the hillsides surrounding the city in tiered ranks of do-it-yourself constructions. It is here that support for Chavez, and now for acting president Maduro, reaches its peak.

The city is a veritable melting pot; not a cosmopolitan collection of separate peoples as many capital cities are, but a beautiful melange of black African, indigenous and Hispanic peoples, with little feeling of racial disparity. This teeming city is bedecked with posters, wall slogans, murals and banners commemorating President Chavez. But all this wasn’t just expressing mourning, but also a determination to maintain his legacy. Many of the T-shirts people were wearing bore the simple slogan: ‘Yo soy Chavez’ (I am Chavez), others confirmed their support for Maduro as his political heir and acting president until the presidential election on 14 April. Only in the middle class enclaves of luxury apartments and gated houses with their electrified fencing is there a complete absence of revolutionary slogans and colourful national flags – they remain quiet and sombre like tombstones in a cemetery.

Caracas’s modern metro system is a boon to commuters from the poorer suburbs and perhaps amazingly is not scarred by graffiti of any sort and the whole system is devoid of the commercial ‘pornography’ most capital cities display. Instead there are government advertorials and information posters reminding people of the need for a heatlhy diet or encouraging them to take up education or promoting campaigns against violence. As in London, pensioners travel free.

The government has also recently built a series of cable cars that allow citizens to travel from the barrios in the hills to the centre of Caracas. Beforehand they were oibliged to walk up and down hundreds of steep steps to shop or get to work, and those who were incapable of doing so were condemned to a life trapped in their shacks on the hilltops.

I was invited to Caracas for the launch of the Spanish language version of my biography of Friedrich Engels. It was to be presented at this year’s international book fair (FILVEN). Shortly before flying out, the tragic news of President Chavez’s death on 5th March was announced, so I arrived in the capital Caracas with some trepidation and also a feeling of deep sadness. However, I soon became aware that despite the expressions of public grief, many of its citizens were also imbued with a clear determination to maintain the momentum of their revolution. The book fair inevitably took on the obligation of paying due homage to Chavez and his legacy.

Venezuela’s annual international week-long book fair brings together publishers from all over Latin America, as well as, in this year, from Palestine and Iran. But this isn’t an event aimed just at the publishing cognoscenti, it is also a draw to thousands of ordinary people. Each day the venue in the city centre with its dozens of stands, conference halls and cafes was packed with people of all ages buying books with the fervour of the thirsty on discovering a well; most left weighed down with bags bulging with books. Who are these people doing the buying, I wondered, and was told that they were mainly Chavez supporters, ‘because it is the Chavistas who read!’ One of the Chavez era’s significant achievements has been the massive rise in literacy. He has said: ‘Our socialist revolution is peacful but armed’ – meaning ‘armed with knowledge’.

This year over 170,000 visitors came to the fair. It also boasted a full programme of daily events: poetry readings, discussions, dancing, music and talks by leading writers. The poet Gustavo Pereira*, who also wrote the preamble to the Bolivarian Republic’s constitution, was this year’s honoured writer.

In Caracas I met an old friend I hadn’t seen for more than 40 years, since we both studied together at the GDR’s national film school. As a young Venezuelan communist he had been forced to flee in the wake of the military dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez. He is still making films, but since Chavez was elected fourteen years ago, instead of having to earn his bread and butter making commercials, he has been able to make features in support of the revolution. While the fair was on, he was preparing a sharp satirical cabaret programme for television in the run-up to the presidential election, alongside his day job as advisor to the minister of culture. He was still in a state of shock at Chavez’s sudden demise and spontaneously broke into tears when talking about him, much as one would at the loss of a beloved parent. He had been in Miraflores, the presidential palace, when the coup against Chavez took place in April 2002 and had worked on his renowned, and largely unscripted, TV talk show: Aló Presidente (Hello Mr. President). He told me how Chavez remained unflappable even in the most extreme circumstances, but that he also possessed an amazingly perceptive political nous that meant he could consistently wrong-foot his enemies. Chavez’s immense capacity for working almost non-stop undoubtedly contributed to his sudden deterioration of his health.

When wearing the T-shirt our own Venezuela Solidarity Campaign had produced to commemorate President Chavez’s visit to London at the invitation of Ken Livingstone in 2006, I was repeatedly approached by strangers on the street who thanked me for showing support for their beloved president. With no prompting they explained why they admired him so much and enumerated for me what he had done for ordinary Venezuelans. Such spontaneous expressions of support for Venezuela’s socialist revolution is the best rebuttal of the western media lies about Chavez being a dictator, a man full of empty rhetoric, a charlatan.

While his coffin lay in state at the military academy, mile-long queues of citizens formed every day over ten days, so many wishing to pay their respect to this exceptional leader, often with tears streaming down their faces. Now his body lies in a specially designed mausoleum in the military museum that was once the barracks from which Chavez launched an unsuccessful coup d’état against the government of President Andrés Peréz in 1992. It is also significantly located on a hillside in one of the barrios for which he represented renewed hope and a better future. Alongside the museum, children play the national sport of baseball in a dusty, makeshift stadium to the sound of raucous trumpeting and loud applause.

I certainly didn’t get the impression that this government is a top-down regime or that a state-ordained mourning had been imposed on a reluctant populace. Undoubtedly Chavez had been a powerful leader, but he ensured that real power was devolved to the people and their communities. Everyone I spoke to emphasised how they had found a new pride in their country and a new dignity for themselves. They readily expressed their determination to contribute even harder to the revolutionary process. One young trade union representative came up to me at the book fair and asked if I’d be willing to address workers in the food production factory complex in Valencia where he works. He told me that although they were implementing socialist economic policies and factory management systems, the workers needed to develop a new, socialist culture as well.

His detractors accuse Chavez and his supporters of having created a crude cult of personality. What they fail to appreciate – or don’t wish to understand – is that there is a huge difference between a deliberate personality cult by dictatorial politicians and the genuine popularity of a highly charismatic and capable leader. Chavez hasn’t encouraged or imposed this so-called ‘cult of personality’ for his own selfish ends or personal enrichment,  as all previous dictarors have done, but capitalised on his own undeniable personal popularity to implement a much needed transformation of the country.

My short stay in this vibrant city, left me in no doubt that the people here are far from disheartened, but are experiencing a new burst of life and hope. It is a country reborn and its revolution will not die with Chavez. It is he who has been largely responsible for returning the country’s dignity for the first time since before the Spanish conquest and of giving its people a vision of a truly democratic socialism; his comrades are determined to continue along that path.

*A bilingual edition of a collection of Pereira’s poetry – the first to be published in the UK - is available from Smokestack Books.