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Venezuela and the new Latin America – the Chavez legacy

As Hugo Chavez predicted, much of Latin America is a now seen as a progressive beacon in the world for people looking for alternatives to neo-liberalism. And, in many ways – following his sad death from cancer so brilliantly covered in last month’s (Original) Briefing – I think that is the main legacy of Hugo Chavez; showing there is an alternative in the 21st century. That it is possible to change the world for the better, that there are alternatives to war, US domination, neo-liberalism and rampant poverty plus inequality.

It’s certainly the case that the continent has undergone a deep transformation over the past decade. One Latin American country after another has moved to the left as their populations reacted to the terrible effects of free market policies, promoted by the US and bodies such as the IMF, similar to those which have returned to haunt the US and Europe.  Without doubt, the leadership and inspiration of Hugo Chavez – and Venezuela as the first country to make this break from US domination – was vital in this

Its sometimes easy to speak in phraseology but its more important from a progressive perspective to understand what the changes in Venezuela in recent years – and Latin America more widely – have meant to people’s ACTUAL lives and conditions they live in.

By 1998 (when Hugo Chavez was first elected) nearly half of the population of Latin America, more than 200 million people, were living in poverty. During these ‘lost decades’ of the 1980s and 1990s, Venezuela was one of the hardest hit by a wave of economic and social catastrophes. The consequences were devastating. Up to seven in ten people were left in poverty. Income per head collapsed to the levels of the 1950s. Millions were left to live in shanty towns (known in Venezuela as barrios) dangerously clinging to the mountain sides often without clean water or sanitation. Many had no proper access to healthcare and education

At the same time, Venezuela’s vast oil wealth – currently the largest reserves in the world – was siphoned-off to enrich a tiny elite at home and to multinational corporations abroad.  The Chávez-led government therefore inherited a country where half the population lived below the poverty line. In the mid 1990’s,

poverty peaked at 70 per cent and one in three Venezuelans was

forced to live on less than $2 per day.

It changed this situation by taking control of the country’s vast oil wealth and distributing it to the people – a political choice above all. As a result of these policies five million Venezuelans have been lifted out of poverty and three million from extreme poverty since 1998. General poverty has been reduced from 44% of households  in 1998 to 27% in 2011, while extreme poverty has decreased from

17% to 7%

.

It should be noted that this impressive reduction poverty is in spite  of the huge spike caused by the attempts to oust President Chávez through a coup d’état and then a sabotage of Venezuela’s oil industry in 2002/3.

Tackling hunger – a concrete example of a positive alternative

One could talk all day about the programmes that have changed Venezuela as it seeks to move towards socialism of the 21st century but in particular one that is worth drawing attention to as we discuss Hugo Chavez’s legacy is programmes that have dealt with hunger and malnutrition.

Free market polices had left one in five Venezuelans suffering from malnutrition by 1998.  The contrast due to the programme Hugo Chavez mentioned launching in the film – and the broader transformation of society – could not be starker.

Today people are no longer left to starve with an estimated 96 per cent of Venezuelans now eating three times per day

Practical policies to make this a reality include a chain of state supermarkets that provide high quality subsidized food through more than 400 products. These are used by 15m Venezuelans. Furthermore, six million Venezuelans,  including children, older people and the homeless, have access to  daily food through free school meals and thousands of “food  houses” that provide free meals

Showing just what political choices can be made – and what they can do – now, access to food has become a right, with Venezuela only the fifth  country in the world to enshrine this in legislation, according to the  UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

As a result of such policies, calorific intake has risen 40% meaning the average Venezuelan now reaches the recommended daily intake. Infant malnutrition has been reduced by more than half (from 7.7 % in 1999 to 3.2% in 2009).

An additional 8m people today also have access to clean drinking water, which now reaches 96% of the population up from 80% in 1998.

All of these remarkable improvements led to the co-ordinator of the  United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation in Venezuela to  say that:  “In times when we have food prices soaring and people  dying of starvation, Venezuela does just the opposite… it has  noticeably reduced the rate of malnourishment”.

Millions Driving Social Change

Millions of once excluded Venezuelans have become a driving force in creating social change, working with their government to oversee a whole transformation of society.

Today, millions of dollars from US agencies such as  the National Endowment for Democracy and the International  Republican Institute continue to fund Venezuela’s right-wing  opposition to try to overturn the current government and restore  the old order. Members of the right-wing within Venezuela are currently even themselves distancing from the right-wing Presidential candidate because they are concerned about corrupt funding and plans not to recognise election results and de-stabilise the country.

Our best tribute to Hugo Chavez is to build solidarity and help build the maximum opposition to right-wing destabilisation at this important time following Nicolas Maduro’s recent inauguration as Venezuela’s new socialist president.

Matt Willgress is an Islington North CLP & Unite activist. Matt will be amongst the speakers at this Saturday’s Conference on the Legacy of Hugo Chavez & Venezuela Today, along with Owen Jones, Seumas Milne, Richard Gott, Diane Abbott MP, Grahame Morris MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, election observer Sandra White MSP, Jean Lambert MEP, Ken Livingstone & many more. Register for the event and join the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign online at www.venezuelasolidarity.co.uk . There is also more information on the event at Facebook

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