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Venezuela shows there is an alternative to cuts and privatisation

As we stepped on to the plane, no one could have prepared us for the emotional and inspiring ten days that we were about to experience in Venezuela. We had some background knowledge of course, but the social progress we saw, and the welcome we received, will motivate and inspire myself and others forever.

When Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998, 60% of the population lived in poverty and 27% in absolute poverty; now 25% of the population live in poverty and 7% in absolute poverty, but statistics alone can’t explain the amazing transformation that is taking place in that country.

This turn around is through the redistribution of resources and is quite an achievement in a relatively short time, in some ways comparable to those of the Attlee Government here after the war. On seeing new hospitals or schools, or glimpsing acres of land being cultivated for food production, you begin to realise the enormity of what is going on in Venezuela as decades of neglect are overturned, despite fierce opposition from the former ruling elite and their allies in the US. Seeing this first hand also makes you realise that a different approach to the cuts and privatisation agenda is possible – indeed, despite the effects of global recession over the last 2 years, Venezuela has expanded spending on areas such as health, pensions and education!

Free health and public services for all

Throughout our trip, we saw that Chavez’s much reported oil for Cuban doctors exchange is in reality a progressive, exchange of expertise and resources. There are 20,000 Cuban Doctors working in Venezuela. Cubans have been training Venezuelan doctors, and 8,000 were about to qualify this year, moving towards leaving a sustainable legacy.

The Clinic we visited on the first day of our itinerary was one of sixteen established in the area, serving 41,786 people. They also had ten dentist surgeries and one optician. We were amazed to see how the small rooms contained up-to-date dentist chair and dentistry equipment; X-ray machines, Ultra sound scanners as well as a GP consulting room and a small, specialist ward for patients who required round the clock care.

But this is just one small and local example of the creation of a new national health service in the country, which is estimated to have saved 292,000 lives through over 400m free consultations since 2003. What a contrast to the cuts to healthcare so many European countries are currently experiencing!

Whilst there is not room to go in to it here in-depth, we were also lucky enough to visit new schools and universities, which are making the new constitutional right of free education for all not only possible but a reality for millions with Venezuela now having the 2nd highest percentage of people in higher education in the region, and 5th highest in the world.

Improved Labour rights and conditions

As many of us were both trade union and Labour activists, we were also particularly fortunate to have a meeting with the Minister of Labour, himself a trade union activist for decades. He talked to us about the work that had been done by the Government with regard to rights and conditions at work, in close co-operation with labour and social movements, with policies having:

  • Made outsourcing illegal and are bringing in regulations against employing new or temporary labour to undercut national agreements
  • Improved union and labour rights such as the right to secondary strike action which is totally legal.
  • Increased pay for workers – the national minimum wage is the highest in Latin America.
  • Passed laws enabling the government to impose financial penalties on companies that do not jointly agree settlements with unions if there is a dispute.
  • Made privatisation of certain sectors illegal
  • Removed previous obstacles to union membership, meaning that density has risen from 9% to over 23%.
  • Improved pension provisions; with over 1.5 million now having a pension, from just 120,000.
  • Began reducing working hours 44 to 40 hours a week, with further progress in many sectors.

As we are told ‘there is no alternative’ to public sector cuts and the ever decreasing legal rights for labour and to strike in Britain, again we can take inspiration from such progress, especially in what is still a relatively poor country.

Solidarity Needed

One final comment I would make is that the support and solidarity that Venezuelan colleagues expressed to us concerning our currently escalating struggle against the British Government proposals for Public Sector cuts was overwhelming. We offered a swap – or even two for the price of one – of Chavez for Cameron and Clegg but we found no takers!

This stark contrast between here and what is being achieved there, made seeing this social progress even more inspirational, with Venezuela investing and expanding essential public services, despite being affected by the global economic crisis. The investment and redistribution of wealth from oil resources is making a significant difference to ordinary working people and the quality of their lives on a daily basis. The standard of living is improving and working people now have access to health care, education and housing that they did not have before.

Whilst the UK ConDem Government are cutting public services by at least 25% and we experience even more significant outsourcing, resulting in the wholesale theft of public money and deliver it into private hands, it was also inspiration to see an expanding and protected public sector.

Whilst many in Britain fear they will have no job and little future in the next period, people in Venezuela who were previously socially excluded have new constitutional rights, expanding public services and increasing living standards. But they also face strong opposition from a right-wing opposition, which ran the country into the ground during decades in power, and their allies in Washington. We must do all we can to offer solidarity.

Dave Mathieson is a Unite NEC member and Labour Party member, who recently visited Venezuela as part of a trade union delegation. Dave will be amongst participants at the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign’s Venezuela: Defending the Majority, Not Punishing the Poorest Conference , supported by the TUC, on April 16 at Conway Hall, London, WC1R 4RL.  Other speakers include Venezuelan trade union leader Jacobo Torres, women’s leader Juana Garcia and former Higher Education Minister Samuel Moncada. You can register online and get more information at www.venezuelasolidarity.co.uk

One Comment

  1. John says:

    Maybe they would have taken you up on the swap if you’d offered them miliband.

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