Social gains of the socialist revolution in Venezuela

By Marcus Pabian

A centralised planned economy to meet the needs of the people, essential for a socialist revolution, is taking shape in Venezuela. It began when the Chavez government, reinstated by a workers’ and soldiers’ revolution that defeated a US-backed coup in April 2002, gained control of the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA in early 2003.

The enormous revenue from oil exports and the ability of PDVSA to organise large-scale programs were directed by Chavez toward implementing “social missions” that aimed to develop a new economy and meet the needs of the people. From dedicating US$40 million to social programs prior to the revolution, the new PDVSA put in $13.3 billion in 2006.

The workers’ and peasants’ government led by Chavez has also socialised capitalist property in other industries, nationalising the massive aluminium industry company Alcasa, three cement companies, the telecommunications company CANTV, electricity companies, and Sidor, the biggest steel company in the Andean and Caribbean region, after a campaign by its workforce demanding nationalisation.

Grassroots democracy

Grassroots self-governance is also an essential characteristic of a genuinely popular revolution. The Chavez-led working peoples government encouraged the poor and working people taking charge of organising the many social missions that meet social needs, and breakdown the capitalist culture of exclusion and non-participation.

Despite pro-Chavez alliances winning 11 national elections since 1998, the Communal Council Law was enacted by the Chavez government in April 2006 to promote building of grassroots self-governance. Each council is small enough (between 200 and 400 families in urban areas) to be controlled by the local community. The councils decide how to run nationally funded programs to meet the needs of, and develop, their local communities. In under two years, 26,000 communal councils have been established. In 2007, US$1.5 billion was given in grants to 12,000 councils.

Even Chavez’s political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), is an example of mass participation. On June 1, in preparation for the November 2008 provincial elections, an unprecedented 2.5 million PSUV members voted to select party candidates.

Free health care

While only 1628 primary physicians cared for a population of 23.4 million in 1998, today 19,571 attend to a population of 27 million — a 1200% increase. Mission Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighbourhood) was one of the first major social programs launched by the Chavez government (on April 16, 2003) after gaining control of PDVSA.

With the help of 15,000 Cuban health professionals, staffing many newly built clinics reaching 70% of the population, this new mission has continually expanded a new free healthcare system. In its first year more than 18 million people were treated and more than 50,000 lives saved. Infant mortality, a universal indicator of health, has dropped from 25 per 1000 live births in 2002 to 18 per 1000 in 2006.

Mission Miracle, launched in 2005 with the help of Cuba, has restored the eyesight of 86,231 people across not only in Venezuela but across Latin America.

Free education

Education has been a major achievement of this peoples’ power revolution. In 1996-97, around 5.8 million students were enrolled. In 2006-07, 11.8 million were enrolled, with thousands of new schools having been built.

Mission Robinson has taught 1.5 million people to read and write, and in October 2005 Venezuela was officially declared by UNESCO to be illiteracy-free. To give more people a university education, 28 new universities are planned, with 10 already under construction. Another 29 universities are being remodelled.

Subsidised food

To counter the monopoly of corporate supermarket chains and their high prices, 15,000 government-funded Mission Mercal shops have been set up, offering a 27-39% discount on food. They have benefited 13 million people. Before the revolution, 80% of all food in Venezuela was imported, despite it being a fertile country, so the Mission Mercal markets have helped to develop the production of food in Venezuela by buying local produce.

Environmental sustainability

Mission Tree is improving environmental sustainability in Venezuela. It was established in early 2006 and has reforested 38,200 hectares of land with 33.6 million trees. Conservation minister Miguel Rodriguez has explained that this was only possible due to the organisation of 2418 conservationist committees, composed of 54,495 members, taking responsibility, along with community and school leaders, for the collection of 106 tonnes of seeds.

Community media

The corporate media, which supported the military coup against Chavez in April 2002, often accuse him of stifling free speech, yet 79 out of 81 TV stations are privately owned, and most are opponents of the revolution Chavez leads. The Chavez government has in fact encouraged free speech and grassroots media run by poor communities, that had little real voice before the revolution. From just 13 licensed community radio stations in 2002, there are now 470.

On May 27, 2007, the expired licence of corporate media giant RCTV was not renewed. Instead it was given to a new channel of independent producers called TVes.

Decline in poverty

The Chavez government has repeatedly raised the minimum wage. From $183 per month in 1998, the minimum wage is now $372, the highest in Latin America after a 30% increase in May this year. By early 2007 household poverty had dropped by 31% since the end of 1998 (to 27.5% of households). These figures only count household income and thus did not include any of the benefits from the new social programs. A substantial increase in old-age pensions has also put a dent in poverty rates. While only 387,007 people received the pension in 1998, over 1.1 million benefited in 2007.