Articles touting Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's political successes and social programs are a dime a dozen on left wing Web sites these days. When I was researching my own book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (recently released by St. Martin's Press), I read a lot of these accounts and began to develop an exceedingly idealistic idea of what was happening in Venezuela. Having just returned from an extended six week trip to the country, however, I feel that the political and social landscape is a lot murkier and more ambiguous than many have suggested.
As an admittedly "left wing tourist," I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a delegation organized by Witness For Peace, a Washington, D.C. based group which has been working for more than twenty years to halt U.S. interventionism in Latin America. As a member or our delegation, I had the rare privilege to interview figures from across the political spectrum. After the delegation left, I stayed and conducted more interviews on my own.
Education: Some Significant Successes
Without a doubt the Chavez regime has scored important victories which have improved the lot of the Venezuelan poor, which make up 70% of the population. Not even members of the middle class opposition that I spoke with deny the government's numerous accomplishments.
Mariño Alvarado, the coordinator of Provea, an important Caracas-based human rights organization, explained to our delegation that in education the government had achieved some successes. A lawyer by profession, Mariño had been working with Provea for ten years. Hardly a tool of the right wing opposition, Provea provides rigorous and objective human rights analysis, as well as important information about social, cultural and economic conditions in Venezuela.
A solemn man with indigenous features, Mariño spoke to us in a deliberate, serious tone. At the Provea headquarters located in downtown Caracas, he remarked that the authorities had been able to increase the number of school age children studying at all educational levels. What's more, he added, "the government has carried out a very successful literacy campaign, and built an impressive number of schools."
After my delegation left for the States, I stayed in Caracas and caught up with Rafael Uzcategui, who had just recently started working with Provea as the organization's media coordinator. Five years earlier I'd met Rafael in Caracas. At that time he had been a student at the Central University and I was pursuing field work on my doctoral dissertation dealing with the oil industry.
To be fair, Rafael said, Chavez was not the first Venezuelan president to deliver massive state support for education. "In previous periods when the price of oil was high," he explained, "various governments were able to enact social policies as there was money floating around." Even Acción Democrática, a corrupt party derided by Chavez, had funded the massification of education through oil revenue prior to Chavez's election in 1998.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny the government's successes. Piling into a blue van, our delegation paid a visit to one of the government's many "Bolivarian" schools near to the town of Charallave. An immaculately clean, pleasant, and orderly facility, the school had a computer room and a newly constructed basketball court outside. Outside a girl swung happily from a swing.
Unfortunately, school was not in session and we did not observe class. I do not doubt for a moment however that most any parent would have been proud to have his or her children in that school, surely superior to many dilapidated schools within inner cities of the United States.
Health Care: Successes and Shortcomings
For Marino, one of the other hallmark accomplishments of the Chavez government has been health care. Across Venezuela, the government has set up so-called Barrio Adentro clinics administering primary care to marginalized sectors of society. Cuban doctors, whose presence in Venezuela has stoked political controversy, staff the Barrio Adentro clinics.
One day we had the opportunity, purely by chance, to speak with one of the Cuban doctors. During a visit to a poor slum in the Caracas area one of the members of our delegation, a young college student, fell into conversation on the street with a strapping man in his forties with a moustache. He explained that he was a doctor working in the local Barrio Adentro clinic.
Inside his clinic, there was a photo of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, as well as a picture of Simon Bolivar, an independence leader who fought against Spain. The doctor, who seemed leery of talking with us on the record, said that the community had accepted him and that he frequently played baseball with local residents. He had seemingly adapted to life in Venezuela, though the serious drug addiction problem in the country had startled him.
Inside the makeshift facility, the doctor had a cabinet stocked with basic medicines. The doctor admitted that Cuba had a much better health system than Venezuela. He said that though he was pleased to oblige and provide his services in Venezuela, the Cuban presence was a mere band aid.
During a visit to the working class district of Catia, we had the opportunity to observe another, more specialized clinic. Within the clinic we observed separate departments specializing in gynecology, pathology, dentistry and pediatrics. According to our guide, doctors attended 400 people daily in the clinic, principally from Catia. If patients had more serious ailments, they were referred in turn to local hospitals.
It's undeniable that the Barrio Adentro clinics and the new facility at Catia have made a difference for poor Venezuelans who historically had negligible access to health care. However, according to Mariño, though programs like Barrio Adentro have been a signal success the full health care system is still very deficient and has not improved substantially under Chavez.
"Cuban doctors can treat certain problems," remarked my old acquaintance Rafael. "But what happens if someone has to go to the hospital, get an operation, and the hospital doesn't work?"