By Daniel Pagan
Hugo Chavez’s defeat in the referendum over the constitutional changes in Venezuela is a big shock to both his supporters and the opposition. These reforms were supposed to help him complete the implementation of the new “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela by allowing him to stay in power with no term limit and gain the power to suspend civil rights in states of emergency–decried by the United States and human rights groups as “dictatorial powers.” However, it will take more than a referendum loss to topple the Commandante of Caracas.
Despite this black eye, Chavez’s socialist agenda remains popular in Venezuela. Thanks to the high price of oil, the Caracas regime has more freedom in setting up literacy, health and social justice programs, named the “Bolivarian Missions.” These missions took actions such as building free public health clinics, fostering universal literacy and subsidizing the price of food for poor people. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and the United Nations all lauded the Bolivarian Missions as positive models of social development programs. Caracas’ pouring money into social programs is radically different compared to the neo-liberal principles displayed by the International Monetary Fund, which recommends saving the profit from the oil industry and reducing government spending. The IMF’s advice comes as no comfort to the 37 per cent of the population living below the poverty line in Venezuela, still suffering from malnutrition and insufficient education.
Regardless of whether the neo-liberal economic model strengthens or weakens an economy, one cannot deny the populist appeal of Chavez’s oil money redistribution. With this money, he is actually doing something to help poor people struggling in the slums of Venezuela. Compare this to the Brazilians, who have to chop down millions of acres of Amazon forest to pay off debts to foreign banks. Argentina has similarly suffered an ongoing series of political and economic crises since 2002 because of the IMF-recommended reforms. Which seems more beneficial, cutting down on spending on government programs or using the money to help poor people?
Chavez’s fight against American “imperialism” is preaching to a converted audience in Latin America, but that works in his favour, especially with the region’s long history of American antagonism. From U.S. marines going into Nicaragua in the early 20th century to American forces overthrowing Manuel Noriega in the ’80s invasion of Panama, the United States of America have a long history of intervention through any kind of political, economic or military means necessary to change any policy they do not like. That was how the Americans encouraged the construction of the Panama Canal, by giving support to the Panama rebels who seceded from Colombia. However, the most sinister aspect of the States’ foreign policy is through its support of military dictators in Latin America during the Cold War, resulting in economic and military aid for military regimes in various countries–especially Venezuela in the ’50s.
Latin American countries–especially Venezuela–have a long memory of problems with the U.S., creating a lot of mistrust toward any kind of American actions and criticisms. The U.S. has not helped itself, with (often embarrassing) military and economic interventions at the merest hint of “unfriendliness.” The poor relationship with U.S., along with economic problems, is what gave power to Hugo Chavez in the first place. By setting up new programs to distribute oil spending to social interests and politically attacking the U.S., Chavez is portraying himself as a modern Robin Hood, willing to fight the American boogeyman wanting to conquer Latin America, as well as the IMF vampires wanting to suck South America clean of its economic resources.
Even with a crippling strike from trade unions and opposition parties that stopped the Venezuelan oil industry in 2004, Chavez survived the recall election. In ’06, Chavez won 64 per cent on his social reforms agenda. Even in the face of a large opposition, coup attempts and defeats such as this Dec. referendum, Hugo Chavez is still fighting on.