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A glimpse of Venezuela: Part I

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Ten years after the failed coup attempt of 2002, revenue from huge oil reserves and widespread popular mobilisation are supporting grassroots change for many parts of Venezuelan society. Despite media demonisation of the Venezuelan experiment here in Canada, the changes are significant and deserve to be better understood -- especially given the increasing importance of oil revenue for our country too.

In order to get a glimpse of the Bolivarian Republic in 2012, I recently took part in a fascinating "reality tour" of Venezuela organised by San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange

The 10-day tour featured meetings with activists from many sectors, as well as a visit to the San Juan tambores festival in the Afro-Venezuelan Barlovento region. We spent time in the sprawling capital of Caracas, in the small Andean community of Sanare, in the industrial city of Barquisimeto and the Afro-Venezuelan town of Curiepe.

My main takeaway was of a population deeply committed to social change within the context of historic inequality and class divisions. The country has numerous problems, including poverty and deadly gun crime, but it was inspiring to see the energy and enthusiasm that both local communities and the government are bringing to bear.

Particularly striking are the efforts to circumvent bureaucratic obstacles to change through community based initiatives. Whether it's the numerous "misiones" (to tackle poverty, housing, adult literacy and more) or empowerment of communal councils and co-ops, a significant theme of development in Venezuela is local democratic control.

Our group met with a variety of locally based mission activists, in addition to actors in the women's, students, co-op, community media and labour movements. Here are a few of my impressions:

Progress on Inequality - the focus on reducing inequality and poverty is producing results. The United Nation's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) reports that Venezuela now has the third lowest poverty rate in Latin America and is the least unequal country in the region. So-called "extreme poverty" rates have been reduced from 21 per cent of the population in 1999 (when Hugo Chavez first came to power) to 6.9 per cent by 2010. Venezuela had the second highest rate of poverty reduction in Latin America from 2002 to 2010, exceeded only by Ecuador.  Venezuela ranks 73rd out of 187 countries in the UN's Human Development Index

Gasoline Absurdly Cheap - given that the world price of oil is hovering above $85 a barrel, it seems incredible that the price of gasoline in Venezuela is approximately .05 cents/litre. You read that right. Less than one cent a litre. or pretty close to free. This represents a massive public subsidy of gasoline prices -- an expensive policy that has to be making global warming worse. To an outsider, super cheap gasoline seems like a crazy way to spend scarce resources in a country with numerous social needs, but the historical and political context is important. In 1989, Venezuelans rebelled en masse against austerity policies imposed by the IMF that included a 100 per cent increase in consumer gasoline prices and a doubling of transit fares. That rebellion was dubbed the Caracazo. As a result of the Caracazo thousands were killed, former President Carlos Perez was removed from office, the IMF restraint policies were modified and Hugo Chavez began his political career. In light of all that, it is apparently politically challenging to raise gasoline prices today. Meanwhile, Venezuela is overwhelmingly dependent on oil revenues and its economy needs to diversify. Oil accounts for 90 per cent of export earnings, 50% of federal budget revenues and 30 per cent of GDP.  

Women's Rights a Priority (Except for One Key One) - in a region where the culture of machismo remains strongly embedded, it's encouraging that women's rights are a priority of the government. There is a Ministry of Women's Rights and Gender Equality, a Mision Madres del Barrio for working and single mothers, a Women's Bank and mass participation in International Women's Day. But Venezuelan women are still denied the right to reproductive choice, as abortion remains illegal. The National Assembly has had a committee studying abortion reform since 2010, but no actual legislative change appears to be forthcoming. Our delegation met with representatives of the "Popular Feminist Circle" organisation in Barquisimeto, which provides a range of programs, including prevention of violence against women and children. They told us it has made a big difference that the President clearly identifies himself as a feminist, but until women gain improved rights to reproductive choice in Venezuela, full equality rights are a long way off.

This blog report is in two parts. Part 2  is here.

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