Long before Occupy Wall Street, long before the radical elements in Europe coalesced after the 2008 economic crisis and long before the electoral rise of mass democratic socialist parties in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, a serious crack was made into the global capitalist system. Not surprisingly, the new political space for socialism came from Latin America, more specifically from Venezuela where former military officer Hugo Chavez was democratically elected as President in 1999. Chavez represented more than just a protest against the worst features of capitalism. The Bolivarian Revolution promised to transform Venezuela and provide a direct challenge to Global Capitalism. Tonight’s re-election of Hugo Chavez allows this project to continue – it demonstrates that millions of voters in Venezuela continue to support the ideals of a democratic socialism for the 21st century.
The accomplishments of the Chavez regime over the past 13 years are undeniable. When he entered office, Chavez took command of an economy that had been ravaged by IMF structural adjustment plans that had devastated most of the welfare subsidies and social guarantees that had been built up by the progressive nationalist regimes of the 1970s. This process reached a critical head in 1989 as the rumor of more IMF cutbacks set off mass riots in poor and working class communities that came to be known as “El Caracazo.” Chavez’s leadership emerged out of this rebellion.
Using conservative sources, we still find that since Chavez was elected President in 1999, unemployment has been cut in half – declining from 14% to 7%. Increased access to medical care, particularly through community clinics staffed by Cuban physicians, has led to a decline in infant mortality from 20 deaths per 1,000 live births to 13 deaths per 1,000. Per capita GDP has increased from $4,000 in 1999 to $10,000 today. And extreme poverty has declined from 23% of the population when Chavez entered office in 1999 to 8.5% today.
This does not mean that Venezuela has become some sort of socialist paradise. What it does mean is that when a regime begins to intentionally address the problems faced by poor and working class people, serious progress can be made. Some of these changes have had an anti-capitalist flavor – especially the strategic nationalization of essential industries, the political support of local communal councils and the economic muscle created to support worker-owned cooperatives. Others relate to the re-direction of oil export profits into an expanded social welfare state.
The election of right wing opposition candidate Henrique Capriles would have meant an immediate end to this process of social transformation. After years of deep disorganization and marginalization, the Venezuelan right-wing has now re-organized itself. It speaks the language of social-democracy while representing the social elements in Venezuela who lustily seek a return to the good old days before Chavez. They have certainly been helped in this effort by the pressure placed on the economy by the global economic crisis, by deep contradictions inside of the Chavez regime and by their deep-pocketed benefactors in the United States.
It was not just the US State Department that was deeply implicated in attempts to de-stabilize the Chavez regime. Mainstream media sources in the US served as virtual mouthpieces for the the right-wing opposition in Venezuela. While officials from the Carter Center conducted intensive checks on the country’s electoral system, the US media trumpeted the paranoid claims of the opposition that Chavez supporters were setting themselves up to steal the election. Despite the public claims made by all Venezuelan officials, including Chavez, to respect any decision made by the electorate, the US media still felt comfortable highlighting reports that Venezuelan National Guardsmen with AK47’s were roaming the streets of Carcas – a not so subtle implication that a coup would follow a Chavez defeat. Once again, the US media provided the soft imperialist power – dumbing down public opinion in the US while supporting the moral claims of a right-wing opposition bent on the deeply immoral annihilation of social justice in Venezuela.
The electoral victory leaves the Chavez regime with much work to do. One place to start might be addressing the severe housing crisis. Although the government has created 250,000 new homes, this has fallen far short of the demand coming from poor and working class communities. In response, Chavez has launched an ambitious public housing project, known as the Great Housing Mission, before the elections. Some 3.6 million families have registered for the program and the mission hopes to create 2 million new homes in the next seven years. US media coverage of this effort painted it as a cynical and even cruel attempt to harvest votes. This might be because the need for affordable quality public housing reverberates far beyond the border of Venezuela into all capitalist societies. Creating a model socialist public housing sector for the 21st century would provide a signal that the Bolivarian Revolution is still engaging with the process of social transformation that was at the heart of its creation.
Being able to further confront the old elites and eventually the new Boliburguesía, the new elites created by the Chavez regime, will mean that the next phase of revolution has begun. For now, though, the electoral victory of Chavez should send the signal to socialist organizations internationally that mass electoral socialist campaigning can yield concrete results. Millions of formerly unemployed Venezuelan workers, millions who once lived in extreme poverty, millions of children who survived childbirth and now millions of Venezuelan voters provide testimony to the transformative potential of socialism in the 21st century.