A muddy path leads off the airport motorway into one of the small impoverished villages that perch on the hills above Caracas, a permanent reminder of the immense gulf between rich and poor that characterises oil-rich Venezuela. Only 20 minutes from the heart of the capital city a tiny community of 500 families lives in makeshift dwellings with tin roofs and rough breeze-block walls. They have water and electricity and television, but not much else. The old school buildings have collapsed into ruin, and no children have received lessons over the past two years.
Two Cuban doctors are established in a temporary surgery here on the main track. They point out that preventative medicine is difficult to practise in a zone where the old clay sewer pipes are cracked and useless, leaving the effluent to flow unchecked down the hillside. The older inhabitants have been here for years; they first came from the country to take root on these steep hillsides in the 1960s. Many are morose and despairing, unable to imagine that their lives could ever change.
Others are more motivated and upbeat, and have enrolled in the ranks of the Bolivarian revolution of President Hugo Chávez. They expect great things from this government, and are mobilised to demand that official attention be focused on their village. If their petition to the mayor to repair their school and sewer pipes does not get answered soon, they will descend from their mountain eyrie to block the motorway, as they once did before during the attempted coup d’état of April 2002.
Hundreds of similar shanty towns surround Caracas, and many have already begun to turn the corner. In some places, the doctors brought in from Cuba are working in newly built premises, providing eye treatment and dentistry as well as medicines. Nearly 20,000 doctors are now spread around this country of 25 million people. New supermarkets have sprung up where food, much of it home-produced, is available at subsidised prices. Classrooms have been built where school dropouts are corralled back into study. Yet it is good to start with the difficulties faced by the motorway village, since its plight serves to emphasise how long and difficult is the road ahead. "Making poverty history" in Venezuela is not a simple matter of making money available; it involves a revolutionary process of destroying ancient institutions that stand in the way of progress, and creating new ones responsive to popular demands.
Something amazing has been taking place in Latin America in recent years that deserves wider attention than the continent has been accustomed to attract. The chrysalis of the Venezuelan revolution led by Chávez, often attacked and derided as the incoherent vision of an authoritarian leader, has finally emerged as a resplendent butterfly whose image and example will radiate for decades to come.
Most of the reports about this revolution over the past six years, at home and abroad, have been uniquely hostile, heavily influenced by politicians and journalists associated with the opposition. It is as if news of the French or the Russian revolutions had been supplied solely by the courtiers of the king and the tsar. These criticisms have been echoed by senior US figures, from the president downwards, creating a negative framework within which the revolution has inevitably been viewed. At best, Chávez is seen as outdated and populist. At worst, he is considered a military dictator in the making.
Yet the wheel of history rolls on, and the atmosphere in Venezuela has changed dramatically since last year when Chávez won yet another overwhelming victory at the polls. The once triumphalist opposition has retired bruised to its tent, wounded perhaps mortally by the outcome of the referendum on Chávez’s presidency that it called for and then resoundingly lost. The viciously hostile media has calmed down, and those who don’t like Chávez have abandoned their hopes of his immediate overthrow. No one is any doubt that he will win next year’s presidential election.
The Chávez government, for its part, has forged ahead with various spectacular social projects, assisted by the huge jump in oil prices, from $10 to $50 a barrel over the past six years. Instead of gushing into the coffers of the already wealthy, the oil pipelines have been picked up and directed into the shanty towns, funding health, education and cheap food. Foreign leaders from Spain and Brazil, Chile and Cuba, have come on pilgrimage to Caracas to establish links with the man now perceived as the leader of new emerging forces in Latin America, with popularity ratings to match. This extensive external support has stymied the plans of the US government to rally the countries of Latin America against Venezuela. They are not listening, and Washington is left without a policy.
Chávez himself, a youthful former army colonel of 51, is now perceived in Latin America as the most unusual and original political figure to have emerged since Fidel Castro broke on to the scene nearly 50 years ago. With huge charm and charisma, he has an infinite capacity to relate to the poor and marginal population of the continent. A largely self-educated intellectual, the ideology of his Bolivarian revolution is based on the writings and actions of a handful of exemplary figures from the 19th century, most notably Simón Bolívar, the man who liberated most of South America from Spanish rule. Chávez offers a cultural as well as a political alternative to the prevailing US-inspired model that dominates Latin America.
So, what does his Bolivarian revolution consist of? He is friendly with Castro – indeed, they are close allies – yet he is no out-of-fashion state socialist. Capitalism is alive and well in Venezuela – and secure. There have been no illegal land seizures, no nationalisations of private companies. Chávez seeks to curb the excesses of what he terms "savage neo-liberalism", and he wants the state to play an intelligent and enabling role in the economy, but he has no desire to crush small businesses, as has happened in Cuba. International oil companies have fallen over themselves to provide fresh investment, even after the government increased the royalties that they have to pay. Venezuela remains a golden goose that cannot be ignored.
What is undoubtedly old fashioned about Chávez is his ability to talk about race and class, subjects once fashionable that have long been taboo, and to discuss them in the context of poverty. In much of Latin America, particularly in the countries of the Andes, the long-suppressed native peoples have begun to organise and make political demands for the first time since the 18th century, and Chávez is the first president in the continent to have picked up their banner and made it his own.
For the past six years the government has moved ahead at a glacial rate, balked at every turn by the opposition forces ranged against it. Now, as the revolution gathers speed, attention will be directed towards dissension and arguments within the government’s ranks, and to the ever-present question of delivery. In the absence of powerful state institutions, with the collapse of the old political parties and the survival of a weak, incompetent and unmotivated bureaucracy, Chávez has mobilised the military from which he springs to provide the backbone to his revolutionary reorganisation of the country. Its success in bringing adequate services to the shanty towns in town and country will depend upon the survival of his government. If it fails, the people will come out to block the motorway and demand something different, and yet more radical.