Return to Venezuela

I last visited Venezuela while the country was in the throes of the August 15, 2004 referendum on President Hugo Chavez. That time I arrived and left with planeloads of hopeful, and then deeply disappointed upper-class Venezuelans. The referendum represented their last opportunity to stop Chavez and the revolutionary process he was putting into motion. Ruben Linares, one of 21 national coordinators of the Union Nacional de Trabajadores, explained the referendum’s significance:

“As a matter of fact, they created everything they created, did everything they did–the coup de etat, the stoppage-sabotage–because of the 49 laws [land reform, educational reform, etc.]…In that result, it turns out that the referendum clearly went beyond whether the president stayed or not…It was to say clearly, do you agree with everything that is being done during this presidency or are you opposed? It had like three, four questions implicit in the one.”

And that question was, either we take the new road or we go back to the way we lived before, he said. “And the people decided to go along the road we were on.”

The changes made possible by sweeping reforms carried out by the government, with the participation of the people and funded by Venezuela’s black gold, are more evident today. There are still many problems: corruption and entrenched bureaucracies for starters. The National Assembly has faced opposition obstruction to passing new laws and the judicial branch is still struggling. And too many Venezuelans are still poor. But unlike most countries in Latin America, the government is working to solve the problems.

There is a state TV channel which looks a lot like Cuban TV in that it is positive and informative. If you watch long enough you learn quite a lot about the country. I haven’t seen the new satellite channel, Telesur. This commercial-free channel by and for Latin America so alarmed Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch that he exclaimed, “If the shareholders of this company belong to a government like Cuba where they have no basic concept of free speech and zero tolerance for independent views, God help us.” Vivanco needn’t worry about communist influence in Telesur, however; although it is funded in part by Cuba along with Argentina and Uruguay, Venezuela owns 51 percent, and it is headquartered in Caracas. And as everybody knows, the only reds in Venezuela are the Chavistas.

The Good News

The political situation has calmed down considerably. The opposition seems to be getting used to being on the outside and when they aren’t making money they busy themselves running around as NGOs complaining about human rights violations, lack of freedom of the press (all of which you can read about in the press) and violations of labor rights (this last charge made by the business federation FEDECAMARAS at the UN International Labor Organization).

Unemployment is down. Venezuela is experiencing a period of economic growth which has moved the formal employment sector (businesses with five or more employees) past the 50 percent mark. When businesses with less than five employees are taken into account the informal sector is much lower (perhaps 35 percent)–unusual for Latin America, which suffers from chronic unemployment and underemployment. I happened on a long line in a downtown shopping district and asked some ladies if they were waiting for the internet cafe to open. “No, mi amor, la tienda de zapatos.” “The finest shoes” added another.

The National Institute of Statistics is preparing a study that will measure the standard of living, not only wages as the World Bank does. Taking the social programs into account–especially the 15,000 Cuban doctors and more money invested in the Social Security hospitals–the standard of living should show more improvement than wages alone show. The institute’s president says free education at all levels has drastically reduced dropout rates. This will undoubtedly raise standards of living in the long run as more students go on to higher education.

As an example, the government has a new mission called Barrio Adentro II (Into the Neighborhood) which will train medical students the way Cubans are trained–in family medicine. Currently Venezuelan medical students are opting for specialties to make more money, just like in the U.S. The presence of Cuban doctors has not translated into less work or lower incomes for Venezuelan doctors; rather it has expanded medical care to people who couldn’t afford to see a doctor before. This is the case in every country with Cuban medical brigades. So when Venezuela finally has enough family practitioners to care for its own, there will be a triple benefit: the population will have the relief that comes with access to medical care, people will have more money to spend on other needs, and the doctors will benefit personally from having a good career.

Another program worth mentioning is the land reform which is granting titles, credits and support to farmers to make the country more self-sufficient in food. Mercal is part of the same effort since it buys locally-produced food products and distributes them in markets around the country at a discount of up to 50 percent for the consumer.

The Bad News

The bad news arrived this morning with the announcement that Roger Noriega is going to resign. Noriega had replaced another Cuban American extremist, Otto Reich, as assistant to the secretary of state for Western Hemispheric affairs when the latter’s recess appointment was coming to a close (November 2002) and it was clear he wouldn’t survive a Senate confirmation hearing. Like Reich, Noriega was an attack dog. But he failed to prevent Chilean leftist, Jose Miguel Insulza, from becoming the secretary general of the OAS, and it seems that failure cost him his job. Noriega is so universally despised in Latin America that his departure can only help the State Department, and that’s a shame.

DIANA BARAHONA is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at