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What Americans Can Learn From Venezuelan Democracy

Wednesday marked the anniversary of the death of one of the developing world’s greatest heroes: Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.

In 2002, Washington backed a failed coup against Mr. Chavez’s democratically elected government. Twelve years on, history appears to be repeating itself: the rightwing, which cannot get elected, is trying to depose the elected government with violent protests and Washington’s assistance.

What may have begun as peaceful student-driven protests in Venezuela, have now descended into a crude Washington-backed attempt at regime change.

So what makes Venezuela so important to Washington? Any real estate agent could tell you: location. Given that Venezuela sits atop the strategic intersection of the Caribbean, South and Central American worlds, control of the nation, has always been a remarkably effective way to project power into these three regions and beyond.

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. At the heart of Venezuela’s current turmoil is Washington’s anger that Venezuela’s oil money is going to help its people and not into American shareholders’ pockets. The issue inVenezuela is not democracy, it is oil.

Over the past half century, America has descended from popular democracy to corporate dictatorship. Enthusiasm and voter participation have declined immensely and corporate control over politics has increased markedly.

In fact, over the last few years, the top thirty American companies spent more money on lobbying politicians than they paid in federal taxes, according to a report from the non-partisan reform group Public Campaign.

The “democratic” process is slowly but surely breaking down in the United States. American voter turnout is less than 50%, this is the lowest of all countries in the entire developed world. Most Americans do not even bother to vote anymore because they realize that neither party actually represents the interest of a majority of the U.S. voters, but merely those of corporate lobby groups and, of course, Wall Street.

America has made it her mission to spread democracy around the world, often at the expense of much blood and treasure. How can a country claim to be the role model for democracies around the globe, and yet have the worst participation in one of the key elements of democratic rule, namely voting?

Elections in America, consist in presenting the population with two variants of the same pre-designed policy to vote for: free-market neoliberal capitalism. This policy benefits the elite at the expense of the majority by promoting further privatization of public services, frozen wages, job losses, and reduced social benefits.

Nobody should have any illusions. The United States essentially has a one-party system and the ruling party is the business party.

The narrowing gap between the policies of major political parties in America reflects a widening of an on-going decay in the liberal democratic system.

From 1958 to 1998 Venezuela also had a two-party “democracy” whereby two indistinguishable parties took turns governing the country, whilst left wing activists were persecuted.

This so-called “Punto Fijo” system suffered a legitimacy crisis in 1989 when then president Carlos Andrez Perez put in place IMF neoliberal austerity policies. These neoliberal policies put the interests of foreign capital over local labour.

This created a wave of riots and protests, which resulted in the pro-Washington government of Mr. Andres Perez killing four thousand innocent civilians.

Disgruntled by policies that favored the local elite and foreign corporations, the people stood behind Hugo Chavez, and in 1998 he was elected president and the Bolivarian Revolution was born.

One of Mr. Chavez’s first major moves was to enact arguably one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. It provided a framework for widespread bottom up democratic reform and gave Venezuelans new political, civil and social rights.

As it stands, Venezuelans are able to recall elected representatives from their posts, and directly submit laws for discussion in the National Assembly, among other rights.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding aspects of Venezuelan democratic reform is the electoral system and the technology used to record, verify, and transmit votes. Voters touch a computer screen to cast their vote and then receive a paper receipt. This system makes vote-rigging nearly impossible. Former US President Jimmy Carter won a Nobel Peace prize for election monitoring and he called Venezuela’s recent election “the most democratic in the world.”

Venezuela’s “21st-century socialism” is a unique experiment in the pages of history. It stands in stark contrast with past socialist examples, like the Soviet Union, where the state seized control of the means of production and one revolutionary party had top down control of society. What makes Venezuela’s experience original is its it’s emphasis on participatory democracy, the exercise of power from the community level. As Hugo Chávez proclaimed in 2007, “pure socialism has to be rooted in communal power, the communal councils.”

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have been organizing tens of thousands of consejos comunales (communal councils). The councils are involved in everything from housing, education, forming cooperatives to supervising health care facilities.

Democracy is not merely about holding elections simply to choose which particular representatives of the elite class should rule over the masses. True democracy is about democratizing the economy and giving economic power to the majority.

Truth is, the West has shown that unfettered free markets and genuinely free elections simply cannot co-exist. Organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy. How can capitalism and democracy co-exist if one concentrates wealth and power in the hands of few, and the other seeks to spread power and wealth among many?

Venezuela’s socialist system however, seeks to spread economic power amongst the majority rather than just the privileged few. The richest 400 Americans own more wealth than the majority of 150,000,000 Americans combined.

In stark contrast, under Chavez, Venezuela has gone from being one of the most unequal countries in Latin America to the most equal one in terms of income. Mr. Chavez, has funneled Venezuela’s oil revenues into social spending such as free healthcare, education, subsidized food networks, and housing construction. In Venezuela, poverty has been reduced and pensions have expanded. In America it has been the absolute reverse.

Democracy is not merely about elections. True democracy is also about equal opportunity through education and the right to life through access to health care. In Venezuela, the masses enjoy free health care and free education.

In America, education is increasingly becoming a privilege, not a right and ultimately, a debt sentence. If a talented child in the richest nation on earth cannot afford to go to the best schools, society has failed that child. In fact, for young people the world over, education is a passport to freedom. Any nation that makes one pay exorbitant amounts for such a passport is only free for the rich, but not the poor.

In Venezuela, education is human right and it is free for all Venezuelans.

For millions of Americans, health care is also increasingly becoming a privilege not a right. A recent study by Harvard Medical School estimates that lack of health insurance causes 44,789 excess deaths annually in America. In Venezuela, health care is a human right and it is free for all Venezuelans. Thus, with regards to health care, education and economic justice, is America in any position to lecture Venezuela about democracy or should America take a leaf out of Venezuela ‘s playbook?

Nothing is perfect of course, and all of these successes of Venezuelan democracy do not mean that the system is without failure. Corruption and bureaucracy are phenomena that slow further radical democratization and erode support for the Bolivarian revolution as a whole.

With that said, while the West’s corporate-controlled media have chosen to perpetuate an Orwellian illusion whereby America and Britain are models of democracy and Venezuela is a backward country run by an “autocratic regime”, in the real world the reality is clearly otherwise.

Voter participation and trust in government in America is at an all-time low, because Americans are increasingly realizing that both political parties serve the interests of a small elite. Clearly, America can learn a great deal from Venezuela’s unique and profound democratic experience.

Garikai Chengu is a scholar at Harvard University. Contact him on chengu@fas.harvard.edu

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Garikai Chengu is an Ancient African historian. He has been a scholar at Harvard, Stanford and Columbia University. Contact him on garikai.chengu@gmail.com

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