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Carrying on in Caracas

Chávez's victory has ensured that the space for 21st century alternatives will grow.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2012 21:40 IST

The transformation of Latin America is one of the decisive changes reshaping the global order. The tide of progressive change that has swept the region over the last decade has brought a string of elected socialist and social-democratic governments to office that have redistributed wealth and power, rejected western neoliberal orthodoxy, and challenged imperial domination.

Central to that process has been Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. Venezuela, sitting on the world's largest proven oil reserves, has spearheaded the movement of radical change across Latin America and underwritten the regional integration that is key to its renaissance. Chávez's remarkable presidential election victory recently - in which he won 55% of the vote on an 81% turnout after 14 years in power - has a significance far beyond Venezuela, or even Latin America. The stakes were enormous: if his oligarch challenger Henrique Capriles had won, not only would the revolution have come to a halt, triggering privatisations and the axing of social programmes. So would its essential support for continental integration, mass sponsorship of Cuban doctors across the hemisphere - as well as Chávez's plans to reduce oil dependence on the US market.

Western and Latin American media and corporate elites had convinced themselves that they were at last in with a shout, that this election was 'too close to call', or that a failing Venezuelan president, weakened by cancer, would be rejected by his own people.

It's all of a piece with the endlessly recycled Orwellian canard that Chávez is some kind of a dictator and Venezuela a tyranny where elections are rigged and the media muzzled and prostrate. But as opposition leaders concede, Venezuela is by any rational standards a democracy, with exceptionally high levels of participation and its electoral process more fraud-proof than those in Britain or the US. In reality, the greatest threat to Venezuelan democracy came in the form of the abortive US-backed coup of 2002.

In the queues outside polling stations, in the opposition stronghold of San Cristóbal near the Colombian border, Capriles voters told me: "This is a democracy." Several claimed that if Chávez won, it wouldn't be because of manipulation of the voting system but the "laziness" and "greed" of their Venezuelans - by which they mean the appeal of government social programmes.

Which gets to the heart of the reason so many got the Venezuelan election wrong. Despite claims that Latin America's progressive tide is exhausted, left-wing and centre-left governments continue to be re-elected because they have reduced poverty and inequality and taken control of energy resources to benefit the excluded majority.

That is what Chávez has been able to do on a grander scale, using Venezuela's oil income and publicly-owned enterprises to slash poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70%, massively expanding access to health and education, halving unemployment, and giving slum communities direct control over social programmes.

To visit any rally or polling station during the election campaign was to be left in no doubt as to who Chávez represents: the poor, the non-white, the young, the disabled - the dispossessed majority who have returned him to power. Of course there is no shortage of government failures: from runaway violent crime to corruption, lack of delivery and economic diversification, and over-dependence on one man's charismatic leadership. But even so, Chávez ended up almost 11 points ahead. His re-election now gives him the chance to ensure Venezuela's transformation is deep enough to survive him, to overcome the administration's failures and help entrench the process of change across the continent.

Venezuela's revolution doesn't offer a political model that can be directly transplanted elsewhere. But its innovative social programmes, experiments in direct democracy and success in bringing resources under public control offer lessons to anyone interested in social justice and new forms of socialist politics in the rest of the world.

For all their problems and weaknesses, Venezuela and its Latin American allies have demonstrated that it's no longer necessary to accept a failed economic model, as many social democrats in Europe still do. They have shown it's possible to be both genuinely progressive and popular. Chávez's re-election has now ensured the space for 21st century alternatives will grow.

The Guardian