[Marxism] Characterizing Chavez's Venezuela

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 5 08:26:44 MDT 2005

Counterpunch, May 5, 2005
Denunciation by Cliché
Is Chavez's Venezuela Populist or Socialist?


     "This is the first government that cares for us"

     Resident of the municipality of Libertador

Some in the US "left" are to be congratulated for their efforts to 
highlight the positive changes in education, health care and land 
redistribution that are occurring in Venezuela since the Bolivarian 
revolution. Unfortunately, following a cultural tradition of entitlement 
and righteousness, many US writers are compelled to pass judgment on a 
Bolivarian process which they barely understand.

 From The Nation, Science and Society, to ZNET (except the informative 
Venezuela Watch), many analysts excuse their endorsement of the Bolivarian 
process with preemptive critical statements about Hugo Chavez's putative 
"authoritarian tendencies". If Chavez were the authoritarian firebrand of 
US commentators he would have already retaliated to the numerous attacks to 
his presidency and person (death threats, a coup, constant slandering by 
the media, a lock-out of the whole country, etc). But rather than retaliate 
or jail opponents Chavez kept calm and won 8 elections in six years, 
including a referendum last August where he got more than 60 per cent of 
the votes.

Another common apologetic practice is to undermine the socialist 
underpinnings of the Bolivarian process with the "populist" label (see 
Steve Ellner in Science and Society, for example). Following cold war 
habits, a major concern of the US left is still avoiding any association 
with regimes that might be labeled "Communist". This is a self defeating 
strategy as even moderate moves, by Scandinavian standards, towards a 
stronger welfare state will be labeled as "Communist" (e.g., Guatemala's 
Arbenz in the fifties).

Take for example Christian Parenti's leading article for the Nation (April 
11 2005 issue). Parenti mislabels the current political will of the 
Venezuelans as "Petro-populism" which suggests that they are merely oil 
rich; thus, mischaracterizing the nature of their unique commitment to 
social-democratic reforms such as Mision Barrio Adentro (Inside the 
neighborhood). Also, contrary to Parenti's viewpoint, the Bolivarian 
constitution is not committed to capitalism anymore than to socialism: it 
sees the economic system as a means to improve the life of Venezuelans (see 
the recent volume by Luis Salamanca and Roberto Viciano Pastor on the 
Bolivarian Constitution for a detailed analysis).

Furthermore, Parenti's characterization of the Misiones (new government 
funded social programs) as "forcing" participatory democracy on citizens is 
unkind and unfair: this process reflects how Venezuelans decided to write 
their Constitution and organize their country. In that sense, any 
government "forces" its citizens, one way or another. When a writer relies 
on exemplars rather than surveys to describe the political attitudes of a 
population, it is important to choose representative individuals.

In that sense, Parenti's examples should have been more balanced: while the 
single "Chavista" in his article is portrayed as a "sentimental housewife", 
the opposition journalist is portrayed as a politically objective and 
mature democrat. In fact this "loyal" opposition that she represents 
continues to undermine the government by such actions as making threats to 
the life of government officials. Finally, Parenti complains about the cold 
treatment he received at one ministry. But, is it fair to complain when, in 
spite of being from the US, he still was allowed to interview a cabinet 
minister and voice his criticisms?

Venezuela's achievements: international socialist cooperation and 
participatory democracy in health care

While this kind of journalism proliferates, more objective assessments do 
not find their way into the "left" media. Let's take for example Mission 
Barrio Adentro (Inside the Neighborhood). Against the recommendations of 
International Financial Institutions, Barrio Adentro is designed to provide 
free health care to approximately 17.5 M Venezuelans (about 70% of the 
population) who previously lacked access. The program includes 
participative management from community members (following Article 84 of 
the 1999 Constitution), and increase in ambulatories (more 300 already 
built up to an expected 5000), and Medical Doctors living in the 
communities they serve (one MD for 12500 residents).

This program has been possible because of a cooperative agreement between 
the Cuban and Venezuelan governments. Venezuelan MDs did not want to 
practice medicine in poor neighborhoods. This is when a Mayor of Caracas 
and Chavez envisioned a bold public health alternative. Between April 03 
and December 03, more than 10 000 Cuban MDs relocated to Venezuelan 
neighborhoods to practice primary care. These doctors have at least 10 yrs 
of post graduate experience and 2 yrs of experience in Integral Medicine 
(which sees health as a social outcome including housing, education, 
sports, environment, and food security). They perform between 20 and 40 
visits every morning plus family visits in the afternoon, in addition to 
numerous prevention activities. Thus, operating as a separate health care 
system Barrio Adentro MDs conducted close to 80 Million visits reaching the 
whole 23 states while the former system achieved only 20 Million, with 
limited geographical outreach.

In addition, following article 84 of the Bolivarian Constitution, Barrio 
Adentro is run under the principles of participatory democracy. Local 
committees (Comites de Salud) chosen by neighbors have the power to 
directly contact local and federal governments to demand new or improved 
services for their communities. For example, during visits Cuban MDs and 
neighbors might realize that residents are in need to literacy courses, 
dentistry, removal of environmental hazards, thus contacting the 
appropriate branches of the government to obtain those services.

A recommendation for US analysts

The bottom line is thus simple. Given the recent history of interference of 
our country with Venezuelan politics (see Otto Reich's piece in the April 
issue of National Review for a chilling example), writers on the left can 
help the Bolivarian process with objective reporting or humble supportive 
analyses. Or they can leave Venezuelans alone. They will do just fine.

Carles Muntaner MD, PhD is a social epidemiologist at the University of 
Maryland, US. He is currently a health policy advisor to the Ministry of 
Health and Social Development of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.



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