He is hated by his country’s elite and America (he called George W. Bush the devil at the UN), but loved by ordinary Venezuelans. Some call him a dictator while others call him a liberator. But no one can deny the charisma of Hugo Chavez.
Every Sunday at 11am, the Venezuelan president hosts a TV talk show called ‘Alo Presidente’ in which he talks largely unscripted for up to eight hours about various government programs and topical issues of the day.
He is also one of the largest Twitter users in the world with over 860,000 followers and a team of 200 people filtering and responding to the influx of messages.
On Sunday, Venezuela – a country of 28 million people – had elections for their national assembly (parliament) which has been dominated by pro-Chavez politicians for the past five years.
And the results have shown that Chavez supporters have lost their two-thirds majority in the assembly that's required for unrestricted power.
But despite the opposition making some inroads, Chavez still has a nearly three-fifths majority to pass most laws and continue his so-called Bolivarian revolution towards Latin American prosperity and justice.
The rise of Hugo Chavez
After becoming a fierce critic of Venezuelan government and society as a military lecturer, Chavez launched a military coup (government takeover) in 1992 against the brutal and elitist government of President Carlos Perez.
However, the operation failed and he was sent to prison for two years before being pardoned by Venezuela’s new president after Perez was eventually found guilty of corruption.
Nevertheless, Chavez had become a hero for the poor, and after promising economic and social change, he was elected president in 1998.
His controversial presidency
Moving quickly to deliver on his promises, he passed a new constitution in 1999 that altered the structure of government and guaranteed citizens free healthcare, free education until tertiary level, and a number of other human rights like housing and food.
Threatened by the new movement, Chamber of Commerce President Pedro Carmona, with the support of America and Spain, tried to overthrow Chavez in a coup in 2002. But Chavez retained power two days later without any shots being fired.
During the coup attempt, the country’s privately-owned media claimed Carmona as president and showed disproportionately more coverage of anti-Chavez protests. As a result, Chavez took away some of their broadcasting licences a few years later.
This, along with the arrest of some high-level politicians accused of corruption, has caused many within and outside Venezuela (particularly in America) to accuse Chavez of restricting free speech and becoming a dictator.
But it’s his redistribution of the country’s wealth that is really angering Venezuela’s elite and foreign businesses.
Since coming to power, Chavez has nationalised (purchased into government ownership) a number of companies in the lucrative oil industry and increased oil royalties paid by foreign companies from 16% to 30%.
He also made sweeping changes to the management of the government-owned oil company PDVSA, which resulted in a two-month long management strike in 2002 and the replacement of 17,000 workers.
He has also nationalised a number of large businesses owned by multinational corporations including telephone, electricity, steel, cement and food companies, most of which, according to analysts, were purchased at fair market value.
He has used the revenue from these assets ($60 billion from PDVSA alone) to spend up large on the country’s previously neglected poor.
Social and economic programmes
Since 1999, Venezuela now has twelve times more doctors and healthcare clinics, largely thanks to an oil-for-doctors program where Venezuela gives Cuba oil in exchange for free services from Cuba’s doctors.
As well as free school education, university enrolment has doubled and special centres have been set up for adult education.
Idle and unproductive agricultural land has been redistributed to poorer families to improve food security and even up land ownership (75% of the agricultural land was owned by 5% of landowners).
Lending and technical training for farmers and the poor has increased in an effort to grow small businesses.
A new supermarket chain now sells basic food items at 39% below market price and attempts to buy 40% of its products from small to medium-sized businesses. 6,000 mobile soup kitchens are also in operation.
Furthermore, over 30,000 ‘communal councils’ of roughly 200 families have been formed to decide how government money is spent in their local areas.
These programs have improved government services and community facilities, and also brought economic growth at an average rate of 13% a year between 2003 and 2008.
Job creation has seen unemployment drop from 15% in 1999 to 8% in 2009. And most importantly, Chavez has cut the country’s poverty rate in half and extreme poverty by 70%.
However, a drop in oil prices and OPEC oil production limits has seen the economy struggle recently. Inflation, which has always plagued the nation, is still at around 30% which cuts into people’s real incomes. Other problems include high crime rates and occasional food shortages.
But Chavez’s popularity is still strong. And in 2009 he won a referendum allowing him to be re-elected beyond the previous limit of two terms (his second expires in 2012).
And despite losing complete power in the national assembly for the next five years, Chavez’s socialist agenda looks set to continue, albeit slightly less easily.
By The Casual Truth