Monday, February 9, 2009

A hope for the world: ten years of progress in Venezuela

We are now marking ten years since the Bolivarian Revolution began in Venezuela with the election of the progressive administration led by Hugo Chávez. Venezuela in 2009 is far from being a paradise. Violent crime is a major problem, the government's control over local police forces is inadequate (allowing local forces to destabilise the country and the Revolution), and corruption is a significant challenge, both within the popular movements that are taking part in change, and within the old state bureacracy that Chávez is seeking to either replace or co-opt.

However, it is very evident that over the past ten years a dramatic change has taken place in Venezuela, that has inspired millions of poor people across the world. The political face of Latin America has been transformed. That continent has always been polarised by a tragic battle between the left and the right, with civil wars, CIA subterfuge, organised crime and insurrections being a feature of much of the continent's development (or lack of) over the past fifty to sixty years. The left in the Americas had previously resisted the neo-liberal Washington Consensus through paramilitary groups and factions advocating armed struggle, in response to the mainly military regimes of the time. In recent years the playing field has shifted and the current swing to the left in the Americas is taking place at the ballot box. During it's ten year tenure, the Bolivarian process in Venezuela has gone to the polls 13 times, with victory in 12 of those.

There remains much to be done in Venezuela, to enable truly participatory democracy to spread, to unite the country and to diversify the economy beyond oil and natural gas. But the achievements of the past ten years should be noted:

* The current economic expansion began when the government got control over the national oil company in the first quarter of 2003. Since then, real (inflationadjusted) GDP has nearly doubled, growing by 94.7 percent in 5.25 years, or 13.5 percent annually.
Most of this growth has been in the nonoil sector of the economy, and the private sector has grown faster than the public sector.

* The poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent. These poverty rates measure only cash income, and does take into account increased access to health care or education.

* Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. This represents a large reduction in inequality.

* From 1998-2006, infant mortality has fallen by more than onethird. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access.

* The labour market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3 percent to 7.8 percent. During the current expansion it has fallen by more than half. Other labor market indicators also show substantial gains.

* Over the decade, the government's total public debt has fallen from 30.7 to 14.3 percent of GDP. The foreign public debt has fallen even more, from 25.6 to 9.8 percent of GDP.

* Venezuela has become illteracy free, with 1.6million people taught to read by the social missions.

* Subsidised food for the poorest people through the Mercal system.

* A new constitution for the people, enshrining their rights.

* A system of co-operatives alliances and mutual aid between the progressive regimes in the Americas.

The next elections in Venezuela are a referendum on February 15th over whether the President can continue to stand for office beyond 2012. The result will be interesting as the vote comes at a time of significant economic challenge for the democratic regime.

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