February 2nd was declared a national holiday in Venezuela to commemorate the tenth anniversary of President Hugo Chavez’s inauguration and his Bolivarian Revolution, where he has promoted social programs and Latin American solidarity, while denouncing neoliberalism and corruption.
As he declared the national holiday, Chavez wrote, “We have done in ten years what couldn’t be done in a century.”
What exactly has been done? Has he been good for the country?
It depends who you ask–Chavez is a polarizing figure. Some citizens support him for his investments to help the poor, while others feel he is authoritarian and hungry for power. (Check out the BBC’s video featuring two Venezuelans with very distinct views on Chavez.)
Chavez’s social programs, which have promoted things such as literacy, housing and health care, have helped him gain strong support among the poor, and voting turnout has greatly increased. One project that caught my eye, as reported by the BBC, was a network of cable cars in Caracas to connect the shantytowns in the hills to the center of the city in order to facilitate the poor’s access to jobs. In a region where there are sharp distinctions between classes, this seems like a great step in the right direction.
But while he has established public programs, private institutions such as schools, hospitals, clinics and banks were forced to close or face steep fines, presumably to eliminate competition. Services for the poor should enrich society, not come at the expense of others!
In addition, the public programs rely on Venezuela’s oil industry, the main source of revenue for the nation. Critics contend that such a heavy reliance is an unstable way to help society, but in a 2006 interview with The Progressive, Chavez retorted, “We are today…using oil wealth so Venezuela can become an agricultural country, a tourist destination, an industrialized nation with a diversified economy…One day we won’t have any more oil, but that will be in the 22nd century.”
Chavez has been accused of human rights abuses, and even expelled Human Rights Watch in September 2008. Media outlets have accused him of intimidation and censorship, while he has accused them of catering to the elite. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders ranked Venezuela 113 out of 168 countries in its 2008 Worldwide Press Freedom Index.
As much as Chavez has done for the poor, I cannot support his power trip. He may think he knows what’s best for the country, but there needs to be a free exchange of ideas, even if some are representative of the elite. And while Chavez has enjoyed high approval ratings, winning the last election with 60 percent of the vote, I can’t help wonder, if he has control of the media, how fair is the election?
On Feb. 15, Venezuelans will vote on whether to abolish term limits for a President. Incidentally Chavez told CNN that if the amendment fails to pass, he could always try to put it on the ballet again in the future.