Venezuela: Campaign for socialism grows

According to an October 8 report from Venezuela's Presidential Press Office report, a new poll conducted by polling company Seijas has revealed that only 3.4% of Venezuelans think capitalism is the best system of government; 22.6% said it was preferable to socialism and 62.7% said they preferred socialism to capitalism.

Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez announced the results on his October 7 Alo Presidente TV show. Since being first elected in 1998, Chavez has been leading a process of social change, known as the Bolivarian revolution, aimed at eradicating poverty and overcoming underdevelopment.

In January 2005, when polls showed only a small minority if Venezuelans supported a socialist system, Chavez stated that the experience of the mass struggle of Venezuela's impoverished majority to win control over their society and use the country's natural resources to eradicate poverty — including overcoming a short-lived US-backed right-wing coup in April 2002 defeated by a popular uprising two days later — had convinced him that it was necessary to construct socialism. Chavez called for a society-wide debate on "socialism for the 21st century".

This discussion has been combined with increasing pro-people measures driven by a massive increase in social spending, which has seen a drop in the percentage of households in poverty from 55% in 2003 to just over 30% in 2006. Venezuela has also secured the highest minimum wage in Latin America.

The Chavez government has channelled oil revenue into social programs assisting the poor and an expansion of industry, helping fuel a sustained boom that has seen the economy grow 76% since 2003. reported on October 9 that Chavez announced a 60% pay increase for doctors in the public heath system during a ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Argentinean-born revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who studied to be a doctor.

Chavez also highlighted increasing investment in the public health system, with the government constructing 15 new hospitals, six of which were inaugurated on September 30. To commemorate Che's life, three new operating centres, a centre for anesthesiology and a post-operation recuperation centre were inaugurated in Barquisimeto, capital of the state of Lara. The Lara governor, Luis Reyes Reyes, explained that since Chavez came to power the operating capacity of Venezuela's hospitals has increased from 16,000 operations per year to 65,000.

The Prensa Latina news service reported on October 8 that the government was increasing the salaries of teachers by 40%. This came after new initiatives in education and housing, reported on September 28. As part of Mission Alma Mater, a new program aimed at expanding higher education, five new universities were opened by the government and Chavez announced plans for the creation of 14 new regional public universities, 10 specialised universities, 4 technical schools and the transformation of 29 other existing community colleges into universities over the next five years. Chavez also announced plans for a University of the South, open to students from across Latin America.

The new universities would operate as self-contained "university villages", as part of the government's construction of "satellite universities", whereby campuses are opened in the poor communities and rural areas in order to integrate education with the community and ensure the greatest possible access for all Venezuelans. Chavez said there were 1435 such satellite universities throughout the country, involved more than 400,000 students (25% of the total number of university students). also reported that the government inaugurated a new public housing complex involving 96 apartments in Caracas as part of Mission Villanueva, which aims to transform run-down shanty towns, where much of Venezuela's poor live, into decent, cheap and ecologically sustainable housing. The government aims to build 150,000 such houses through the mission, with each apartment complex having its own subsidised food market, free health-care clinic and green space. Residents will have 20 years to pay off the cost of the housing.

On October 10, reported that the government is implementing further changes to the tax system to shift the burden of taxation onto the wealthy. As well as increasing taxes on luxury goods, beginning in November a 1.5% tax on all banking transactions carried out by business will be collected. The government expects to collect US$433 million by the end of the year, which it hopes will help combat inflation and also compensate for the gradual elimination of the value added tax on goods, which Chavez said was "unfair" to the poor. Chavez explained that the changes to the tax system were part of "the socialist state in construction".

Having opened the discussion on socialism, and increasingly implemented measures that seek to use Venezuela's resources according to the needs of the population — measures that, as Chavez has explained, do not amount to socialism in and of themselves but are examples of the socialist approach — Chavez campaigned for the December 2006 presidential elections on the basis it would be a "referendum" on the project of constructing socialism in Venezuela.

Chavez won the election with 63% of the vote, with 7.1 million votes — the highest number cast for a presidential candidate in Venezuelan history. Chavez said the vote was a mandate for deepening the Bolivarian revolution, and said that "now we build socialism". A series of radical measures were announced, including an "explosion of communal power" to create a new system of people's power and the nationalisation of a growing number of "strategic industries".

As part of the transition towards socialism, Chavez laid out plans on August 15 for changes to Venezuela's constitution to create a legal framework for the increasingly radical measures. The proposals include giving official recognition to the new institutions of popular power, such as communal and worker councils, opening the way for further nationalisation of key industries, and other pro-worker measures such as reducing the working day to six hours.

The opposition and the international corporate media have claimed the changes are being forced on the nation by an increasingly dictatorial president. However, not only are the proposals being thoroughly debated in the National Assembly (AN), but popular assemblies are being formed throughout the country to debate the proposed changes and make recommendations. The changes will then be put to a national referendum in November.

The Seijas poll showed 50.6% of respondents believe the constitutional reforms are necessary and 47.3% believe they will benefit the country. Noting this result, Chavez spoke of the deep debate occurring around the proposals, and argued that participation in the discussion of the constitutional reforms was at a higher level than the public involvement in drawing up the current constitution in 1999. reported on October 9 that Chavez had outlined his proposals for new social and economic structures that the constitutional reforms were to assist constructing. The article reported that, according to Chavez, the new political system will mean communities exercise power through communal councils, workers' councils, and farmer and producer councils, increasing communities' control over the administration of public resources and works. The proposed measures include transferring the management and control over national programs, such as the social missions in health and education, directly to elected community bodies.

Discussions over the proposals have also sparked new ideas for constitutional reforms on top of Chavez's list, including lowering the voting age to 16 and moves to democratise universities. Other measures being debated include a proposal to include sexual orientation in the article protecting Venezuelans against discrimination, which would enshrine the rights of gays and lesbians in the country's constitution for the first time. The AN voted to approve the measure, which if approved in the referendum would make Venezuela the first country to grant such rights to gays and lesbians in South America.

The debates have also exposed differences among the various parties in the AN, all of whose deputies were elected because of their support for Chavez. Deputies from the social-democratic Podemos, which has increasingly moved away from supporting Chavez, have opposed much of the constitutional reforms. Deputies from the Homeland for All Party and the Venezuelan Communist Party, both of which support Chavez but have so far declined to join the new united socialist party called for by Chavez, have also raised differences over some measures. Chavez said he expected the reforms to be endorsed by at least 60% in the referendum and argued: "Popular power is the essence of full democracy, of socialism, of socialist democracy. Only in socialism can we achieve it."

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