Venezuela: Chavez's legacy lives in social gains

Chavez supporters rally during his inauguration rally. January 10, 2014.

Hugo Chavez was Venezuela's president from 1998 until his death from cancer on March 5, 2013. He led a mass process known as the Bolivarian revolution to redistribute wealth, promote popular power and challenge US domination and exploitation of Latin America. The goal of the Bolivarian revolution is to create a “socialism for the 21st century”.

The Chavez government faced ongoing subversion from Venezuelan oligarchs backed by Washington, including a military coup that briefly unseated Chavez in 2002 before a mass uprising restored the democratically elected leader. Now headed by President Nicolas Maduro, the Boliviarian process continues to face attempts to destroy it, with new evidence emerging over a recent coup attempt to overthrow Maduro and an ongoing economic war pushed by private businesses.

Below, Lee Brown writes on the legacy of Chavez. It first appeared at TeleSUR English.

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When Hugo Chavez won his first election as Venezuela’s president in 1998, it was against a backdrop of a deep economic and social crisis.

Venezuela's economic performance was one of the worst in the world. Its economy per head had been falling for 25 consecutive years. Living standards had been driven down. Just a few years before Chavez came to office, more than 40% lived in extreme poverty.

This was despite the vast oil wealth that the country possessed. In the late 1950s, Venezuela's income per person was on a par with Britain.

That era came crashing down thanks to misrule and, later, the implementation of neoliberal policies by the country's political elite, which failed the Venezuelan people. As a result, Venezuela’s income per head was lower in 1998 than it had been in 1960, in real terms.

Popular revolts against this decline were brutally repressed. In one incident alone — the Caracazo rebellion in February 1989 against neoliberal policies — up to 3000 died and the constitution was suspended.

Chavez's “Bolivarian Revolution” — named after Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar — began to reverse these decades of failure. After the state oil company was taken under full government control, in the aftermath of a coup attempt and failed oil strike in 2002-2003, the social improvements accelerated.

Arguably the most impressive achievements of the era of progressive change that began with Chavez's election are poverty-reduction programs, which have seen startling results.

When Chavez arrived in office in 1998, Venezuelan poverty levels were at 44%. The revolution has reduced this substantially to 27% today. Extreme poverty has declined from 20% to 5.4%, according to recently released figures.

Inequality has also been tackled. Using the internationally recognised measurement, the Gini coefficient, where zero represents perfect equality, inequality fell from 0.48 at the time of Chavez's election to 0.38 today.

Free-market extremism devastated the living standards of the Venezuelan people. One example is the widespread hunger that afflicted the oil-rich nation. In 1998, 21% of the population suffered from undernourishment, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations’ definition. Today, that figure is just 2%.

Likewise, the number of underweight children at the end of the pre-Chavez period was 5.3%, a figure halved by 2012. Today 95.4% of Venezuelans eat three times per day according to the National Institute of Statistics.

Social programs providing subsidised food, free meals, and free school dinners have played a key role in eradicating hunger and child malnutrition. Access to drinking water has significantly improved too, from 80% in 1998 to 96% today.

From 1983 to 1998, just 37% of the state budget went to social investment. In the 15 years since Chavez started the Bolivarian revolution, that figure has shot up to 61%.

As a result, Venezuela has risen substantially in the UN's Human Development Index.

Increased social investment led to huge improvements in education. For example, illiteracy was eradicated and Venezuela now has one of the world's highest proportion of people attending university.

Health care was also a major beneficiary of this investment. More than 80% of Venezuelans have accessed the nation's now-free public health system, with about 700 million consultations via the more than 10,000 new free health centres.

As a result, infant mortality in revolutionary Venezuela has dropped by a third. This effort is estimated to have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

The reversal of a 25-year economic decline has seen employment opportunities flourish. Unemployment was 14.5% in 1998, a figure which, today, has been cut by two thirds, with more than 4 million jobs created since 1999. Employment in the formal sector has risen considerably to 60%.

Many more people are able to enjoy a dignified life in retirement. The number of people accessing a state pension has risen from 387,000 pre-Chavez, to more than 2.5 million today.

All this progressive change has been backed in election after election. Since Chavez took office in 1999, Venezuela has held 18 national elections, with the coalition of supporters of the Bolivarian revolution winning all but one.

That is more elections than were held during the previous 40 years of Venezuelan democracy, after the fall of the dictatorship in 1958.