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 over 25 consecutive years. Living standards had been driven down, and just a few years before Chavez came to office over 40 percent lived in extreme poverty.
This 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 – up to 3,000 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, and after the state oil company was taken under full government control, following a coup attempt and failed oil strike in 2002-2003, the social improvements accelerated.
Poverty reduction and inequality
Arguably the most impressive achievements of the era of progressive change that begun with Chavez’s election is poverty-reduction programs, which have seen startling results.
When Chavez arrived in office in 1998, Venezuelan poverty levels were at 44 percent. The Revolution has reduced this substantially to 27 percent today. Whilst extreme poverty has declined from 20% to 5.4%, according to figures released earlier this week.
Inequality has also been tackled. Using the internationally recognized 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.
Tackling a humanitarian crisis
Free-market extremism devastated the living standards of the Venezuelan people. One clear example is the widespread hunger that afflicted the oil rich nation. In 1998, 21 percent of the population suffered from undernourishment according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations definition. Today that figure is just 2 percent.
Likewise, the number of underweight children at the end of the pre-Chavez was 5.3 percent, a figure that had halved by 2012. Today 95.4 percent of Venezuelans eat three times per day according to the National Institute of Statistics (INE). Social programs providing subsidized food, free meals, and free school dinners have played a significant role in eradicating hunger and child malnutrition. Access to drinking water has significantly improved too, from 80 percent in 1998 to 96 percent today.
Enriching lives through public services
In the 15 years prior to Hugo Chavez, from 1983 to 1998, just 37 percent of the state budget went on social investment. In the 15 years of the since Hugo Chavez initiated the Bolivarian Revolution that figure has shot up to 61 percent.
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.
Healthcare was also a major beneficiary of this investment. Over 80% of Venezuelans have accessed the nation’s now-free public health system with some 700 million consultations via the more than 10,000 new free health centers. As a result, infant mortality in revolutionary Venezuela has dropped by a third and this effort is estimated to have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Sharing the economic gains
The reversal of a 25-year economic decline has seen employment opportunities flourish. Unemployment was 14.5 percent in 1998, a figure which, today, has been reduced by two thirds, with over 4 million jobs since 1999. Employment in the formal sector has risen considerably to 60 percent. Whilst in retirement, many more have a dignified life, with the number of people accessing a state pension increasing from 387,000 pre-Chavez, to over 2.5 million today.
Backed by the people
All this progressive change has been backed in election after election. Since Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, Venezuela has held 18 national elections with the coalition of supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution winning all but one. This is a greater number of elections than were held during the previous 40 years of Venezuelan democracy, following the fall of the dictatorship in 1958.
Lee Brown, teleSUR
March 5, 2017