Mar 112013

Solidarity Halifax member Judy Haiven comments on the Chavez legacy in the Chronicle Herald.

Former prime minister Jean Chretien’s swift reaction to the death of Hugo Chavez was very different from that of our current prime minister and from Washington’s official response. Chretien described him as a good friend, a friend to the Venezuelan people and a man who wanted much-needed change. Stephen Harper said he hoped Chavez’s death would bring a more promising future for Venezuela. The White House statement was terse; it was not sympathetic, but true to U.S. form, demanded a new working relationship between the two countries — mainly to safeguard the supply of oil.

True, Chavez was a controversial leader: a trained military man, leader of the opposition, self-educated, jailed and a light for other progressives in South America. True, he also called George W. Bush a devil and a donkey — in a speech in English at the United Nations.

But what was Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution all about? To find out more, I travelled to Caracas on a study tour just over a year ago. First, there is total freedom for the media: several daily newspapers and many independent commercial television and radio stations. There is also freedom of religion; as a Jew, I was interested to visit the Jewish community centre, the largest synagogue, and to meet with the government’s Human Rights Commission.

But I also saw a divided country, with a population that almost matches Canada’s. Thirty million Venezuelans live in the countryside, while five million live in the capital, Caracas.

It is in the countryside that one sees the difference that Chavez has made. Everyone has access to education, up to and including university. Teachers are sent to towns to ensure everyone who wishes can learn reading, writing and math. Qualified tutors teach groups of neighbours, gathered in homes, to read, write and count in government-approved curricula from elementary to high school. Since Chavez’s victory in 1999, virtually all citizens have a high school education. Many more go on to university, also in their towns. Lecturers from the University of Venezuela are dispatched to teach subjects, including education and nursing, to people in major towns.

With education and paid jobs created for teachers, day-care and health-care workers in rural areas, Chavez was able to stop, or at least stall, the huge migration from the countryside to city slums that riddles much of the developing world. We visited a medical centre in Barquisimeto 100 kilometres west of Caracas, in which a Cuban doctor and physiotherapist joined local nurses in providing care in a clean, well-equipped ambulatory setting. We talked to the doctor: He volunteered to the placement in Venezuela because he could earn extra money to bring back home. Interestingly, a month later when I visited Cuba, I talked to one young lawyer whose parents, both medical doctors, had just returned from a three-year stint in Venezuela. This exchange is about two things: Venezuela trades oil for skilled medical staff who serve and train local people.

Housing is another need or “mission” that the Chavez government has been addressing. More than 284,000 housing units have been built in the last 12 years. We visited a newly built complex of five small row houses. The owner of one, a single woman with two young daughters, proudly showed us around. But the most poignant sight in the home were two certificates, one with each girl’s name, beside a cartoon of a school bus. They had graduated from pre-school, the mother told me. “It’s free and we never had that before in this town.”

Caracas is different — the social changes are much slower and less evident there as Chavez’s base was the countryside. Four million live in shantytowns on the hills surrounding the capital; another million live a middle-class life in the city. There, despite the access to free education and health care, jobs are scarcer, crime is high and city life is tough. That is the major challenge — how to re-invent the city while improving the standard of living in the country.

Judy Haiven is a professor in the management department, Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

Note: Articles published by Solidarity Halifax members do not necessarily reflect positions held by the organization.



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