By Barry Freeman

Published in The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)

CHAPEL HILL–Venezuela has become a global hot spot. I have just returned from there, and want to share some information not readily available. I went with a group under the auspices of a Global Exchange study tour. We met with various government officials, including President Hugo Chavez and Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez, and with members of the opposition. We traveled to barrios, to agricultural co-ops, to clinics, to schools and to religious missions.

The last 60 years have seen many ups and downs in Venezuela, with parliamentary government interrupted by a dictatorship.

Major political parties were tied to the oligarchy and church hierarchy. Corruption and waste were rampant. A guerrilla movement and religious missions worked to improve conditions for the poor, laying the groundwork for an electoral revolution in 1998.

Venezuela has had a tumultuous seven years since that first election of Chavez as president. A new constitution was drafted, based on principles of “democracy from the bottom up,” with less emphasis on elected politicians and political parties. This has resulted in a surge of participation by ordinary people in transforming their lives.

A country with vast oil deposits, Venezuela had previously wasted this resource, with little of it going to sustainable development. Currently 30 percent of oil income is going to support social services for the poor. Education is a priority, with three “missions” named after past heroes.

Mission Robinson (named for Bolivar’s teacher) aims to eliminate illiteracy. In one barrio we heard a 45-year-old woman with 10 children brag about how the mission had taught her to read, beginning with how to hold a pencil. Mission Rivas aims to give everyone a high school education. We met six teenagers in Sonare who had dropped out of school but, under Rivas, were about to graduate from high school. Under Mission Sucre they were planning to go on to higher education and train to be teachers, an architect, a nurse and a doctor. Their pride was moving. A new Bolivarian University has been established to accommodate the rising number of college students.

Under a health mission, 20,000 Cuban doctors are serving in urban slums and in countryside clinics. We visited two of these. The Cubans are giving free care, including medicine, glasses and dental care, while training Venezuelans to take over. Mission Mercal distributes food to the poor at 30 percent of the market price through 2,000 government supermarkets around the country. Venezuela is working with Argentina and Brazil to establish ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas advocated by the United States. The former is based on the concept of fair trade, not free trade. ALBA is intended to meet the needs of the less rich South American countries and protect their resources from corporate exploitation.

Not everyone is happy with the new regime. Members of the oligarchy have lost control of the oil monies and are nervous about empowerment of the poor. We met with opposition leaders, mostly from the upper middle-class, who expressed concern about “incidents of human rights violations” such as overaggressive police and aggressive Chavistas harassing journalists.

However, the opposition still speaks out, the media are openly critical and there are relatively few political prisoners.

Most of these are a result of the unsuccessful coup of 2002 that received support from the United States and which was reversed by a massive uprising in support of the constitution and Chavez.

Chavez and the press talk about an expected attack by the United States, based on statements by some State Department officials. It is hard to see how the United States could justify further efforts to overthrow a government that is working so hard to raise the living standard of the 80 percent of Venezuelans who are poor. It is better that we watch closely and hope Venezuela succeeds as an example of decreasing the gap between the rich and poor in a gradual, evolutionary way.

(Barry Freeman is a retired social worker, a political activist and frequent traveler to Latin America.)