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VENEZUELA
Misiones continue to boost Chávez’s popularity
José Orozco
2/6/2007
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As Chávez moves to broaden his control in and out of Venezuela, can social programs keep him afloat?

When President Hugo Chávez cruised to another six-year term in December and took office with broad support in January, he was buoyed not by his desire to stregthen the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), nationalize important industries and expand his decision-making powers.

In his first 10 days in office alone, Chávez has said that he will nationalize the country’s telecommunications and electricity industries, and has hinted at doing the same for Venezuela’s mining industry. In a major victory, the National Assembly — all of whose members are allied with the leader — granted Chávez Jan. 19, the power to rule by decree for the next 18 months.

But what continues to drive President Chávez’s popularity are his misiones, or "social missions" in English, social programs that include free health care and education, part of his plan for "21st century socialism."

Chávez, who named his Bolivarian Revolution after Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar, handedly won re-election to another six-year term last month. He earned a record 63 percent of the vote over his opponent, Zulia Gov. Manuel Rosales, 37 percent (LP, Dec. 13, 2006).

Flush with oil profits, Chávez has poured billions of dollars into the country’s slums, sustaining his popularity despite high corruption and violent crime.

But Venezuela’s opposition — claims the missions make the poor more dependent on the state without addressing poverty’s underlying causes (LP, June 30, 2004).

Mission Robinson, the literacy program that started it all, reaches out to Venezuela’s poorest.

"The program targets the excluded, those in absolute poverty," said Omar Calzadilla, national director of the literacy mission. "By studying, an unexpected world opens up to them. They are born again."

But Mabel Mundó, an educational policy analyst, complains that the missions offer poor training, producing graduates who are unable find a job while blindly following the state. Dependent and unemployed, they would hardly be said to enjoy the benefits of social inclusion, she says.

"The missions reinforce the emotional and lead people to continue depending on a paternalist state," she said. "It’s a policy that risks maintaining exclusion."

Many the opposition claim the missions were created — Robinson was launched in mid-2003 — to organize a loyal base for Chávez aimed at defeating the recall vote on his rule, which finally took place in August, 2004. Education missions, critics argue, indoctrinate more than educate.

"The missions seek to gain followers," said Gerardo Blyde, a member of the Rosales campaign and a former opposition deputy. "There’s no access unless you support Chávez."

The Chávez government says the missions seek to pay the country’s debt to the poor.

Under Chávez, Venezuela has grown into a welfare state. Chávez is redistributing the country’s oil wealth to the "shoeless ones" through a wide network of social programs while promoting cooperatives and state-led companies.

Poverty dropped to 33.9 percent in the first quarter of 2006, according to government figures, down from 49 percent in 1998 when Chávez won the presidency, though critics contest the accuracy of those figures.

Many economists describe the boom economy as a "bubble," just a drop in oil prices away from severe recession. Instead of encouraging private investment, critical to sustained growth and job creation, Chávez has scared off investors with his fiery socialist rhetoric, critics argue.

"The talk of international conflict keeps investors away," said Orlando Ochoa, an economist and consultant in Caracas. "No one invests in an oil economy that is vulnerable to fluctuating oil prices and conflicts with its main trading partner," the United States.

Besides using the missions to build a base, say critics, Chávez’s parallel state, as some call it, weakens institutions and fosters corruption. None of that helps fight poverty.

But Chávez supporters ask: What good are strong institutions and free and fair elections when people go hungry? Strengthening the rule of law as the path to development negates the "rule of justice," safeguarding elite privileges, argues Calzadilla.

The opposition accuses the government of using the rule of justice argument to trample on civil liberties and political freedoms, making Chávez more powerful without necessarily helping the poor.

"Without institutions as a check, you end up with enormous corruption," said Blyde. "You never achieve rule of justice because the money never gets to where it needs to."

Some analysts say that even with his charisma, Chávez owes his staying power to the oil boom. As long as oil prices remain high, Chávez can maintain his social spending and pursue his socialist program.

The seed of that program, the missions, have helped him develop a large following among the poor.

Mercal, which sells subsidized groceries at 12,000 stores nationwide, makes a world of difference for the Venezuelan poor. Inflation for food and beverages runs at over 20 percent, with the poor spending almost half their income on groceries.

The opposition sees the missions as not doing enough on their own, but recognizes that they have strengthened Chávez’s connection to the poor.

The missions responded to a deep social crisis, argues historian Margarita López Maya, coming after a devastating opposition-led strike that ended in early 2003.

"The missions launched the government’s popularity," said López Maya. "But support for Chávez is much deeper than that. People feel that the government responds to their interests, that they are included."

A pro-Chávez community leader, Larry Viera has seen the missions at work.

"The political process became stronger with the missions," said Viera. "People saw the president giving them something positive. That’s why many people support him."


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