World View: Suckers for punishment in Venezuela
On Sunday, 30 July, Hugo Chavez, former army colonel, leader of a failed coup in 1992, and President of Venezuela since February 1999, was re-elected in what Richard Gott described in a letter to the Guardian (2 August) as “a stunning victory that surprised the pollsters”. Actually, the opinion polls the previous week gave him a lead of 20 percent over his main challenger, Francisco Arias. More than 80 percent of those who voted for Chavez were said to be living below the official poverty line.
In 1996, unemployment in Venezuela stood at 17 percent, inflation rose during the year by approximately 100 percent, and per capita oil income, on which the country relied, and still relies, for more than 80 percent of its foreign exchange, declined by three-quarters between 1980 and 1995. Nevertheless, Venezuela was, and is, the world’s third largest oil-producing country, and has the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere.
In July last year, Chavez’s “leftist” coalition won an overwhelming majority of seats in the 131-seat assembly, despite a sharp economic downturn and the loss of at least 600, 000 jobs since Chavez took office in February. He blamed the corruption and poverty of the workers on previous administrations, and promised to create a “true democracy”, free of corruption and poverty for the masses, despite appointing many of his former fellow army plotters to top posts in the state. Such was Chavez’s “Peaceful Revolution”!
Then, in December, after torrential rain for more than a week, Venezuela suffered devastating floods which caused landslides, inundated the capital, Caracas, swept away roads and shanty towns, and cascaded down the steep valleys to the Caribbean coast, and into the sea. Large tracts of Vargas state, the worst affected, were flooded. In the words of a Guardian headline (24 December 1999), “Venezuela pays the price for ecological carelessness”, caused we should add by the quest for profit at all costs by the Venezuelan, and multi-national capitalist class.
In January this year, in the wake of the floods and the destruction of thousands of homes, it has been reported by the newspaper, El Nacional and a number of human rights groups, that at least 60 people (the government’s figure) had been killed by the military between 17 and 30 December, allegedly to stop looting. Chavez insisted that “nothing can be considered proof” of the military’s involvement in the murders; but El Nacional said that President Chavez had “expelled three soldiers from the National Guard on charges that they had participated, not in the executions, but in looting”.
Meanwhile, since January 1999, the Venezuelan economy has declined by seven percent, foreign investors have withdrawn more than £5bn, and unemployment is still more than 600,000 more than it was when Hugo Chavez became President in February. The “acute economy slump” continues; and the voters, over 80 percent of whom are employed or unemployed workers, have given Chavez another six years of power. And capitalism in Venezuela, as elsewhere, staggers on.
PETER E NEWELL