Significance of Chavez's Victory for Latin America

-by Yves Engler

People who support democracy and equality should take hope from the victory of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Sunday’s referendum.

Why did millions of ordinary Venezuelans vote to support their president despite his vilification by the wealthy elite, the mainstream media and the USA? I would argue the primary reason is because Chavez has acted to expand democracy and reduce the drastic inequality that plagues most citizens of that and every other Latin American country.

Venezuela, despite its vast oil wealth, ranks as only the 68th best country in the world in which to live, according to the United Nations Human Development Index. Decades of pumping the black gold have enriched a minority but left the majority living in shanty towns. The richest 10 per cent of the Venezuelan population has 62.9 times the yearly income of the poorest 10 per cent, according to UN figures. (The comparable ratio for the USA is 15.9, which makes it the most unequal of world’s 20 wealthiest countries. In Canada the ratio is 10.1.)

All of Latin America is watching Venezuela to see if something can be done about poverty and inequality. The region is the most unequal in the world. In Brazil the richest 10 per cent of the population have 85.0 times more of the income/consumption than the poorest (46.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent). The least unequal is Uruguay where the ratio is a still high 18.9. In Mexico the richest have 45.0 times that of the poorest. (In the US the ratio is 15.9) (Complete list is in table.)

Ten different kinds of social programs known as “missions” — including food, micro credit and literacy endeavors — have been initiated by the Chavez government. The health mission, Barrio Adentro, is the most controversial with its clinics staffed by more than 10,000 Cuban doctors and dentists who work in under-serviced slums and poor rural communities. These “missions” have provided a huge boost in basic services to the poor majority of Venezuela.

Not only have the poor benefited from social programs, they are also active participants in the “missions” and the country’s democratic transformation. Tens of thousands of “Bolivarian circles”, named after Latin America’s liberator Simon Bolivar, have sprouted up across the country. These groups of seven to twenty residents work collectively to improve their neighborhoods. In the face of an overwhelmingly pro-opposition private media, community-owned radio and television have flourished.

Chavez also strengthened parliamentary democracy with the constitution that was passed in his first term as president. Venezuela is now one of the few countries in the world where a head of state can be recalled through a referendum. In addition to domestic transformations the Chavez government has been working for change in international affairs. It keeps alive the Bolivar dream of a “United States of Latin America” despite Washington’s 200-year old opposition. (The U.S. prefers to dominate smaller, weaker states.)

Chavez has been a vocal opponent of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, preferring to focus efforts on strengthening ties within South America. Venezuela recently gained partner status in Mercosur, the common market of Brazil, Argentina, Uraguay and Paraguay. A few weeks ago Chavez announced plans to buy eight new oil tankers from long-slumping shipyards near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Venezuela and Argentina have begun the creation of a pan South American energy company, Petrosur. Brazil’s state-owned firm, Petrobas, seems interested in cooperating.

Colombia and Venezuela plan to build a gas pipeline that will ship natural gas between the two countries. Venezuela also provides Caribbean countries with low-cost oil and Chavez is trying to create PetroCaribe, which would boost energy integration in the region.

A South American public television network is in the works and the Venezuelan government has discussed the idea of a South American Development bank.

If Chavez continues to pursue these important domestic and international changes the Venezuelan majority will continue to sing Uh! Ah! Chavez no se va! (Chavez won’t go.)

Yves Engler is author of the forthcoming book Playing Left Wing: From Hockey to Politics — The Making of a Student Activist. He has traveled extensively throughout Venezuela.


According the latest United Nations Human Development Index report the ratios of income/consumption for richest 10 per cent of population compared to the poorest 10 per cent are: Brazil 85.0

Paraguay 70.4

Venezuela 62.9

Panama 62.3

Colombia 57.8

Guatemala 55.1

Peru 49.9

Honduras 49.1

El Salvador 47.4

Mexico 45.0

Ecuador 44.9

Chile 40.6

Argentina 39.1

Nicaragua 36.1

Guyana 25.9

Costa Rica 25.1

Bolivia 24.6

Uruguay 18.9

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