The first time I travelled to Venezuela, I remember thinking about not only the difference in the political situation here and the positive developments that have occurred, but the fundamental contrast in the thinking behind those changes that would make them impossible in England. It is that, in fact, which I believe makes it so hard for some people to understand, or even believe, what has been happening in Venezuela over the last fifteen years. Unfortunately, we still live under the law of [well, a Queen!] a government that seems primarily driven by profit and money, rather than the well-being of human beings and society. I am sure that the recent Budget would serve to confirm this, although I cannot say I have studied its publication. It seems relevant to compare that government’s concept of saving money and cutting costs with a speech made by Hugo Chavez on 25th March 1999, just under two months after he was sworn in as President of his country for the first time. He, we might add, had been democratically-elected by an overwhelming majority, unlike our own government. Speaking from the Presidential palace, Chavez said:
“En el Ministerio de la Secretaría cientos y cientos, millones de bolívares se han ahorrado eliminando teléfonos, vehículos, gastos y ya he firmado el decreto elaborado por el Procurador y un equipo que lo está coordinando, para vender un lote grande de aviónes, empezando por uno asignado al Presidente de Venezuela. De Pdvsa vamos a vender esos aviones, no se justifica tanto avion en poder del Estado: ciento veintiocho.”
“In the Ministry of the Secretariat hundreds and hundreds, millions of bolivars have been saved eliminating telephones, vehicles, expenses and I have already signed the decree issued by the Attorney General and a team that is coordinating, to sell a large batch of aircraft, starting with one assigned to the President of Venezuela. From PDVSA [the state oil company] we are going to sell these planes, it’s not justified to have so many planes in the power of the State: one hundred and twenty-eight.”
The government in England love telling the poorest sections of society how there is no money and that is why they need to makes such swathing cuts to services. Perhaps they do not realise that poor people know better than anyone the importance of not wasting money and balancing a budget, because they have to do it on a weekly basis. Again, is this why it is difficult for many to have an appreciation for what is happening here, because we have spent so long living with governments that look out primarily for their own interests?
This lack of understanding can similarly be applied to many sections of the opposition in Venezuela. Capriles, the main opposition candidate for both recent and upcoming elections, recently stated that Chavez “didn’t help poor people, he just gave them money and made them miserable.” Well, there are two important points that immediately spring to mind. Firstly, if 80% of the population of a country are “poor”, and a person comes into power and gives that 80% money, it would be difficult to classify that as a bad thing. More significantly, there are many things that the majority of people have gained over the last years that are far more important than money. In many of the barrios surrounding Caracas this morning, and every morning, an efficient, free and clean cable car service carries people into the centre of town in five to ten minutes, compared with the hours over precarious, traffic-jammed, steep roads that the journey took before. That change doesn’t come about by giving people money; it comes about by building a cable car. This is only one example, but it is a concrete change in people’s everyday lives.
But there are other, even more crucial developments that you will not see at first glance. According to a recent conversation with a friend of mine here, before the Chavez government were elected, barrios were not even included on maps. This meant that not only transport but electricity and water services were extremely poor, and very often non-existent. The government brought water, healthcare, education, road improvements, rubbish collection and above all recognition into those areas. That is why millions keep electing the same government.
Henrique Capriles Radonski will never understand that. As the conversation continued; before this government, so-called ‘public opinion’ was always that of the middle-class. The great majority were simply ignored. If the areas they lived in were not even officially mapped, you can just about imagine what their media representation was like. One of the great changes here is that the majority of society have been given a voice, and they are speaking with amplitude.
There are many people who have never in their lives experienced the lights suddenly cutting out. There are many people who simply do not know what it means to switch a tap and for no water to emerge. In England, of course, but also in Venezuela. But here, they are not the only form of ‘public opinion’ that exists.