On October 7 the Venezuelan people go to the polls to elect a government. The contest has come down to a straight contest between the present incumbent Hugo Chavez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and Capriles Radonski and his Roundtable for Democratic Unity coalition (MUD).
Chavez remains a controversial figure in the West, where he has been attacked as a demagogue, dictator, and tyrant ever since he was first elected as President of Venezuela in 1999. A coup, orchestrated by the oligarchs who used to run the country in conjunction with a section of the military leadership, and which enjoyed the tacit support of the Bush administration, attempted to remove him from power in 2002. It failed when the poor of the the slums and barrios of Caracas descended on the presidential palace in their tens of thousands and demanded the return of their president. Since then Chavez has been re-elected twice, making him among the most democratically elected leaders of any in the entire world. Yet still he is labelled a dictator by his opponents, both within Venezuela and around the world, particularly Washington.
Of course the real reason Chavez has come under such a sustained attack has little to do with his style of government - which is certainly flamboyant and extrovert - but his orientation towards Venezuela's poor in a domestic program of radical reform which he and his millions of supporters have named the Bolivarian Revolution. In concrete terms it has been responsible for the following achievements:
- The lowest indices of inequality in Latin America over the past 12 years. The indices of extreme poverty have dramatically decreased, along with poverty in general, with the Gini Coefficient (the measure of inequality in the distribution of income) being the lowest in the history of Venezuela. At the same time the Index of Human Development (IDH) has risen.
- A literacy program that has led to UNESCO declaring Venezuela a country free of illiteracy. Higher education enrollment has increased by 170 percent, up from 785,285 students in 1998 to over 2.12 million in 2009. Venezuela now occupies the second place in Latin America and fifth in the world when it comes to university graduation.
- The investment of 7.8% of GNP into a free healthcare program, known as Mission Barrio Adentro, designed to provide free healthcare services to the poor. To date it has saved 301,000 lives. Additionally, the level of infant mortality has been reduced by 32%.
- A reduction in the rate of unemployment from 16.1% in 1998 to 6.5% today. Venezuela's minimum wage is now among the highest in Latin America. Workers also receive a bonus of food and their pensions have been raised to the same level as the nation's minimum wage.
- With the PSUV's Mission Alimentation food is now offered at lower prices to the poor. The result has been a reduction in those suffering from a nutritional deficit from 5.3% of the population to 2.9% in the past decade.
- A 4% rise in GDP in 2011, with significant gains registered in the non-petroleum sector of the Venezuelan economy for the first time in decades.
Not content with that, Hugo Chavez has also been a prime mover in inspiring a leftward shift throughout Latin America, a part of the world that for so long was ruled by right wing dictatorships responsible for widespread torture, imprisonment without trial, murder, and repression. Those right wing dictatorships enjoyed the supported of the United States and ensured that the region's economic and social development was retarded.
In contradistinction to this dark period in Latin American history, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez has embarked on a policy of trans-border cooperation and investment, designed to fight poverty and increase economic grow throughout the region. This is being done under the rubric of various organisations such as the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), PETROCARIBE (which provides cheap oil to Caribbean nations), and more recently the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR).
The closeness of the relationship forged between Venezuela and Cuba has also been significant. It has involved an innovate exchange of oil from Venezuela for healthcare programs and medical missions from Cuba. It has helped to lessen Cuba's economic isolation in the face of a sustained economic blockade by the United States, while at the same time spreading the many achievements of the Cuban Revolution in healthcare, education, and a counter-hegemonic economic and social system to capitalism.
In truth it is Chavez's opposition to US domination of the region, the example he has set in redistributing Venezuela's oil wealth to the poor at the expense of the rich, and his attempt to spread this example throughout Latin America, which has earned him such vitriolic enmity in Washington and other western capitals. Each of the aforementioned flies in the face of the neoliberal straitjacket that was responsible for devastating the lives of millions in Venezuela and throughout Latin America for decades prior to his emergence as a catalyst for progressive change.
Having recovered from the cancer which saw him treated in Cuba and which had his supporters worried and his enemies no doubt rubbing their hands, Hugo Chavez stands poised, according to the latest polls, to sweep to victory and be elected the President of Venezuela for an historic fourth consecutive term. A fierce sense of solidarity with the poor is what drives this remarkable figure.
It was Dom Helder Camara, the Catholic archbishop whose devotion to Brazil's urban poor earned him the sobriquet of 'Bishop of the slums', who once said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
Hugo Chavez is a man and a leader who has spent his life asking why. Indeed, not only has he been asking he's been doing something about it. If this makes him a communist then so be it. To the poor of Venezuela and throughout Latin America he is a champion of justice and liberation - the kind that money can't buy.