/ 13 April 2012

Venezuela fights to defend its progress

Ten years ago Latin American history reached a turning point. In Venezuela, a United States backed military coup against the elected government of Hugo Chavez was stopped dead in its tracks after just a few days.

It marked a clear break from the coups and subsequent dictatorships installed to defend economic elites that had cast a long shadow across Latin America for decades. (Indeed, General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile shows what could have happened in Venezuela.)

A tide of progressive governments across the continent followed.

Over the three days of the coup many were killed.

Casualties and human rights abuses were widespread and all democratic institutions annulled. Having appeared on national TV the day before to warn that a coup was coming, I was concerned I would be arrested. I was lucky. The others dragged away from my apartment block were not.

The seizure of power united much of the old order — big business, media moguls, landowners, the church hierarchy — with the US. They opposed reforms giving the state a greater share of the nation’s oil wealth. But against these powerful forces stood millions of long-excluded Venezuelans. They rose up, took over the city centres and surrounded army bases to demand the return of their elected president. In defeating the coup, they began a new chapter in Venezuelan history.

Ten years on, how do these momentous events relate to the challenges facing my country today? The defeat of the coup was not only a victory for democracy — though more elections have been held in Venezuela over the past 12 years than in the previous 40 years and with record turnouts. It was also a catalyst for social progress, economic change and provided a new basis for Venezuela’s international relations.

In the aftermath, a free health service was established, giving millions access to a doctor for the first time. More than a million people, mainly women, were taught to read and write. A 25-year decline in gross domestic product per head — with real incomes falling to levels of the 1950s — was reversed.

Nonetheless, Venezuela continues to confront many problems. The free-market shock therapy of the 1980s and 1990s resulted in social devastation. Some difficulties were even longer term, a product of an oil state whose primary purpose was, for decades, to share this wealth among narrow interests rather than to develop the nation. Today, providing affordable homes for the millions still living in shanty towns, tackling crime and diversifying the economy are some of the greatest challenges.

It was only with the defeat of the coup that the force capable of carrying out such fundamental change emerged. Millions of Venezuelans became active in politics as never before, taking charge of developing their local areas through new community councils. This mass involvement ensures that the sharing of wealth and social investment is not about clientelism but emancipation. It also offers vigilance against inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption.

Sharp differences over Venezuela’s economic direction lay at the heart of the coup and they continue today. Ahead of presidential elections in October, the government believes that state-led development policies are the best way to address ongoing challenges. In contrast, the right-wing candidate promotes the free market and a return to International Monetary Fund policies.

In foreign relations, the US-backed coup also left its mark. Over 10 years, we have built our closest-ever links with Latin American nations. We are working closely with the Brics nations and European governments and have more embassies than ever before — a sign of our commitment to constructive engagement.

Maintaining this independent path is a challenge, not least because US state agencies spend millions of dollars supporting movements opposed to the government. This intervention should end. The Venezuelan people should be allowed to decide their own future. That was, after all, the loudest message from the people on the day they defeated the coup. —