CHÁVEZ’S SORRY LEGACY
Opponents of the Venezuelan regime have warned SA audiences against seeing the late Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, as role models for how to help the landless poor
Two Venezuelan MPS are touring SA with a warning: industrial nationalisation and land redistribution from private hands to a state that preaches a populist line but is infected with corruption will impoverish this country as it has theirs.
Both MPS, who spoke at the University of Pretoria earlier this month, represent the Justice First party in the disempowered parliament. Miguel Pizarro is a former student leader of the slum constituency of Petare in the capital Caracas, while José Manuel Olivares Marquina is a health-rights activist living in exile in Colombia because of threats to his family by the regime of President Nicolás Maduro, who has ruled almost entirely by fiat since 2013.
Though the histories of SA and Venezuela differ, there are echoes of the SA experience in the personal trajectories of the two MPS.
Olivares comes from one of the poorest states in Venezuela, where his black grandfather was a security guard at a local hospital. Until his exile, he worked as a doctor at the same hospital, and his upward social mobility seemed to be the realisation of the dream of the “Bolivarian revolution” launched in 1999 by the late president Hugo Chávez.
Pizarro is the son of a Leninist guerrilla who was jailed in the 1980s. As a youth, he was a staunch supporter of Chávez’s aim to shift the economy from its neoliberal base to a socialist programme that promised land ownership to the poor.
But that all changed when Chávez came to power and amended the constitution. Though promising to guarantee greater socioeconomic rights, his administration also eliminated checks and balances, and gave the presidency sweeping economic powers and the military a meddling role in the state. Through Chávez’s populist — and initially wildly popular — nationalisation of banks, telecommunications, agribusiness, mining, industry, power, transport, tourism and food production, the state took control of most of the economy.
But, Olivares says, about 5,000 of these nationalised firms have since been shut down, provoking an unemployment crisis, and the average monthly wage has fallen to $2.
Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world and Chávez’s “revolution” scuppered plans to privatise state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela. With oil soaring from 77% of exports in 1998 to 96% by 2011, the Bolivarian regime turned Venezuela into Angola. Now, under Maduro, even oil production has plummeted, by almost a third, to 1.1-million barrels a day.
Likewise, the government embarked on a programme of land redistribution, supposedly intended to transfer ownership into the hands of the peasantry. However, Pizarro says, today “the government owns 80% of the land but only produces 5% of the food. Twenty years ago, those lands fed 70% of the population.
Twenty years ago, those lands were in private hands; we know there is some injustice and inequality in that, but they used to feed the people, give work to the people.”
Initially the percentage of those living under the poverty line fell — from 49.4% in 1999 to 27.8% in 2010. But today, with an inflation rate that the IMF expects to hit 1-million percent by year-end, starvation stalks even the middle classes.
Olivares points to statistics that suggest the unavailability of medicines in state hospitals has risen from 19% in 2014 to 94% this year. Yet the Maduro government no longer needs popular support: in 2016 it de facto suspended constitutional rights.
Of particular concern, Olivares says, is the state’s dispossession of indigenous Amazonian forest peoples since 2016 to make way for the construction of new gold mines in the 112,000km² “mining arc” in the country’s centre. On his state visit to SA in July, Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza touted the mining arc, which produces 17t a year of gold, to SA investors. But Pizarro says the mines fuel a “blood gold” economy, with paramilitaries forcibly expelling the Amazonian tribes into Brazil, where they are among the 7% of the population that the UN estimates has fled abroad.
The Venezuelan case highlights just how delicate the balance of property rights can be. But while land redistribution cannot be put off in SA, nationalisation should not necessarily be the first port of call if the rights of recipients are to be protected. Stha Yeni, the national co-ordinator of land rights network Tshintsha Amakhaya, tells the FM: “Land expropriation is an important and necessary mechanism to get land from private farm owners and redistribute it to small-scale farmers and the landless farm dwellers.”
But state ownership of land is not necessarily in the best interests of “ordinary black people”, she says.
“We need to explore other forms of ownership, that are context-based and that guarantee security, especially for rural women.
“Large farms must be subdivided and redistributed to small-scale farmers. State support in terms of infrastructure, capital, markets and skills would be key.”
If that does not happen, Yeni warns, the 3-million people who “live as second-class citizens” on private land will “drive land reform themselves”.
Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez