CHÁVEZ’S SORRY LEGACY

Financial Mail - - FEATURE - Michael Sch­midt

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”.

Getty/juan Bar­reto

For­mer Venezue­lan pres­i­dent Hugo Chávez

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