Tariq Ali: Chavez won because he offers hope to the poor

Just under a million children from the shanty towns now obtain a free education

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The turn-out in Venezuela on Sunday was huge: 94.9 per cent of the electorate voted in the recall referendum. Venezuela, under its new constitution, permitted the right of the citizens to recall a president before he or she had completed their term of office. No Western democracy enshrines this right in a written or unwritten constitution.

The turn-out in Venezuela on Sunday was huge: 94.9 per cent of the electorate voted in the recall referendum. Venezuela, under its new constitution, permitted the right of the citizens to recall a president before he or she had completed their term of office. No Western democracy enshrines this right in a written or unwritten constitution.

The Venezuelan oligarchs and their parties, who had opposed this constitution in a referendum (having earlier failed to topple Chavez via a US-backed coup and an oil strike led by a corrupt union bureaucracy) now utilised it to try to get rid of the man who had enhanced Venezuelan democracy. They failed. However loud their cries (and those of their media apologists at home and abroad) of anguish, in reality the whole country knows what happened. Chavez defeated his opponents democratically and for the fourth time in a row. Democracy in Venezuela, under the banner of the Bolivarian revolutionaries, has broken through the corrupt two-party system favoured by the oligarchy and its friends in the West.

And this has happened despite the total hostility of the privately owned media: the two daily newspapers, as well as Gustavo Cisneros' television channels and CNN made no attempt to mask their crude support for the opposition. Some foreign correspondents in Caracas have convinced themselves that Chavez is an oppressive caudillo and they are desperate to translate their own fantasies into reality. They provide no evidence of political prisoners, leave alone Guantanamo-style detentions or the removal of television executives and newspaper editors (which happened without too much of a fuss in Blair's Britain).

A few weeks ago in Caracas I had a lengthy discussion with Chavez. It became clear to me that what Chavez is attempting is nothing more or less than the creation of a radical, social democracy in Venezuela that seeks to empower the lowest strata of society. In these times of deregulation, privatisation and the Anglo-Saxon model of wealth subsuming politics, Chavez's aims are regarded as revolutionary, even though the measures proposed are no different to those of the post-war Attlee government in Britain. Some of the oil wealth is being spent to educate and heal the poor.

Just under a million children from the shanty towns and the poorest villages now obtain a free education; 1.2 million illiterate adults have been taught to read and write; secondary education has been made available to 250,000 children whose social status excluded them from this privilege during the ancien régime; three new university campuses were functioning by 2003 and six more are due to be completed by 2006. As far as healthcare is concerned, the 10,000 Cuban doctors, who were sent to help the country, have transformed the situation in the poor districts, where 11,000 neighbourhood clinics have been established and the health budget has tripled. Add to this the financial support provided to small businesses, the new homes being built for the poor, an agrarian reform law that was enacted and pushed through despite the resistance, legal and violent, by the landlords. By the end of last year 2,262,467 hectares had been distributed to 116,899 families.

The reasons for Chavez's popularity become obvious. No previous regime had even noticed the plight of the poor. And one can't help but notice that it is not simply a division between the wealthy and the poor, but also one of skin colour. The Chavistas tend to be dark-skinned, reflecting their slave and native ancestry. The opposition is light-skinned and some of its more disgusting supporters denounce Chavez as a black monkey. A puppet show to this effect with a monkey playing Chavez was even organised at the US embassy in Caracas. But Colin Powell was not amused and the ambassador was compelled to issue an apology.

The bizarre argument advanced in a hostile editorial in The Economist this week that all this was done to win votes is extraordinary. The opposite is the case. The Bolivarians wanted power so that real reforms could be implemented. All the oligarchs have to offer is more of the past and the removal of Chavez. It is ridiculous to suggest that Venezuela is on the brink of a totalitarian tragedy. It is the opposition that has attempted to take the country in that direction. The Bolivarians have been incredibly restrained.

When I asked Chavez to explain his own philosophy, he replied: "I don't believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don't accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. Reality is telling us that every day. But if I'm told that because of that reality you can't do anything to help the poor, then I say, 'We part company'. I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society.I believe it's better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing ... Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it's only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias."

And that's why he won.

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