I knew that the administration of Hugo Chavez had won my heart when I met Olivia Delfino in one of the poor barrios in Caracas. As I was touring the neighborhood with an international delegation here to monitor this Sunday’s referendum on Chavez, Olivia came out of her tiny house and grabbed my arm. “Tell the people of your country that we love Hugo Chavez,” she insisted. She went on to tell me how her life had changed since he came to power. After living in the barrio for 40 years, she now had a formal title to her home. With that, she was able to get a bank loan to fix the roof so it wouldn’t leak in the rain. Thanks to the Cuban dentists and a program called “Rescatando la sonrisa”—recovering the smile—for the first time in her life she was able to get her teeth fixed. And her daughter is in a job training program to become a nurse’s assistant.
Getting more and more animated, Olivia dragged me over to a poster on the wall showing Hugo Chavez with a throng of followers and a list of Venezuela’s new social programs that read: “The social programs are ours, let’s defend them.” Then slowly and laboriously, she began reading the list of social programs: literacy, health care, job training, land reform, subsidized food, small loans. I asked her if she was just learning to read and write as part of the literacy program. That’s when she started to cry. “Can you imagine what it has meant to me, at 52 years old, to now have a chance to read?” she said. “It’s transformed my life.”
Walk through the poor neighborhoods in Venezuela and you’ll hear the same stories over and over. The very poor now can go to a designated home in the neighborhood to pick up a hot meal every day. The elderly now have monthly pensions that allow them to live with dignity. Young people can take advantage of greatly expanded free college programs. And with 13,000 Cuban doctors spread throughout the country and reaching over half the population, the poor now have their own family doctors on call 24-hours a day—doctors who even make house calls. This heath care, including medicines, are all free.
The programs are being paid for with the income from Venezuela’s oil, which is at an all-time high. Previously, the nation’s oil wealth benefited only a small, well-connected elite who kept themselves in power for 40 years through a two-party duopoly. The elite, who controlled the media as well, kept the vast majority poor, disenfranchised, and disempowered. With the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 on a platform of sharing the nation’s oil wealth with the poorest, all that has changed. The poor are now not only recipients of these programs, they are engaged in running them. They’re turning abandoned buildings into neighborhood centers, running community kitchens; volunteering to teach in the literacy programs, organizing neighborhood health brigades and registering millions of new voters.
Infuriated by their loss of power, the elite use their control over the media to blast Chavez for destroying the economy, cozying up to Fidel Castro, antagonizing the US government, expropriating private property, and using dictatorial rule. They also accuse him of using the social programs that have so improved the lives of the poor as a way to buy votes.
The opposition managed to collect enough signatures to trigger this Sunday’s referendum on the president’s mandate. Chavez supporters, bolstered by almost every poll, expect to win. “The opposition can lie all they want about Chavez,” said Olivia defiantly, “but the facts speak for themselves. Before no one cared about us, the poor. Now they do.” When I asked her what was going to happen on Sunday, she grinned. “First we’re going to vote. And then we’ll gather in front of the presidential palace for a huge victory party.”
The opposition is right: providing people with free health care, education, small business loans and job training is certainly a good way to win support. With the US elections coming up in November, George Bush—and John Kerry for that matter—could learn a thing or two from Hugo Chavez about winning the hearts and minds of the people.
Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the women’s peace group CodePink.