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Day Four: Report from Venezuela

January 14, 2006

“Tell the American people: here, in this country, we are not trying to do anything weird. We are trying to achieve social justice.”

Julio Mendoza, Principal
Unidad Educativa Rafael Arévalo González
January 14, 2005 - Barvolento


The social missions conceived by President Hugo Chavez are designed to give the poor and the excluded in Venezuela the chance to be integrated into the nation’s social and economic mainstream. Poverty persisted in Venezuela, one of the wealthiest nations in the hemisphere, because the poor – as we have been told time and again by Venezuelans across the political spectrum – never appeared on anyone’s agenda. Supporters and opponents alike acknowledge that Chavez put the country’s social problems on the map, and the oil dividend gives him the purse and possibility of pursuing real and permanent social change. Where observers diverge is whether these missions are making a difference and have a sustainable chance of success. We can’t know the final answer to that question, but we did look outside of Caracas, in the region called Barvolento, to see what the missions are actually doing. This is our report.


The fishermen: Before Hugo Chavez came to power, fishermen and women in Barlovento had a freezer for their catch, but not sea-worthy boats or trucks to bring their fish to market. Now, they have both.

The fishermen are organized in a cooperative. Its goal is to broadly share the commercial benefits to the families who belong. They have been in association for six years. There are twelve members in the cooperative. They have received access to a credit line from the national government to buy boats and get help with distribution to the community. The primary catch is red snapper. They harvest 600 kilos of fish every week. The cooperative has six boats and they use two systems for fishing: big nets and undersea cages. They have been able to pay back their credit in full.

The fisherman told our delegation that the most significant action taken by the government is also the most controversial. President Chavez pushed through a law that bars large scale fishing operations within 6 miles from shore. That sets up a buffer zone within which the family-sized cooperative operations can fish freely. The big operations fought the law, saying it was interference with private property. This reform offers significant help for the smaller operations.

The delegation also visited the fish market used by the cooperative. The mongers were doing a lively business. (photo of the delegation at the fish market appears above)

Under construction, the Higuerote Health Clinic: The people of Higuerote are seeing the finishing touches put on a new diagnostic health center paid for by the Mission Barrio Adentro, the health program conceived by President Chavez.

The delegation was met by a large committee from the community, Cuban doctors and Venezuelan citizens, all involved in the project of improving this community’s access to health care. (photo of one of the Cuban doctors appears above)

Barrio Adentro has already put four Cuban doctors into the community, whose residents are receiving primary care never before available. Before the mission, the people had to go to Barlovento General Hospital for any kind of care. The hospital they said was poorly supplied. And when that hospital could not meet their needs, they had to go to the hospital in Caracas, ninety miles away. The only other alternative was a network of private health care facilities, but they are prohibitively expensive for the nation’s poor.

This new health center will provide a variety of services: diagnosis, physical, occupational, and language therapy, natural medicine, laboratory work, ultra-sound. People without economic means will be treated for free.

The Cuban doctors work in places that Venezuelan doctors have not previously been. They are doing primary care and family medicine: pregnancy attention, ill children, and elderly care. They respond to emergencies and care for patients unless and until a referral is needed due to the nature of the emergency.

But a lot of the work is done by Venezuelans too. Under Mission Barrio Adentro, community volunteers go house-to-house and perform assessments of each family’s health. Two nurses accompany the volunteers and do things like give vaccinations. The mission in Higuerote has contacted the national ministry of health and made wheel chairs and surgery available for people who otherwise had no access; they’ve procured free medicine for the residents, and also discovered people with nutritional needs and gotten them food.

The Venezuelan health care system has historically been a party patronage system. This is, in part, what drove Venezuelan medical students who became doctors out of the public health system and into the exclusive private health care system. Because the administration of the health care system is corrupt and politicized, the Chavez government has built a second system, a new system outside the old bureaucracy. The parties also penetrated the doctors’ union, which fought the introduction of Cuban doctors. The government accredited the Cubans, and the Venezuelans feel strongly about the contributions their new doctors are making.

The residents addressed the delegation and asked us to bring these messages back to the American people:

“We would like you to bring to the American people the message of cooperation between the Cuban doctors and the Venezuelans. This is a joint effort, an integrated program.”

“Some say we give oil away for free. But we get a benefit in return – health care for the most vulnerable in our society. You know about the blockade against Cuba for forty-five years. Venezuela benefits from the social advantages of better health, and Cuba gets the benefits of oil.”

“Before the missions, we couldn’t afford health care or have the opportunity to study medicine. Now we can. But we want to be ourselves. We are tired of being criticized internationally. Cuba has helped us, what are you (in the United States) willing to do? Cuba’s help has been invaluable. We could not repay Cuba for what it has done in one hundred or even one million years.”

“No government has ever paid attention to us. We will never let anyone take away this government that is listening to us for the first time.”

Message received.

Unidad Educativa Rafael Arevalo Gonzalez: The delegation visited a high school using a new curriculum and new approaches to learning. The Venezuelans say it is operating under Bolivarian principles. Sitting in a computer lab filled with nineteen modern desktop computers, the delegation received a briefing from a teacher named Julio Mendoza.

Learning is organized around three axes: learning, doing, and living together. The aim is educating a new kind of citizen who is capable of creating an equitable society in Venezuela. The curriculum specializes in science and mathematics; social sciences; training the students for productive work; physical education and environmental science; and Spanish literature and culture.

The teachers at this school are clearly working hard to ensure that these Venezuelan students have an opportunity to succeed.


In this visit, we were struck by the passion of Venezuelans who feel recognized by their government for the first time. They demonstrate the impact the missions of President Chavez has already had on this nation’s dispossessed. Their expectations are clearly high, for continued access to these programs and for their long-term success.

At the beach, we did hear a different story from a man who owns a transportation company. He bitterly criticized the government and said it was giving away money to people who were too lazy to work. He, on the other hand, made all of his money through his own work alone. He even asked one of us how much Chavez was paying us “to lie to the American people.”

It is interesting that his company has a contract for services with the state oil company.

The delegation ends its stay in Venezuela tomorrow. We’ll file new reports from the U.S. soon. Until then, that’s Caracas Connect connecting from Venezuela.


Blogger Francisco said...


Pay attention to Petkoff - he knows what he's talking about. When social programs are designed to benefit only your political supporters, is that a social revolution or clientelism under a different guise?

January 20, 2006 8:32 AM


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