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Day Two: Report from Venezuela

January 12, 2006

Now we’re starting to get “under the hood.”

President Hugo Chavez is using his oil dividend to try and improve living conditions for the massive majority of his country that is living under the poverty line. One of his programs is devoted to raising health care coverage among the poor. Is it working? We visited the medical college located in Caracas to ask the man who helped design the program.

What is really happening in Venezuela politically? We met with the editor of the number one circulation newspaper in Venezuela, who earned his large and growing readership by insisting that his paper be free of either pro- or anti-government bias. In a nation where people lose trust in their institutions, his newspaper is trusted by many as an unbiased source of news.

What is the true standing of the anti-government opposition, and what are the bases of their complaints against the system – and against President Chavez? We spoke directly to the senior leadership of Sumate to find out. It was a good day to get connected in Caracas.


Charisma: Meeting with Dr. Fernando J. Bianco, Presidente of the Colegio de Medicos in Caracas.

Yesterday, we went to a secondary care clinic that has seen over 60,000 Venezuelan patients from the barrios that encircle Caracas in just the last eleven months. The clinic is part of an extensive new public health care program instituted by President Chavez and funded by the oil dividend created by high global oil prices. The program was designed with the help of a physician and psychiatrist, trained in the United States, named Fernando Bianco. With buoyancy and a barrage of facts, Dr. Bianco explained the program to members of our delegation today in Caracas.

Dr. Bianco talked to us about the roots of the health care program starting in the Venezuelan constitution adopted in a popular vote in 1999. The new constitution redefined the relationship of the state to the Venezuelan people as regards their health care. It reoriented the direction of health care from private to public, from treatment to prevention, from exclusion of the poor to inclusion of the poor, to a new emphasis on healthful living and training thousands of new Venezuelan doctors.

Dr. Bianco talked candidly about problems with health care delivery for Venezuela’s poor. But he also made the case that the reforms introduced by the health care mission are already producing results, and that he has persuaded the government to meet and analyze the new program in medical education to measure whether it is working and how it can be improved.

Character: Meeting with Eleazar Diaz Rangel, editor of Ultimas Noticias.

The politics of Venezuela is intensely polarized. This political polarization is reflected in the press. Most major newspapers and broadcast outlets are affiliated with opposition parties or, in some few instances, the government. News organizations opposed to the government are aligned with elites, the rich and powerful families and institutions in Venezuela society. A few news organizations parrot the government line and are rewarded as a result. Against this backdrop, it showed real character on the part of Ultimas Noticias and its editors to strike an independent course – to side with the truth, to try and report on conditions in Venezuela objectively, and to appeal for readers accordingly.

As related to us by Eleazar Diaz Rangel, the truthful path has also been a path to success. Ultimas Noticias is now the best read newspaper in Venezuela with an audited readership of 300,000. According to public opinion research, it is also the most trusted: In a recent questionnaire by a polling firm, 70% of the Venezuelan public considers this newspaper to be balanced; 13% thought it to be pro-Chavez; 6% thought anti-Chavez.

Navigating a newspaper devoted to balance through the politics of contemporary Venezuela is no easy feat. Yet, Ultimas Noticias has tried to report the news without fear or favor – covering, the coup against Chavez in 2002; the strike called in the same year that was conceived to undermine popular support for Chavez (it failed); covering the referendum in 2004 that determined that Chavez would not be recalled; while also blowing the whistle on examples of corruption in Venezuela’s government.

Diaz Rangel was equally and specifically critical of both the opposition parties (when they were in government) and the Chavez administration for failing to be vigilant against corruption.

Under questioning from former Ambassador Bob White, president of The Center for International Policy, Diaz Rangel said that his newspaper had published evidence of U.S. complicity in the 2002 coup against Chavez. To this date, our government denies any involvement.


Concern: Meeting with Marina Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz of Sumate.

On Wednesday, January 18, Marina Corina Machado and Alejandro Plaz will go on trial for allegedly violating Venezuelan law when they accepted thousands of dollars of donations for their work from The National Endowment for Democracy, a U.S. based institution funded by the U.S. Congress. Less than seven days before their trial began, the delegation met with these individuals to hear their passionate case about the need for real democracy and a strong and independent civil society in Venezuela.

In addition to discussing their own case, they expressed their views about how the independence of the Venezuelan judiciary has been compromised. They talked about the lack of trust among some Venezuelans in the electoral system. They said, in clear and straightforward terms that while President Chavez has won elections in the country, he has taken Venezuela in unexpected and unwelcome directions -- the alliance with Cuba, the increased political polarization in the society, changes to the free market economic system – directions not approved by the voters.

Bob White asked pointedly about the voice of the opposition when it was in power, when Venezuela was a nation of great oil wealth, but the dispossessed in the country were left out of the economic system, without health care or literacy training. How could a country so rich in natural resources endure two-thirds of its people living below the poverty line? Didn’t the preconditions for Chavez’s election – and his rule – exist when the opposition was in power, and don’t they now express regret for failing to address those conditions years before?

The Sumate leadership worried that some U.S. policymakers are concerned with the wrong things; they are treating threats to civil society by Chavez as “internal matters” of concern. They said they were predominantly focused, not on the economy but on reforming the Venezuelan political system. But they confessed, ‘mistakes were made.’

The delegation concluded the meeting by expressing genuine concern about the upcoming trial and its hope that the Bush administration would be monitoring the judicial proceedings actively.


Finally, the delegation did have a chance to visit with senior Foreign Service Officers at the United States Embassy in Venezuela today. We received a professional briefing from the embassy staff, and got a spirited defense of Bush Administration policy toward Venezuela and a strong critique by our government of the problems they see in Hugo Chavez’s rule. The meeting was conducted on an off-the-record basis.

The delegation continues its work tomorrow. And we’ll file another before the sun goes down somewhere in the USA. Until then, that’s Caracas Connect connecting from Caracas.


Anonymous esandoval said...

Wow--you met with Maria Corina Machado! Did you get to ask her about the events in 2002? This "democracy advocate" was actually in the palace during the coup,and when she was asked about it afterwards, she claimed she was there to have tea with the wife of Pedro Carmona (the 2 day dictator).

I would love to ask her what she thought at the time. Did she question how her friend made a new home at the palace? Did she wonder why her friend was living there? Did she enquire why the president may have moved out? Did she ask why there was so much violence going on outside?

Maria Corina Machado is not committed to democracy. Did you get to ask any questions about it?

January 12, 2006 11:22 PM

Anonymous ConsDemo said...

Esandoval, isn't the purpose of the trip to get a balanced view of events in Venezuela? Shouldn't the group talk to Sumate?

"Bob White asked pointedly about the voice of the opposition when it was in power, when Venezuela was a nation of great oil wealth, but the dispossessed in the country were left out of the economic system..."

This isn't quite true. There was a good deal of populism in the 1970s. It ultimately crashed during the oil price bust of the 1980s and 1990s. Venezuela is still very much a "one-crop" economy at the moment. If there is another oil price crash, the current government will face the same dilemas faced by the AD and COPEI governments of the past.

January 15, 2006 5:15 PM


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