Inequality persists in Chavista Venezuela

A woman protests in front of a line of Bolivarian National Police during an opposition demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, June 7, 2016. AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos.

This article is part of the series "Persistent inequality: disputing the legacy of the pink tide in Latin America" produced in alliance with the Institute of Latin American Studies and at the Instituite of Sociology of the Freie Universität Berlin.

At a first glance, Venezuela stands
out in Latin America’s pink tide cycle and its struggle for reversing the
region’s staggering levels of inequality.

During the oil-fueled bonanza of the Hugo
Chavéz years (1999-2013), the government did what a leftist government running
on the promises of social justice and redistribution is supposed to do. It
managed to lift thousands if not millions Venezuelans out of poverty and reduce
income inequality, to the extent that Venezuela became the least unequal Latin
American country in 2010.

These reductions in poverty and inequality—whether
measures in terms of income distribution, average household income, calorie
consumption, or access to health and education—were real and had lasting political
impact, as powerfully indicated by Chavismo’s repeated electoral victories.

Obviously, Venezuela’s dramatic economic implosion
since 2015 has rapidly offset most of the improvements from the previous
decade.

Today, in a macroeconomic context of falling global oil prices, super-inflation
and declining imports of even the most basic goods, poverty is again rampant.
Ordinary Venezuelans confront hunger and empty supermarket shelves, and spend
their days in long lines queuing for access to subsidized staples such as
pasta, flour, and sugar.

Chavismo did not radically alter the distribution of assets and wealth in the country.

Hospitals report the dramatic increase of undernourished
babies and children, and half of the population has lost 11 kg or more in
weight. Venezuela’s crisis has also exacerbated inequality. The main divide now
runs between those who have access to petro-dollars and those who do not.

The
dollared classes still can pay the high black market prices for the things they
need and even benefit from the weak national currency, because locally provided
goods and services are cheap for them.

Yet, the current economic crisis is also a symptom of
the persistence of deeper, structural inequalities. This is because upon closer
scrutiny, Chavismo did not radically alter the distribution of assets and
wealth in the country.

Neither did the government transform the main
redistributive mechanisms available to address those issues. Venezuela
continues to suffer from a severe housing crisis. Even during the most
prosperous years of the 2000s, new housing developments stalled and affordable
quality housing was rare, forcing many citizens to construct homes on their
own, often on “unused land” with unclear property titles.

Public investment in
infrastructure, whether parks, public transportation, neighborhood centers, or
street lights, also remained low. Comparable patterns can be observed for health
care.

The government managed to institute the provision of free health care to
all Venezuelans, but the overreliance on Cuban medical professionals and
imported medical supplies made the public health system vulnerable and
ultimately unsustainable in the face of the recent economic crisis.

Why did Chavismo—equipped with a broad electoral
mandate, a clear redistributionist agenda and a favorable macroeconomic context—not
manage to reduce structural inequalities in Venezuela?

In answering this
question, two factors stand out: (a) the extreme political polarization between
two clearly demarcated power blocs, and (b) the institutional legacies
inherited from the previous regime. Chavismo has based its power on a broad but
diffuse coalition that includes popular sectors, pro-government community
groups, the military and some evangelical churches.

Chavéz also managed to
establish control over the main institutions of the central government and the
state oil company. The Chavista power bloc stands in sharp contrast to the
opposition. Fighting Chavismo tooth and nails, the opposition movement draws on
the support of the upper and upper-middle classes, agro-industry and finance,
the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and organized labor.

When Chavéz was elected in 1999, he encountered a reasonably functioning state apparatus rather than a vacuum of power. 

And when Chavéz was
elected in 1999, he encountered a reasonably functioning state apparatus rather
than a vacuum of power. Consequently, the Chavéz government had to consistently
adjust its projects to these already established institutional structures, and
the actors embedded in them.

Education illustrates this argument. Immediately after
Chavéz was elected in 1999, his government moved swiftly to introduce an
ambitious reform agenda. It increased the budget earmarked for schooling,
expanded the numbers of schools and teachers, and improved the training of the
latter, all with the aim of making public education more inclusive and
accessible to subordinate sectors.

Of particular importance for this initiative
were the so-called Escuelas Bolivarianas,
which were primarily set up in marginal neighborhoods and combined all-day
schooling, extracurricular activities and a free meal program.

Another
institutional innovation were the Misiones
Educativas
, which operated outside the traditional education system and
were designed to establish new opportunities for adults, ranging from
alphabetization to the completion of university degrees.

Yet, these educational reforms rapidly turned into one
of the main battle grounds between Chavismo and the opposition. Especially from
2005 onwards, Chavéz moved away from associating education with the reduction
of inequality and social exclusion.

The government instead began to see
schooling as the crucial site for promoting the principles of the “21st
Century Socialism” and inculcating students into the new Bolivarian
nationalism. The opposition responded immediately.

It used its privileged
access to and ideological control of Venezuela’s most prestigious public
universities and private mass media to lambast Chavéz for politicizing public
education and push back against any educational reform effort.

According to the
opposition, the new national curriculum was solely about brainwashing
Venezuelan children, while the Misiones Educativas were portrayed as a corrupt
political tool of low educational quality.

The Chavista reforms also confronted a
well-established educational apparatus with set routines. Most classroom
teachers were already trained under the previous ideological regime and even
teachers with political sympathies towards Chavéz saw the new Bolivarian
curriculum as a direct threat to their professional identity.

Teachers and
other educational officials could also draw on the necessary collective
organization (e.g., teacher unions) to effectively oppose the educational
reforms. As a consequence, an increasingly zealous government sought to ram
through the new curriculum without much consultation, while an equally zealous
opposition, in tandem with teachers from within the state, sought to maintain
the status quo.

Enrollment in private education facilities soared during the Chavéz years.

Not surprisingly, enrollment in private education facilities
soared during the Chavéz years, and a title obtained at one of the Misiones
Educativas lacked recognition in the labor market, ultimately contributing to
the persistence of inequality in education.

The
reproduction of deeper structural inequalities in areas such as wealth
accumulation, housing, health care and education also sheds light on another
Venezuelan particularity: Against the established theoretical wisdom, the
decrease in poverty and income inequality during the 2000s has not led to a
decline in violent crime.

To the contrary, homicide rates increased to
unprecedented levels under the watch of Chavéz. Persistent inequalities in the
distribution of assets and life chances have certainly contributed to this
outcome.

But also political polarization and institutional
legacies played an important role. The rise of Chavismo instigated a prolonged
conflict between the government and Venezuela’s main labor union, the
Conferderación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), over the control of
organized labor.

Moreover, Chavéz initially saw social policy as the most
feasible remedy against crime, leading to a steady deterioration in the quality
and professionalism of Venezuela’s police forces. And once police reform
emerged on the agenda in 2008, it fell—echoing the fate of the educational
reform—victim to the existing political polarization.

As convincingly argued by
sociologist David Smilde and his co-authors, Chavista supporters tended to embrace
any government initiative, regardless of the reform model proposed, while the
opposition rejected any reform effort out of principle. In addition, institutional
legacies privileged military over civilian police reform.

The military has been
one of the institutions with the highest level of esteem in Venezuela and
constitutes one of the crucial power resources for Chavéz and later his
successor Nicolás Maduro.  Not
surprisingly, the two Chavista leaders were generally more inclined to support
militarized police initiatives, such as heavily armed operations by the
National Guard against supposed drug traffickers, thereby further instigating
an escalation of violence.

Taken together, the examples of educational and police
reform in Chavista Venezuela illustrate the importance of taking power
relations seriously when exploring why governments during the pink tide have
been limited in their capacity to redistribute wealth and combat violence.

Specifically,
the extent of political polarization and the institutional remnants of the previous
regime need to be taken into account when seeking to understand the reasons
behind the persistence of structural inequalities and their repercussions in
Latin America.

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