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The Trial (And Errors) of Hugo Chávez (cont’d)

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In October 2005, Chávez announced that the program “Robinson Mission” had achieved its objective of teaching reading and writing skills to 1.5 million Venezuelans, thereby eliminating illiteracy in the nation. Some of the participants in the program, however, have only learned to sign their names. The “Ribas Mission” works with nearly 1 million Venezuelans, about 200,000 of whom receive stipends of about $100 a month. The program reaches out to the most excluded members of society, such as the indigenous, the disabled, delinquents and prisoners.

Videocassettes have been used in school classrooms in other countries but never on such a massive scale. Héctor Navarro, who has headed the Ribas Mission in the state of Bolívar over the last three years, explains the experimental nature of the program: “We wanted our facilitators to have a university education, but the vast majority are merely high school graduates. They learn as they go along. Training consists of problem-solving sessions among the facilitators with feedback from the school coordinator who typically has some university education.”

Many Mission university students fear schools and professional associations that object to the unconventional nature of the program will not recognize their degrees. To avoid discrimination, the government has reached agreements with the universities controlled by the Ministry of Education whereby they help supervise the missions and issue the diplomas in their own name. The nation’s larger universities, however, have refused to cooperate.

Members of the opposition claim that by lowering the quality of education, the Mission program is depreciating the value of existing degrees. According to them, rather than awarding grade school, high school and college degrees, the Missions should issue special diplomas to their students so as not to undermine the established educational system.

The need to assimilate errors

This combination of advances and missed opportunities characterizes not only social programs but all types of government activity. Chávez’s revolutionary rhetoric and actions have created great public expectations that in turn account for his resounding electoral successes. Yet his government faces a host of practical problems.

For instance, to its credit, the Chávez government has greatly expanded public transportation. Venezuela is one of the few countries in the world building out its rail system. In June, a trolleybus service was inaugurated in Mérida in the Andean mountains, making it the smallest city in Latin America to have such a system. Last year, subway systems began functioning in the cities of Valencia and Maracaibo, a new line was added to the metro in downtown Caracas, and two rail lines now connect that system with neighboring towns. The metro fare in Caracas is less than 25 cents and free for passengers over 60.

At the same time, oil-induced prosperity has exacerbated automobile traffic and its attendant problems. The first half of this year saw car sales increase by 52 percent over the same period last year; 65 percent of the purchases were imported vehicles. While Chávez has railed against SUVs, he has not placed a special tax on them or on cars in general. Indeed, the government has encouraged poor Venezuelans to purchase cars by exempting non-luxury from the value added tax.

But if Venezuela is to learn from the errors that are being committed on this untrodden path, discussion within the movement is essential. The private media is alive and well and continues to criticize the government, sometimes aggressively, notwithstanding the non-renewal of the TV channel “Radio Caracas.” Opposition criticism is no substitute, however, for constructive criticism from those who support the “revolutionary” project.

But during the eight-and-a-half years in power, the pro-Chávez parties have failed to establish internal mechanisms of discussion. Chávez’s recent creation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which he claims will be the most “democratic party in Venezuelan history,” is designed to overcome this shortcoming by holding internal elections and calling an ideological congress. With such considerable resources at its disposal, the government cannot expect to avoid mistakes, which in any case are inevitable in this trial-and-error road to change. Rather its main challenge is to figure out a way to encourage constructive debate in order to parlay frustrating experiences into new, effective programs.

Steve Ellner, who began teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela in 1977, is currently an adjunct professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University's. His latest book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chavez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner Publishers).

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