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Venezuela: building a fairer society for all

4 January 2013

TSSA recently welcomed a delegation of Venezuelan trade unionists, hearing how their society in being transformed for the better – with investment in public transport a major priority.

Venezuela crowd

For decades, Venezuela’s oil wealth benefited only a few at the top of the country, but in recent years power and wealth have been redistributed for the benefit of the majority of its people. Whilst much of the world has been privatising their public services and attacking workers’ rights, Venezuela has been showing that another world is possible as they strive to build a ‘socialism for the 21st century’.

The Journal spoke with Jacobo Torres and Carlos Lopez when they visited TSSA’s Walkden House in December. Jacobo represents the Venezuelan equivalent of the TUC and is also on the executive of the ruling Socialist Party of Venezuelan (PSUV). Carlos is the President of the Federation of University Workers and also chaired the commission which drafted the country's new Labour Law, one of the most progressive of its kind in the world.

Journal: In Britain, ordinary working people are struggling with cuts to many of our basic services and have restricted rights at work. Venezuela seems to be on a very different course – how so?

Jacobo: Between 1989 and 1998 the neo- liberals dismantled large parts of our country. These past 14 years since we’ve
had a socialist government have been about recuperating our country and building democratic control over our main economic activities. Seeing what’s happening now in Europe, it looks exactly like what happened to us in the 90s. The most important thing is that we’re affirming that another world is possible – and that’s what we’re building in Venezuela.
We have a concept which goes against the way that social problems are being tackled in Europe or the US. We keep hearing that in order to save the economy, we have to reduce public expenditure, but instead in Venezuela we’ve enshrined education, healthcare and many other areas as fundamental human rights in our constitution, not as things which can be taken away.
Spending in these areas is not a ‘waste’ of expenditure, but a social investment in our people. For the past eight quarters our economy has been growing – all without sacrificing any of these rights, even in the depths of the crisis. Even when our national income dropped due to the slump in the oil price, we didn’t cut any of our social programmes.

Journal: In the recent election, Hugo Chavez was re-elected president with a 10 per cent lead over the opposition –
something that I’m sure Obama, with his one per cent margin was envious of. What impact will that have?

Jacobo: Chavez’s victory has given us huge hope. We are well on the path to transforming our society and the big majority allows us to further deepen the process of building socialism in Venezuela.

Carlos: Yes, Chavez’s victory gives us a good starting point. Those who wanted to take us back to subservience to the US economic model were defeated at the ballot box, so now we’ve six years of hard work to resolve the many problems we still have in society. We have to fight against corruption and bureaucracy like anywhere else, but the difference is, things are getting better for the majority of our society, not just those at the very top.

venezuela-delegation.jpg


Journal: Whilst it seems like the rights of workers in Europe and many other places are being driven back, workers in Venezuela have won new rights – how did that come about?

Carlos: The workers movement proposed a new law to Chavez. He agreed, but made it conditional on us building consent for any changes through a nationwide consultation process. Across the trade union movement we had 2,500 discussion meetings, which resulted in 19,000 submissions. In order to draft the law there was a commission including ministers, MPs, lawyers and judges, but also members of the trade unions, like myself.
We’ve now won or extended the rights of millions of Venezuelans, from job stability and protection from unfair dismissal to an increase in maternity leave and a guarantee that new mothers will have two years job stability when they return. The right to form unions and to collective bargaining have been extended, with fairer strike laws allowing for secondary action. Workers will now get a reserved seat in the management of state sector companies, workplace education is now a right and at least 15 per cent of profits in the private sector must be distributed to workers. Outsourcing has been banned, with companies given three years to bring services back in-house.

Caracas metro

Journal: Could you tell us more about the huge expansion going on in the Venezuelan railways and the social motivation behind this?

Carlos: Before the election of our socialist government, the railways were disregarded with everything going by road. Now there’s a very ambitious plan to connect the whole country through a ational rail network for the first time. We’re also investing in public transport more generally – metro systems, a proper bus network for the first time – all to ensure people rely less on their own cars. As an oil exporter, petrol is cheaper than water, but this leaves our cities permanently congested.
The new railways are really going to have a huge impact. In our mountainous urban areas, given the number of people who live in poor districts on the outskirts, we’re working to ensure they have cheap and easy access to the city centre through a network of cable cars. The first of these is already operating with several more this year. Compared to moving through tiny streets of shanty-towns and on to over-crowded roads, these can save people up to two hours on their daily commute.
On the metro and the railways, prices are controlled so ordinary workers have easy access. The majority of buses are still in private hands – small operators often just running a couple of vehicles on a single route. We have some control over the prices, but the service is really poor, unreliable and very polluting. We’re now working to substitute these with public buses which are bigger, more comfortable and reliable.

Journal: There’s also been huge changes to healthcare and education over the last few years, how do you see that process going forward?

Carlos: We’ve made a huge effort in education, right from primary level up to university. We’ve eradicated illiteracy with programmes for adults and pensioners as well as kids. All primary age children now receive a small laptop with educational software which they can take home with them.
We now have 2.5 million people enrolled in our universities – all studying without fees – compared to just 400,000 when Chavez came to power – that’s now the second highest in Latin America. Universities have also gone out beyond the normal four walls of their campuses and into the communities, teaching their subjects in a way that is adapted to the context of the communities in which they’re based.
Over the last decade we’ve constructed a public health service almost from scratch – infant mortality has dropped by a third, life expectancy is increasing and the country now has a network of over 13,000 small clinics serving a very local area.

Jacobo: This is what is possible when our resources are used to advance the lives of all citizens – not hoarded for the benefit oif a tiny minority.



Since this interview President Chavez has once again needed to seek urgent treatment for cancer. His condition remains precarious with his government, party and movement hopeful, but prepared should his condition worsen. Chavez has discussed the possibility of there needing to be a replacement president and has recommended Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
Under Venezuela’s ultra-democratic constitution, brought in under Chavez, an election would be held within 30 days of him no longer being President. With or without Chavez, the progress seen by the Venezuelan people looks set to continue.



To find out more about the social transformation of Venezuela or to get involved in supporting the process, visit the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign at www.venezuelasolidarity.co.uk.

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