The deep global recession of recent years has been used as a political excuse by our current Government in Britain, supported by large sections of the media, to ruthlessly and heartlessly drive through savage cuts to public services and welfare spending. Such pain, it is argued, is 100% necessary, and similar arguments can be heard globally from those again proposing the ‘solutions’ of neo-liberalism.
But the actions of many governments in Latin America of countries considerably poorer than ours - including Venezuela - show that a different choice can be made. They have instead chosen the path of building a fairer and more equal society through investing in people and public services. In the case of Venezuela this is despite the fact the economy has, primarily as a result of falling oil prices, faced recession for two years.
For those of us campaigning for social justice and against inequality and poverty, two key things stand out. Firstly, that poverty fell during both years of recession, and secondly that the government has protected – and in some areas even expanded – social spending, including on key areas such as health and education that I will look at below.
The charge sheet against the British Governments' record on education in less than a year is stark. Here, overall education expenditure is being cut by an average of 11%; some universities are facing an 80% cut in public funding and higher education students will now have to pay up to £9000 a year. The ladder for the poorest is also being kicked away - the Education Maintenance Allowance and ‘Aim Higher’ have been scrapped. Instead, the Government’s sentiment appears to be to ‘aim lower’.
In contrast, despite the recession Chavez’s government in Venezuela has continued to reach out to include the poorest in education, for example by providing free school meals and discounts on school supplies.
Indeed, in Venezuela today free education is now a constitutional right, illiteracy has been eradicated and support for the disadvantaged now institutionalised. This has included educational provision for adults without an educational background, indigenous communities, disabled people, and many others through social programmes known as ‘missions’, such as Mission Robinson and Mission Ribas which allow people who fell out of education to complete it at any age.
Additionally, the country now boasts 83% enrolment in HE, second only to Cuba, and the fifth highest in the world, with 600,000 HE students in 1998, compared to 2 million today
Improving Health and Nutrition
As part of my union role I have responsibility for our members working in the NHS and can easily see the contrast between Venezuela’s approach and that of the Government here where they have told the NHS to make £20billion in 'efficiency savings'. In truth these are simply cuts, and the NHS will experience real terms spending cuts over the next 3 years. At the same time the Health and Social Care Bill will create a profiteering market free-for-all, destroying our comprehensive, universal NHS.
As we fight against these cuts and privatisation, we can take inspiration from the Venezuelan advances in health, which include the provision- for the first time in the county’s history - of universal public health coverage. This has led to new community doctors in most neighbourhoods; a drop in the infant mortality rate from 19 per 1,000 live births in 1999 to 13.9 per 1,000 in 2008; and a 1.5 year increase in life expectancy in just 9 years (from 72.4 years in 2000 to 73.9 in 2009).
Alongside the amazing achievement of creating a national health service, the food and nutritional intake of Venezuelans has vastly improved, meaning the most important human right – the right to life – is being respected more than ever.
The government’s support for people’s right to food is another inspiring example of putting people’s needs ahead of those of private profit. State-subsidised food networks and stores across the country have been developed and since 1999, agricultural production has surged by 44 percent in the country. This has dramatically improved the quantity and cost of food. The combination of these production efforts, with the subsidised food measures and initiatives such as free school and nursery meals, have meant that the average yearly calorie intake has increased by nearly 1 thousand kilocalories over the past 12 years.
This, combined with other health and social measures, has meant that Venezuelan children have grown taller, as well as now having longer life expectancy, 'From 1998 to 2009, there was an increase of 1.8 cm in the height of children aged 7 years. In contrast the increase in the 8 years preceding the Chavez-led government was only 8 mm; a remarkable change attributed to the huge increases in access to clean water, food and healthcare, and another example of how progressive choices can make a real difference to people’s lives.
Women at the Forefront
As women face the brunt of the cuts here, including in health, it is an inspiration to see women at the forefront of leading progressive change in Venezuela, supported by numerous specific social policies.
Banmujer, Venezuela’s Women’s Development Bank, for example, is the only state development bank of its kind in the world. Recently celebrating its 10th Anniversary it has helped more than 2.4 million women through offering low interest loans to set up small enterprises and co-operatives with nearly half a million jobs having been directly or indirectly created.
Other social programmes also focus specifically on women, such as ‘Mission Madres del Barrio’ which addresses the extreme poverty faced by women working in the home whilst caring for children. Since its launch in March 2006 over 225,000 women have received a basic wage from this programme.
Additionally, more than 300,000 children aged from 0 to 6 are now receiving high quality day-care, including meals and health checks, thanks to ‘Simoncito’ centres, whilst childcare faces cuts here which will force women to give up work.
Furthermore, Initiatives such as Banmujer and ‘Madres del Barrio’ are now run under the new 'Ministry for Women and Gender Equality', with such a revolutionary approach meaning that Venezuela has now achieved the most positive gender equality index in the region.
Of course, this social progress has many enemies across the world and in Venezuela, including those worried about ‘the threat of a good example.’ Despite massive popular support and a democratic mandate, as evidenced by winning14 out of 15 national votes, Venezuela’s government is still under constant attack from the former ruling elite who previously ran the country into the ground, and their allies on the hard right in the US who, following recent electoral gains, have regained confidence in calling for intervention and ‘regime change.’
Additionally, allies of the Venezuelan Opposition in the international media continue to propagate disinformation in an attempt to isolate the government internationally and prevent the truth about social progress from reaching a wider audience.
It is therefore vitally important in the run-up to 2012’s presidential elections in Venezuela that we continue to spread the truth about these enormous social gains and counter media misrepresentations. All who support social progress should show their solidarity by joining us in the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign and attending our major event on April 16.
Jennie Bremner is Unite Assistant General Secretary and is a speaker at ‘Defending the Majority, Not Punishing the Poorest' Conference on Saturday 16 April, which Red Pepper is supporting. You can register online at: www.venezuelasolidarity.co.uk