President Obama is poised to sign a bill sanctioning Venezuela over alleged concern for human rights in that country. Thousands of Venezuelans have responded to this news by marching in protest of these sanctions. The facts demonstrate that the U.S. is not really concerned about human rights in Venezuela or the rest of Latin America for that matter. Rather, as the well-respected Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) recently opined:
Washington's selective indignation at human rights abuses in Venezuela and the continuing flow of U.S. foreign aid to rogue regimes in Mexico and Honduras, belie the real crime of the Bolivarian revolution: its rejection of the Washington consensus and its regional leadership in constructing a new consensus built on Latin American integration and independence, promotion of a multi-polar world, and valuing social rights over profits. It is arguably on behalf of the restoration of some form of the neoliberal regime, and not for its love of humanity, that Washington has played a destabilizing role in Venezuela since the election of Hugo Chávez as President in 1998.
A little background for readers living in the land of amnesia we like to call the U.S. may be in order to fully appreciate this conclusion. First, one should consider the precipitating event for the revolutionary change in Venezuela which led to the rise of Hugo Chavez. That event, which took place 25 years ago, was the Caracazo in which between 300 and 3000 civilians were murdered by Venezuelan security forces in response to a popular uprising against rising oil prices, long-standing social injustices and a lack of real democracy. Of course, the U.S. was unmoved by this repression as it was carried out by a government allied with the U.S. and its "free market" policies.
Hugo Chavez was ultimately elected in 1998 through the support of the working class and poor Venezuelans who had been victimized during the Caracazo, and Chavez moved quickly and quite effectively to address their desires for a better and more equitable society. Thus, according to the World Bank's most recent report, "Economic growth and the redistribution of resources associated with . . . [Venezuela's social] missions have led to an important decline in moderate poverty, from 50% in 1998 to approximately 30% in 2012. Likewise, inequality has decreased, reducing the Gini Index from 0.49 in 1998 to 0.39 in 2012, which is among the lowest in the region."
Furthermore, if we look at the UN's Human Development Index (HDI), which measures several key indicators of the health of a country's citizenry (e.g., life expectancy, income, education, equality), we see that Venezuela has experienced a steady growth in such indicators since Chavez took office, with a total HDI score of .677 in 2000, rising to .764 in 2013. See, Table 2 at p. 165. Venezuela is now ranked 67th in the world in terms of HDI, placing it above notable countries such as Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico and China.
In terms of life expectancy in particular, because of the right to health care guaranteed in the 1999 Constitution democratically approved under Chavez, life expectancy in Venezuela now ranks among the highest in the developing world: 72 years for men and 79 years for women. In addition, infant mortality declined from 22 per 1000 live births in 1998 to 14 per thousand live births in 2013.
As for education, since 1999, pre-school enrollment has gone from 43.4 to 70.7%, primary attendance from 85 to 92.2%, and secondary from 47.7 to 75.1%. In addition, higher education enrollment has increased from under 900,000 students in 2000 to almost 2.5 million by 2009, making Venezuela the country with the 5th highest university matriculation rate in the world according to UNESCO.
Meanwhile, while Chavez has received very little credit for it from the Western media, he greatly advanced the cause of democracy in Venezuela. Indeed, in the words of former President Jimmy Carter, "the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world" due to Chavez's efforts.
In short, Venezuela has made great strides in advancing the welfare of the Venezuelan people since Chavez came to power through the 1998 elections. But, as can be said of any country, it still has a way to go towards achieving its goals of a better society, including the goal of maintaining security forces -- which have historically been repressive (e.g., during the Caracazo) -- which show sufficient respect for human rights. But, even in this respect, the current government in Venezuela is making great advances. Again, COHA explained this well:
To be sure, with regard to abuses committed by Venezuelan security forces, there is warranted criticism. In response to such abuses and citizen calls for justice, President Nicolas Maduro has ordered a shakeup in the policing bodies of the country. A number of arrests have been made in connection with the investigation of several homicides and cases of physical abuse by the police and Bolivarian National Guard committed during and after the demonstrations of the first quarter of the year, and the chiefs of some of the major policing bodies have been replaced. Moreover, Maduro has set up a high-level commission under the direction of legislator Freddy Bernal, which includes citizen participation, to purge the various policing bodies of rogue elements, and revamp the police selection and training process.
In the end, it appears that it is Venezuela's gains themselves, made as they have been outside of the U.S.'s neoliberal confines, as well as its influence throughout Latin American and the Caribbean -- where, from Nicaragua to Brazil, countries have been following Venezuela's lead in trying to carve a path of development independent from the U.S. -- which most galls the United States. It is this "danger of a good example," as Noam Chomsky has often times opined, which the U.S. is trying to destroy in Venezuela.
Chuck Kaufman also contributed to this piece.