This will be part one of a series of short essays/long blog entries introducing the work and the context of the various 'misiones bolivarianas' that are at the center of the Bolivarian Revolution. The entries are still in a fairly rough form, and most of the numbers are from official sources (which have proven to be most accessible), so I have yet to cross check things. The gist of what this project entails is an analysis of two central claims levied against Chávez and the Bolivarians. The first is the notion that the misiones represent little more than populist excess and are hence unsustainable. The second is that the Bolivarian Revolution is a purely top-down affair, without significant or authentic popular participation or benefit. in the process of this discussion, I will also outline and examine some of the challenges the misiones pose to the way we understand the state and revolutionary transformation.
Venezuela is covered by 50 million hectares of forest land, a figure which represents 56% of the national territory, 5.6% of forestland in South America, and 1.3% of the world’s forest coverage. Of that number, official estimates put losses of forestland due to human intervention at approximately 140,000 hectares (0.3%) annually. Reforestation attempts to this point have only been able to replant approximately 15,000 hectares annually. In its one and a half year lifespan, Misión Árbol boasts the formation of 1,902 Conservation Committees, with 1,327 community and educational and 46 institutional nurseries either built or in development. All told, over twenty-six and a half millions plants have been seeded, with nearly 4.3 million planted.
Since June 2006 Misión Árbol (Mission Tree) has sought to reverse the ecological trend towards deforestation and industrial/urbanization which holds true in Venezuela as much as it does throughout the region. According to its mission statement, this misión of national scope’s goal is to replace the model of capitalist development which “encourages the exploitation of natural resources in an indiscriminate manner, bringing about their progressive deterioration and impoverishment.” The impetus for the project is thus rooted in an understanding of the political and economic context it seeks to transform in order to bring about, “in the ecological sphere[,] participatory and protagonistic democracy.”
This phrase is repeated throughout the mission statements of the various Misiones Bolivarianas, and references the desire of the revolution not simply to make all the positive initiatives a reality – according to the historical pattern of rentier-state populism(s), that can be done by throwing enough money at a problem, which ultimately results in their moral and fiscal bankruptcy – but to address the socio-political factors underlying the problems. In the example of Misión Árbol, to simply plant trees in the Llanos or Gran Sábana of Venezuela would only provide the fodder for future clear cuts. The logic of the revolution in this particular project is thus not only to plant trees and tell people that cutting them down is ‘bad’ but rather to bring about a new model of human social interaction with their natural environment. Thus the project explicitly states that it aims for the projects to be carried out neither by private nor state companies, but rather by the effected organized communities themselves. That is to say, the Bolivarian strand of Misión Árbol emphasizes the need for the communities themselves to develop new forms of stewardship and resource extraction more amenable to needs of the nation as a whole.
Thus, as in most of the misiones, the central axis of the project is the communal council, which has direct access to state funds and determines the distribution thereof according to the collective decision of the community.
Misión Barrio Adentro
Barrio Adentro is one of the most famous, and infamous, of the missions. It brings Cuban doctors (Cuba, it has long been said, exports doctors much the same way as the United States exports lawyers and wars) to parts of Venezuela which have never had access to affordable or proximate health care. The misión itself came about mid-2003, and has been comprised since then of various stages including the construction of clinics, provision of equipment, diversification of care available and expansion of the network of ‘modules’ or care centers throughout the country. In just one year, the misión was able to increase access to healthcare such that there is now one doctor for every 250 families or for every 1,200 persons. In four years, the misión has built 1,612 modulos with 4,618 under construction throughout the country to augment 4,800 pre-existing public ambulatory clinics.
The program continues to expand, with new iterations of the original Misión paying ever more attention to preventative medicine and whole-community health programs. It has also spurred on the formation of new but related misiones, such as Misión Milagro. Milagro was initiated in June 2004 with a specific focus on eye care and the stated goal of spreading its reach beyond Venezuela.
Perhaps more important than ‘cold statistics’ is that under the new system care is increasingly universalized – i.e. under the fourth republic, there might have been 500 doctors per person, but these numbers reflect the disproportionate amount of cosmetic surgeons, private clinicians, and hyper-specialists that by and large only served the richest members of Venezuelan society.
This previous reality is perhaps reflected most clearly in one of the biggest controversies surrounding Barrio Adentro: the fact that it utilizes Cuban – rather than Venezuelan – doctors. According to those Venezuelan doctors who have taken part in Barrio Adentro as organizers, planners, bureaucrats or practitioners, Cuban doctors were necessary precisely because the vast majority of Venezuelan doctors refused to take part in the program, even though the program initially sought them. The reasons, of course, vary. On the one hand, many refused to work for the proposed salary, given the fact that they could often make tens of times as much working in private clinics. There was also the fact that Barrio Adentro would take these doctors to parts of Venezuela that many of them had actively tried to avoid for the entirety of their lives – out of fear for their safety, racism, classism or – as is often the case – a mixture of the three. Finally, and not inconsequentially, given the fact that Barrio Adentro called for general family doctors, the hyper-specialization of doctors made them ill-qualified to deal with the quotidian – though by no means benign problems associated with poverty.
Cuban doctors continue to make up the vast majority of medical service providers in Barrio Adentro – and, anecdotally, Barrio Adentro modulos are still all but universally referred to here as ‘mis medicos cubanos.’ However, the government is trying to produce socially-minded domestic doctors to meet the needs of the country. Newly built medical schools are currently training over 17,000 Venezuelan doctors and a postgraduate residency program is training around 3,000 doctors in community medicine.
Aside from the care it provides on a daily basis to Venezuelans of all social classes, Barrio Adentro is also one of the best examples of how political discourse has shifted during the Bolivarian Revolution. At the outset of Barrio Adentro and its predecessors in the Plan Bolívar 2000, opposition parties attacked Chávez for attempting to turn the country into ‘another Cuba’ and questioned both means and ends of his massive social spending programs. Seven years later, the same parties which attacked Chavista ‘populist-communist-authoritarianism’ have shifted gears and now propose their own more conventionally recognizable as ‘populist’ programs in their pursuit to convince the majority of Venezuelans that managed neoliberalism is a better path than 21st Century Bolivarian Socialism.
Two examples of this opposition tactic illuminate the profound impact of Barrio Adentro. First, Manuel Rosales, former presidential candidate, governor of Zulia (Venezuela’s richest state) and founder of the anti-Chavista ‘centrist’ party Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) basically ran in 2006 on the platform of out-Chávez-ing Chávez. That is, he campaigned on keeping many of the social programs that have made Chávez so popular but to calm the antagonisms produced by the Bolivarians in foreign policy and domestic class relations while slipping extreme neo-liberal policies in through the back door of populist programs.Emblematic of this was his proposed ‘mi negra’ plan, in which all Venezuelans would receive a debit account in which monthly percentages of the nation’s oil revenues would be deposited. (I will not go into the overt racism flowing through the campaign. For the moment, I will only note that very few people were fooled by Rosales' insistance that the double entendre was clever and not offensive DID NOT go over well, as evidenced by his being trounced in the polls). The logic was that Chávez was being fiscally irresponsible in his deployment of oil money into public works projects and foreign aid. Much better, according to the ostensible un-populist opposition bloc which Rosales headed, was to give direct cash handouts to the people. The proposal of course fell apart with the opposition attempt for the presidency, but it should be noted that their attempts to pull away some of Chávez's base of support by "out-Chávezing-Chávez" via an über-populist ploy failed precisely because of their failure to adequately diagnose Chávez and the dialectic that exists between Chávez and 'the people.' Indeed, the opposition's approach in 'mi negra' -- emphasizing self interest, egoism and market logic while attempting to hijack key Chavista issues like the fight against corruption and bureaucracy -- failed not only to properly diagnose Chávez and 'the people' but also the very nature of the so-called 'populism' it tried to mold to its own purposes.
A second example is Primero Justicia’s (PJ) current “Casas de Justicia para Todos” project (hereafter, Casas). The Casas are almost exact copies of the Bolivarian Misión Barrio Adentro, offering medical services, legal assistance and haircuts. PJ’s latest (early August, 2007) public relations campaigns continue to focus on Chávez’s ostensible misappropriation of oil wealth as a foreign policy tool but have increasingly centered on two other recent campaigsn. First, their ‘Misión Vida’ criticizes the government for its failure to resolve endemic insecurity and some of the highest murder rates on the continent. Second, they – along a few Chavista parties and every other opposition party – are highly antagonistic to upcoming constitutional reforms proposed by Chávez which are reported to include the potential for perpetual presidential re-election, the redrawing of Venezuela’s jurisdictional map and the incorporation of the misiones’ mandate into the ‘hard’ constitutional code.
The opposition analysis here attempts to paint Chávez’s apparent current priorities – Anti-Imperialist foreign policy, constitutional reform and the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) – as distanced from the ‘bread and butter issues’ most directly important to the people of Venezuela. Of course, it is important to note that these critiques tend to disproportionately place emphasis on Chávez the man rather than the processes of the Bolivarian Revolution. Indeed, this choice illuminates a profound miscalculation on the part of the Venezuelan opposition. They try to present themselves as being ‘with the people’ whereas by and large ‘the people’ see Chávez as ‘one of us,’ and opposition politicos as a bunch of rich assholes. Thus, while in the specific instance of PJ’s Casas, it is apparent that the opposition has to a certain extent acknowledged that it cannot make a serious, constitutional, challenge to the Bolivarian Revolution without maintaining the façade of the social programs which have made it so popular here and inspiring around the world. However, their calculations seem to be based on the assumption that the appeal of the Bolivarian Revolution is rooted in nothing more than fickle and trite self-interest.
Time will tell.
Regardless, the obvious redundancy of Casas and the contradictions of managed neoliberalism put opposition parties like UNT and PJ at an inherent disadvantage when they enter this terrain. Whether or not they can actually ever ‘out-Chávez-Chávez’ is less important historically and politically than the fact that they have been forced by the momentum of the times to enter that terrain to begin with and what that means for the future of the Revolution in Venezuela.