There is no doubt that the reduction of poverty has been a transcendent human rights issue during the Chávez government’s thirteen-year administration. The government has consistently used a discourse that highlights poverty and champions those stigmatized by it. Symbolically, all of the government’s policies center on constructing a dignified life for those most in need.
Evidence suggests this is more than just discourse; many poor people have in fact benefited from the government’s policies. However, this does not mean the poor’s quality of life has improved in Venezuela. Many different factors, a few of which will be analyzed here, indicate that rising above the poverty line does not necessarily imply improved life conditions.
A good part of Venezuela’s poor today live in paradoxical circumstances—while some of their rights are respected, other social, civil, and political rights are violated. Another significant part of Venezuela’s poor continues to be just as excluded as they were thirteen years ago, experiencing a permanent violation of their human rights.
The following analysis of social indicators will rely essentially on official numbers, particularly those of the National Statistics Institute (INE). The Venezuelan government is very sensitive to criticism and tends to disqualify any work or opinion that does not mirror official discourse; as I use official statistics, the government cannot refute the numbers.
Progress in the Struggle against Poverty
When President Chávez came to power, millions of Venezuelan households lived in poverty. Today Venezuela still has millions of households living in poverty, but with an important difference: now there are fewer.
Consider family income. In 1998 Venezuela had 2,068,736 households living in conditions of poverty (the national reference for statistics is 5 persons per household). Of these, 803,476 households existed in conditions of extreme poverty, which means that their income was not enough to buy the “basic food basket” (la canasta básica: the group of basic food products used to calculate subsistence levels).
By 2011, 1,836,227 households were poor, and of those, 482,636 were living in extreme poverty. This means that 232,504 households have made it out of poverty.
But the number of households living in poverty is better understood if we consider how many people are subject to its conditions. In 1998 a total of 11,212,273 people were living under conditions of poverty, of which 4,523,392 people were in extreme poverty.
Given these conditions the discourse that presented Venezuela as a solid and exemplary democracy obscured the fact that it was, in reality, a highly undemocratic country. A solid democracy is not one that subjects millions of people to conditions of extreme poverty.
By 2011 the number of people living in conditions of poverty was 9,080,941, of which 2,450,621 lived in extreme poverty. This means that there is still an important democratic deficit, as thirteen years after Chávez came to power there are still millions of people that are excluded from decent life conditions. Of course, there are fewer people living in poverty than before, but what the government’s discourse and propaganda hides is that almost 30% of the country’s population is still poor.
For those who would like to see these numbers in relative terms, according to the National Statistics Institute, they can be summarized as follows: In 1998, 43.9% of the population was living in poverty, of which 17.1% lived in extreme poverty. By 2011, the population living in poverty was 26.7%, with 7% in extreme poverty.
This implies a very positive result: Poverty was reduced by 17.2% and extreme poverty by 10.1%.
Therefore we recognize in this analysis that the government discourse on poverty has gone beyond mere words, resulting in fewer people living in poverty today than thirteen years ago. But, there are still millions of people subject to conditions of poverty. Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Stagnation in the Struggle against Poverty
To be frank, the results of the struggle against poverty since 2007 are poor. Many social programs have collapsed and, as a result, poverty rates have increased. Let us look at this more closely.
For the second semester of 2007, the first year of the current presidential period, 1,804,628 households were in poverty. Four years later the number was 1,836,227, which means there was an increase of 31,599 households in poverty.
At the individual level we find that by the second semester of 2007 there were 8,972,790 persons in poverty. Four years later 9,080,941 persons were poor, which means that 108,151 persons slipped into poverty. In relative terms, in 2007 28.5% of the population was in poverty; four years later this number had decreased to 26.7%, a reduction of only 1.8%.
The government is unwilling to incorporate into its discourse this fact: Today there are more poor people than there were four years ago. Despite huge oil income, an increase in the number of misiones, and a permanent discourse about the government’s obligation to the poor, there has been an increase in those living in poverty since 2007. The government can perhaps justify the situation by appealing to the world economic crisis. But the stagnation in the fight against poverty started before the economic crisis began.
The fact remains that the pace of poverty reduction has slowed down. While in only two years, from the second semester of 2004 to the second semester of 2006, the government reduced poverty by 16.4%, in the following four years it was only able to reduce poverty by 1.8%.
The fundamental explanation here seems to be that the government showed the political will to face poverty and inequality when its political survival was at stake. The government faced important electoral scrutiny that imperiled its continuity. These electoral events were the recall referendum of the President in August 15, 2004, and the Presidential Elections of December 3, 2006.
The desire to guarantee its continuity in power motivated the development of a whole series of social programs and a considerable increase in social spending. In a short time it proved that great progress could be made in poverty reduction. But once these elections were over, political will faltered. The poor had already voted and the struggle against poverty was no longer important.
The paradoxical result is that while President Chávez declared on December 3rd, 2006 that he would move the country toward socialism, social justice and equality, the government has turned its back on the poor. We see this not only through the slight increase in the number of people in poverty, but also in the intensification of policies that attack the poor. For example, since 2006 there has been an increasing criminalization of social protest. Existing laws were reformed and new laws were instituted that established jail sentences for strikes, lockouts, and protests that closed public roads. More than 2,500 social activists have been subject to trials and many union leaders have been incarcerated. All of this has taken place under the slogan of the construction of socialism.
Less Poverty, but not Necessarily a Better Quality of Life
Since 1998 2 million people have moved out of poverty and 2 million more were raised out of extreme poverty. This is, without a doubt, a very positive achievement. However, this does not mean that everyone’s standard of living has improved considerably.
If people live better because they have better incomes, they must also navigate conditions that are far from adequate. The context in which they live is not encouraging. There are high levels of unemployment and insecurity; fewer public services (for example, transportation and electricity have deteriorated); the public health system is in crisis; there are high levels of inflation (27.6% for 2011 according to the Banco Central de Venezuela); thousands of young people are excluded from the educational system; and housing is of poor quality.
According to government data taken from documents from the Gran Misión a Toda Vida, the homicide rate in 2011 was 50 for every 100,000 inhabitants, and 85 out of every 100,000 inhabitants were injured due to violent crime. This is one of the highest homicide rates on the continent. Caracas, in particular, has become an extremely dangerous city; every day its inhabitants risk injury or death.
Since 2000 there has been a progressive increase in crime against persons: from 21.8% in 2000 to 26.6% in 2011. The government recognizes that the poor that are most affected by crime.
In the documents quoted above, the government states: “Despite the enormous advances in social inclusion, situations of exclusion persist and particularly affect young people from poor sectors. The unemployment rate by 2012 was at 8.6% (696,785 unemployed), but the rate for young people from 15 to 24 years of age stood at 18.4%. For the school year from 2009-2010, 7.4% of young people permanently abandoned their studies. 736,111 children between 13 and 17 years of age (26%) are still outside the education system. This is a reality that implies that many young people do not work or study.”
These factors negatively affect the quality of life of all those people that have made it out of poverty. Maybe today they have slightly better incomes, but they run a higher risk of being victims of crime, and those same incomes are seriously affected by high inflation.
These are the same people that cannot find adequate attention in the public health system and suffer from frequent electricity cuts. Thus, they often cannot even tune into the Presidential cadenas in which the poor are valorized.
The results of the housing program Gran Mision Vivienda Venezuela, launched in February 2011 as an answer to the serious housing deficit, exemplify the government’s neglect of one of the most important issues currently affecting people. While the number of housing units built within the past year has increased significantly, this comes after 13 years of neglect and under the pressure of the upcoming elections.
The real number of housing units constructed is significantly lower than that given by the government, but it is far above the mean of 30,000 units per year constructed in the previous years.
Progress in housing shows that when the government decides to confront a problem, significant progress can be made. But neglect and a lack of effective commitment to the poor unnecessarily delay the design and execution of adequate public policies.
Much remains to be done in the struggle against poverty. No matter the results of the 2012 Presidential election, the winner will have to place poverty reduction at the center of his policies. Democracy cannot be consolidated in a country where millions are excluded from the benefits of the country’s riches, have many of their human rights constrained, and continue to live in poverty.
Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz
Marino Alvarado is the General Coordinator of the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action in Human Rights (PROVEA).