José Luis Ramirez dropped out of school at age 13 and spent most of his life doing odd jobs. The father of six had little time to think beyond how to make ends meet.
But after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was elected and began a series of social programs called "missions," Mr. Ramirez's life changed. He joined a literacy program and later one on television training. Today, he's not only a TV producer, but trains others and sets up everything from street cleaning to fundraising dinners.
"I'm considered a community leader," says Ramirez, almost surprising himself.
Ramirez has come of age alongside the presidency of Mr. Chávez, and he is not alone. This week marks 10 years since Chávez was inaugurated. His decade in power has been a controversial one. To his harshest critics, he is squandering the nation's oil wealth, lavishing it on programs to boost his popularity and on allies abroad while crime and inflation remain rampant and unattended. To his supporters – and there are many – he's the first modern president to care about the poor and offer leadership in a region that has long been overshadowed by US foreign policy. Love him or hate him, many residents, analysts, and politicians say his most lasting legacy will be a sense of participation that has bloomed here – socially and politically – and that has been embraced on both ends of the political spectrum.
"In these 10 years, there is something that Hugo Chávez can take credit for, and that is the social question," says Teodoro Petkoff, a newspaper editor and leading Chávez critic. "The fight against poverty is now on the agenda of every sector."
A polarizing figure
When Chávez was elected in 1998, the national mood was one of exasperation: citizens, rich and poor, were sick of political leaders they considered corrupt and uncaring. But polarization, which has always been part of Venezuelan society, has only grown more intense under Chávez.
He dismisses his opponents as the "oligarchy," while his opposition gives him little credit, if any at all, for what he's done well.
Chávez's popularity has remained steady in the past decade, starting with massive support after a coup attempt in 2002. Later in 2006, he swept presidential elections.
His administration claims that today's Venezuela is democracy at work: they say of 14 various types of referenda and elections in 10 years, he or his party have won 12. But his critics claim it's all an attempt to consolidate power.
Venezuelans rose up in 2007 in protest against his decision not to renew a broadcasting license for a private television station critical of the government. Later that year, they claimed that a constitutional reform attempt, which included a measure to allow the indefinite reelection of heads of state, was another ploy.
In his 10 years in power, Chávez has also risen as the US's most uncensored critic: calling former President Bush everything from a donkey to the devil.
He has reached out to other US critics in an effort to create a "multipolar" world, sending subsidized oil and funding infrastructure projects across the region.
An actor on the world stage
Even his supporters have complained that as he presides over the world stage he is ignoring the day-to-day issues that affect most Venezuelans, like muggings and the price of milk.
Still, they say, he has done more for the poor than any president that many can remember.
Take El Valle, a hillside slum on the edge of Caracas, for example. Over the past few years it has bustled with social programs: Cuban doctors manning a health clinic, soup kitchens providing stew for the neediest residents, supermarkets with rice at subsidized prices. According to government figures, extreme poverty dropped from 16.9 to 7.9 percent between 2000 and 2007.
The opposition disputes these numbers, arguing that the government's methods for measuring poverty do not meet international standards.
Timoteo Zambrano, head of international relations for the opposition political party Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era), says that too many citizens featured in the government's figures work as independent street vendors or shoe shiners with no benefits or real security.
They also reject the notion that the missions solve poverty in the long term.
Although the health mission, called Barrio Adentro, for example, has brought free primary care to the poorest areas, many say state hospitals have been neglected and are in disarray – a situation that helps no one.
“That doesn’t generate a fight against inequality. All those missions and other types of social programs give them transitory means while those citizens form part of a political court that he represents,” says Mr. Zambrano. “And it doesn’t resolve the problem at its roots.”
Even though the opposition lambastes Chávez’s “21st-century socialism,” it has adopted his platform for the poor.
“The Chávez revolution has led some opposition sectors to engage their sense of social responsibility in actual projects of social, economic, and political empowerment rather than simply assume that inequality and marginality will be miraculously resolved by leaving people to their own devices,” says David Smilde, a sociologist and close observer of Venezuelan politics at the University of Georgia.
Transforming the lives of the poor
Indeed, few deny that literacy and education programs have had a transformative effect on people like Ramirez.
On a November day, as reporters fanned out across Caracas covering local elections, Ramirez sat behind television screens, editing the reports flowing in. This is only part of a day’s work for him, though. He spends the other portion training others in his neighborhood in television and leading a community council. “I always had a social conscience, I’ve always loved my neighborhood, but I couldn’t put it into use,” he says.
It is this kind of awareness that leaders say is here to stay. “A social consciousness has been created,” says Alberto Muller Rojas, vice president of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Chávez’s political party. “It’s improbable that we will regress to the way it was before,” he says, when the poor neither knew, nor asserted, their rights.
In city streets and office buildings across Caracas, pictures of revolutionary Che Guevara hang. “Yankee imperialists” is scribbled on the chalkboard at the Catia TVe station where Rodriguez works.
Critics of Chávez complain that among a burgeoning sense of participation, the only ones treated as participants, and rewarded with government support and contracts, are those who support his “revolution.”
Carlos Tablante, a former Chávez ally and ex-governor of the state of Argua, and now a member of Un Nuevo Tiempo, says he sees the missions and social programs as a “positive” step by the government but argues that they are too politicized.
Those who don’t tow the revolutionary line are excluded from the government’s benefits and even blacklisted, say opposition leaders. In 2004, politician Luis Tascón published a database on his website that included their national identity numbers, of more than 2.4 million Venezuelans who had signed a petition for a recall referendum against Chávez. Chávez ordered the list to be “buried” some months later, but many claim they continue to be persecuted as a result of appearing on the Tascón list. “This is a list of political segregation.
Those who are on it don’t have access to passports, national identity cards, or work in the public sector,” says Zambrano.
Most of the Chávez era of participation plays out in the “barrios,” the tough Caracas neighborhoods that comprise Chávez’s base. The government has also reached out to rural areas, especially through technology programs such as wireless access and community radio and television stations.
One such beneficiary is the tiny rural community of Rio Negro, in the state of Miranda, which the government connected to the Internet in 2007, thus sparking a sense a participatory zeal in the town. “We want things to happen here,” says Nayetty Delgado, a community activist. “If we don’t see results, we try to motivate people to participate.”
“We promote the sharing of knowledge as a tool to give society the opportunity to grow more quickly,” explains Carlos Figueira, the president of the National Center for Information Technology. “It’s from a solidarity perspective to reduce the digital divide so not only the privileged actors in society grow.”
Last year alone, they trained 454 communities in open-source software.
Sparking civic participation
“The Chávez period has been all about making people ‘participants’ in the nation,” says Mr. Smilde.
The clearest way to see what Smilde means is to look at civic participation.
In recent regional elections for more than 300 mayors and 22 governors, 65 percent of the population turned out to vote. It was a modern record. In regional elections in 1998, only 54 percent turned out, according to Venezuela’s National Electoral Commission.
Student movements have also risen, starting first to protect their freedom of expression as the RCTV television license battle waged on – a movement that reached its height in December 2007 upon the constitutional referendum vote. Students supportive of Chávez rose in parallel protest.
Part of growing participation comes from polarization and sheer anger, but the byproduct can be viewed as a positive one. “Before, no one participated in anything,” says Eva Golinger, an American writer in Venezuela who denounces US intervention in the country. “People are motivated and feel obligation to play a role in their country.”
After 10 years, it is only recently that Chávez’s grip on power has seemed to have loosened a bit.
The first blow came with the rejection of the 2007 constitutional referendum. Most recently, although his party won the majority of gubenatorial seats in local elections, they lost key races, including some in key areas of urban Caracas, losses that have emboldened the opposition.
Chavez for life?
On Feb. 15, Venezuelans will vote in another referendum, this one an amendment to the constitution that would abolish the limit on presidential terms, as well as those for other political offices.
Chávez says he needs more time to continue his revolution. “There’s still much to do,” he said in a recently released television ad. “I need more time. I need your vote.”
Some say that if he loses the referendum and his term ends in 2013, it will be the end of Chávismo, the name given to his social movement. But many say that the ideals that the movement has planted in society are here to stay.
“There is a major part of the population that is visible now that was once invisible,” says Ms. Golinger. “You can’t make people invisible again.”