By John Otis
Hugo Chavez was first elected president of Venezuela in 1998. He came to power vowing to use the country's oil wealth to improve the lives of its poorest citizens. By some accounts, he is delivering. Living standards are improving in Venezuela.
But the president's critics say Chavez is falling short of his own rhetoric. Given the country's vast oil wealth, they claim Venezuela ought to be in much better shape.
One focus of the Chavez government is education. To improve computer literacy, the government is giving away nearly 2 million laptops to primary school students.
"We are preparing kids for the challenges of new technologies," said Venezuela's Education Minister Maryann Hanson. Free computers are part of a broader government campaign to make education more accessible. And it's working. Enrollment at primary schools has jumped 50 percent over the past decade. University attendance has tripled.
In fact, government statistics on health, education and economic development point to a substantial, if not great, leap forward. All this comes after Venezuela registered one of the world's worst economic declines between 1970 and 1998, the year Chavez was elected.
Under Chavez, unemployment and poverty have been cut by half. Infant mortality is falling. New clinics and hospitals are going up.
But for all the positive data, Venezuela is rarely held up as a model for development, largely because Chavez himself is so controversial.
Critics view Chavez as a populist demagogue. They dismiss his social welfare programs as cynical maneuvers to win over the masses and remain in power. They also claim that soaring street crime, frequent power outages and the highest rate of inflation in Latin America have wiped out some of the gains.
Luis Pedro EspaÃ±a, a development expert at Catholic University in Caracas, said Chavez has simply lucked out by presiding over Venezuela's first oil boom in 30 years and record high petroleum prices.
"Without all the oil income, living standards would be much different," EspaÃ±a said. "We Venezuelans have to admit that this has been like winning the lottery."
EspaÃ±a called the changes under Chavez more superficial rather than structural.
For example, the jobless rate has dropped partly because the government has nearly doubled the number of state workers. Doctors and nurses have been stationed in poor barrios to serve as first responders. But those who need major surgery must often rely on rundown public hospitals that lack medicine and equipment.
At a government store that sells subsidized food, orthodontist Rosalva Mogollon said her office at a nearby public hospital lacks an air compressor. Mogollon said she can't treat her patients, so she's out buying groceries.
Not far from the grocery store sits a community center where the government's largesse includes a large dose of political ideology. At the center, people get medical checkups and attend workshops on how to defend the Chavez revolution.
Still, deeply flawed government is nothing new for Venezuela, where several recent presidents have been vilified for corruption and mishandling the economy. What is new is that Chavez has made the needs of the poor a high-profile and lasting priority.
As they prepare for presidential elections next year, even opposition politicians are now borrowing a page from the Chavez playbook, according to pollster Luis Vicente Leon.
"Everybody is supporting social programs because we realize that we need to help these people," he said. "I think this is the best thing that Chavez has done in Venezuela in these 12 years."
A school girl with a new government-issued computer. (Photo: John Otis)
At a workshop at a government community center, people learn about their rights enshrined in the Venezuelan Constitution. (Photo: John Otis)
Slum residents buy food at a government grocery that sells subsidized food. (Photo: John Otis)