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As the car drives away from downtown Caracas through the highway that goes to the city of La Guaira, the landscape changes rapidly. Just minutes ago we could see a large amount of buildings and advertising outdoors, but now what calls attention is the agglomeration of the humble buildings in Catia, in the capital metropolitan area. In the sea of brick houses, a red and white building stands out, looking brand new. “I moved in only 15 days ago”, says Suyin Morales, opening the elevator door.
“Welcome to the A4-03”, she says smiling after entering her apartment, one of the 40 in the building, which was built with money from Gran Misión Vivienda (Housing Mission), a government housing program launched in 2011. It’s a 70 square-meter space, with a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. “All the furniture was supplied by the authorities”, says Suyin, who was homeless before moving in there. “I lost everything I had in a flood, including my home. I had to go to a shelter with my husband, my daughters and grandchildren; there were eight of us in that hole”, she remembers.
They waited two long years to be called by the Ministry of Housing and Habitat. Suyin got her house, but according to government figures, there’s a housing shortage of more than 2.7 million houses. There are 3,742,226 registered householders – 73.6% of them need new homes. “It was the first time a government gave people houses for free. The poor didn’t get any help before” says Suyin.
According to government figures, UNECLAC (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) and other international organizations, from 1984 to 1995, the poor population in Venezuela rose from 36% to 66% and the number of people living in extreme poverty tripled: from 11% to 36%. Moreover, between 1981 and 1997, the income share of the poor population fell from 19.1% to 14.7% whereas the rich’s share went up from 21.8% to 32.8%.
In 1998, 70% of the population didn’t have access to health care or weren’t covered by any type of financial protection. The majority of teenagers were not in school anymore. The Bolivarian missions were created in this setting, in a context of deep social crisis.
Mariana Bruce, who has a masters in History from Fluminense Federal University, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, writes in her thesis about the Bolivarian missions, that these programs were structured “on the preoccupation of allying social reforms and the promotion of organized action amongst the underprivileged classes”. She thinks that, “this program goes beyond welfare programs; it was developed as one of the main instruments to be used for the construction of a new social and economic model”.
Financed by oil money, the Bolivarian missions were created in a moment of sharp political conflicts. The government was still traumatized by the coup d’état in April 2002 and by the lockout that too place in December of the same year, and profound social changes were taking too long and leaving Venezuelans unsatisfied. Trying to reorganize and to consolidate his government’s political constituency, President Hugo Chávez bet on the Bolivarian missions.
In a conversation with Fidel Castro, the Venezuelan leader asked for support. “I told him: ‘hey, I’ve got this idea, I want to attack from underneath with all the strength I can’. And he answered: ‘If there’s something I understand, that’s it, you can count on my support’. And then the doctors started arriving, hundreds of them, there were airplanes everywhere”, said Chávez, in November 2004.
The Bolivarian missions
The Mission Inside the Neighborhood (Missión Barrio Adentro), which came to life from the above-mentioned conversation between Chávez and Fidel, began the era of missions in Venezuela. But cooperation between Venezuela and Cuba dates back to 1999, when Cuban volunteers traveled to the country in a humanitarian assignment after ten Venezuelan states were affected by a natural disaster. The first Bolivarian mission was seeded.
At the beginning, the Cuban doctors were housed in family homes. When the project was expanded, nevertheless, small two-story houses were built inside the neediest locations of Venezuela. There, the Cubans would provide primary health services, such as exams and vaccination, in order to prevent the growth of diseases and ease hospital corridors.
Until last April 17, when the mission Barrio Adentro turned 9, over 500, 000 free medical consultations were provided, according to government figures. With the increase of the program, more than 8,000Venezuelan doctors graduated from UBV (Bolivarian University of Venezuela).
The Bolivarian missions also had a significant impact in education. Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) declared Venezuela officially an illiteracy-free territory in 2006, three years after the completion of mission Robinson, the program that taught 1.6 million Venezuelans to read and write. This mission was also supported by the Cuban government, which provided teachers, technology and the educational method itself, called “Yo sí, puedo” (Yes, I can).
Mission Robinson was followed by mission Robinson II, with the mission to extend the educational process, including students up to the 6th grade. In 2003, mission Ribas was launched, this time dedicated to high school Venezuelan students. The last one was mission Sucre, which ended the cycle giving access to university education, culminating with the creation of UBV.
More recently, the missions Greater Love and Sons of Venezuela – the first aimed at the elderly and the second, based on transfer payment, aimed at pregnant teenagers, poor children under 17 and discapacitated people of all ages. The government aims to help 1,500,543 Venezuelans that were never able to afford their social security payment in the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security (IVSS, in its Spanish initials). According to government figures, 216,492 seniors have already benefited from the program, receiving since that time the minimum wage (about US$ 390). 30,000 people who took part of the second mission are now receiving between 430 (US$ 100) and 600 (US$ 139) Venezuelan bolivars monthly.
The success of the Bolivarian missions is one of the foundations of President Hugo Chávez’s popularity. They’re so popular that the government’s opponents, who were once angry critics of the initiative, are now calling attention to the fact that the missions will continue if they win the elections. But they reject certain aspects of the Bolivarian missions. “The missions should be committed to social transformation, but they’ve become an instrument of the Chavist revolution, of socialism”, complains Leopoldo Lopez, former mayor of Chacao and member of the Popular Will party. “We need to administrate for all Venezuelans, including the richer, and not only for a segment of the population”.
The opposition chorus is reinforced by specialists. According toVenezuelan researchers Yolanda D'Elia and Luis Francisco Cabezas, from the Latin-American Institute of Social Research, “the Bolivarian missions are no longer a device to face political and economic adversities: they’ve become a device for political and social control used to carry on the purposes of the revolution”. In their opinion, this transformation is an obstacle to the development and to the institutionalization of the project, which is reflected in the quality and the quantity of the missions.
Where the opponents see a problem, however, the government sees progress. “The missions were a way of breaking a bureaucratic state mechanism, hierarchal and far from people”, says Aristobulo Istúriz, vice-president of the National Assembly and of United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) “It’s not about applying a social politic, it is also about helping people to organize themselves, and to turn their communities into a space of power and participation”.
Translation: Kelly Cristina Spinelli