When presidential candidate Hugo Chávez won the elections in December 1998, a wave of optimism and hope swept through Venezuela, especially among its poor majority. Chávez’s triumph represented a fundamental change in the political life of one of the oldest democracies in Latin America. Chávez promised change and solutions for the country’s pressing problems, especially those related to poverty and inequality, and the country embraced his campaign platform.
After his election, a series of public referenda enabled him to change the constitutional order because half of the people wanted those changes, and the other half probably deserved them. Since 1978, the Venezuelan economy had stopped growing, falling into a prolonged recession in which boom periods became shorter and insufficient to set off strong declines in the national income. Social services deteriorated. By any measure, education and health stagnated. The social security system reached fewer people of retirement age with pensions. When actually paid, pensions did not cover even subsistence needs of retired workers.
The country entered a process of mass impoverishment; poverty indexes soared from less than 20% to more than 50% between 1979 and 1999. During those years, many Venezuelans were deprived of the social services they needed to be productive. More than half of Venezuela’s population found itself in a hopeless situation, unable to derive any benefit from economic growth. This ongoing social and economic crisis, more than twenty years old when Chávez was voted into office, necessarily resulted in political change. President Chávez’s merit was to capitalize on this discontent and convert it into an unprecedented new hope, never before achieved by any other political force.
Chávez’s election came about as an immense consequence of all the accumulated social problems. At the root of these problems was the loss of the Venezuelan elite’s sensitivity to poverty. In this environment, any criticism or questioning of failed social policy met with a hostile and anti-democratic response. Added to this mix was the fact that the country found it impossible to adapt the national economy to the global changes at the end of the last century. Definitively, prior political leadership’s indifference and weakened power, its recurrent wait for the recovery of oil prices to allow it to continue with past paternalistic practices, led to the sudden and eccentric political change that Chávez represented.
But after his first three years in power, a constitutional reform and hundreds of political confrontations with opposition groups and a thwarted coup d’état, Chávez faced the first decline in his popularity that posed a threat to his stay in power. A revocatory referendum could have forced him to leave the presidency. Within the context of a desperate effort to raise his popularity and that of his government, a series of social policy initiatives emerged that many analysts— and the president himself—admit were a major factor in recovering his popularity and clearly winning the mid-term revocatory referendum in 2004.
Since then, the social programs of President Hugo Chávez, which he dubs “Social Missions,” became the government’s main banner for appearing before the world as a true political revolution with high social content that seeks to transform the living conditions of the poor. Each time government spokespersons, or those of the various international groups that support the Venezuelan government, want to highlight its achievements, they immediately refer to the missions. The missions were incorporated into Chávez’ package of constitutional social rights as a way of garnering support for his 2007 proposed constitutional reform. Although voters rejected the reform, many of the president’s supporters invoked the missions in favor of that reform.
What is special about the social missions? What is their novelty, impact or relevance? Are they really a revolution in social policy?
Several studies and hundreds of journalistic and anecdotal reports have tried to answer these and other questions related to the social programs of the government of Hugo Chávez. But all have encountered the same problem: there is not sufficient reliable information or the follow-up and evaluation systems usually incorporated into the design for executing social programs, to be able to form a definitive opinion about the missions.
The restrictions for evaluating this important component of official social policy chain has imbued the missions with a certain air of mystery that, whether intentionally or not, leaves space for speculation and for jumping to conclusions. In the context of a country with highly polarized public debate, the missions end up being perceived as either saintly or evil with no in-between.
Nevertheless, after five years of missions, some empirical evidence—while not tremendously rigorous—exists to evaluate these programs and to answer some of the questions surrounding them.
One has to take into account that the missions did not spring out of thin air and indeed were not invented by the revolution. As shown by the works of Yolanda D’Elia, Luis Cabezas and Tanhalí Petrullo, each of the major missions (in terms of resources allocated and population covered) has an institutional precedent in governments prior to Chavism. Social programs such as food supplies to poor zones were implemented based on the experience of the government of Rafael Caldera (1993-1998), who created wholesale supply centers of basic goods for retail merchants located in poor areas, thus eliminating the long chain of middlemen that drive up prices for poor people. Likewise, the Barrio Adentro program, as a system of primary health attention, is an initiative nurtured by the experience of the medical attention provided by the Cuban Medical Brigades that acted during the natural disaster in the state of Vargas in 1999, as well as several models of ambulatory attention provided by the Ministry of Health and Social Assistance under previous governments.
What is really different— and indeed this is one of the merits of the Social Missions— is to have identified the main social attention deficits that accrued for years in the country, broadly documented by the Venezuelan academy, and to establish a specific mass government action for each of these deficits. The actions put a premium on mass communication of these programs’ relatively easy access for interested persons. Thus, a poor person does not encounter the “hindrances” of meeting eligibility criteria imposed by technicians and planners of social programs.
The formula for social missions was a simple one. The Education Missions (Robinson, Rivas and Sucre) were designed for those who had dropped out of or failed to enter the school system; the Barrio Adentro Mission was created to solve the problems of medical attention in marginalized neighborhoods; the various forms of popular markets (Mercal I and II, Mercalitos, Megamercal) were created to alleviate difficulties in purchasing food in poor areas; programs for job training and placement (Vuelvan Caras, today Che Guevara) were set up to help unskilled youths and adults enter the job market; a housing construction program (Misión Habitat) was established to solve housing and urban settlement problems. More recent programs have included those designed to assist the homeless population (Negra Hipólita); dental and eye-care services (Misión Sonrisa and Misión Milagro) and programs serving the indigenous population (Guaicaipuro) and the mining communities of the State of Amazonas (Misión Piar). In total, there are now about 28 social missions, and the number is likely to grow as more needy segments of the population and ways of providing services are identified, together with the need to keep on making announcements emphasizing the government’s social vocation.
As we mentioned before, the most successful aspect of the missions has been their ability to announce programs that grow gradually and bit by bit, but are nevertheless very concrete, and apparently massive and accessible to those in need of their services, with no other formality than being registered in the list of beneficiaries. Each announcement identified a specific need and sowed the hope of solving the problems of poor people through government actions, whether it be enrollment in night school, the opening of a walk-in medical clinic in marginal neighborhoods, the inauguration of a market or the granting of a scholarship. The media and propaganda success is followed by the question of whether such hopes have been satisfied. It is an undeniable fact that the sowing of new hope had borne political fruits, as planned, after the elections of 2004 and 2006.
Available research identifies several types of problems or limitations of the missions to meet planned expectations. First, and from a design standpoint, the missions seem inarticulate, that is, they fragment social problems into so many areas that they disregard their multiple causes and, therefore, never solve them. The education missions, specifically those for people who did not finish middle school, provide an example of the inefficacy of this splintered approach. Mision Rivas tries to solve one of the country’s crucial social problems. In general, Venezuelans have a low educational level, an average of eight years of schooling among people over twenty years old. Regardless of whether the social program raises the training level of those excluded from the system, it clearly does nothing to solve the source of the exclusion; that is, it does not solve the lack of openings in the middle school system, the lack of teaching support, the adjustment of the study curriculum to job training and placement needs of youths coming from low-income homes, reducing the opportunity costs of hiring youths, decreasing drug and violence problems in schools, among many other factors that cause the social exclusion of those who will become the target population of this mission. In this case, the mission operates as a vessel that gathers the drops of a leaking pipeline of the school system; the vessel will either have to be larger each time or will simply overflow. The existence of the mission (the vessel in the example) is merely the evidence of a social problem that has not been solved structurally.
But the problem—and this is the second type of evidence that we have—is that the missions are not so massive nor they do not benefit as many people as announced at their inception. A program such as Barrio Adentro set a goal of 8,300 modules by 2005. By July that year, only 600 had been built with an announced goal of 2,100 by the end of the year, a figure much lower than originally planned. The same may be said about the 151 popular clinics slated for 2004; only seven of these clinics were actually inaugurated; as of 2006, only five of 33 public hospitals slated for refurbishing actually had experienced renovations. Plans for 15 new hospitals announced in 2007 have not yet become reality. Poor people have been promised 24-hour primary medical attention, and yet, in truth, they can receive attention at the clinics barely four hours per day for simplified medical visits, which is far from being a full network for primary attention. (Yolanda D’Elia and Luis Cabezas, Las Misiones Sociales en Venezuela, Instituto Latinoamericano de Investigaciones Sociales –ILDIS-, Caracas, 2008)
The missions are not as massive as promised, thus creating a disparity between the announcements or promises for coverage and actual fulfilment—a potential, and probably already real, source of frustration. Coverage, as measured through surveys, reflects a reduction in the number of beneficiaries, highlighting the case of popular food supply (Mercal). The number of consumers making purchases ar a Mercal declinedfrom 53.5% in 2006 to 46% in 2007. People who said they received attention in a Barrio Adentro program decreased from 30% in 2004 to 22% in 2007. High-school students participating in Misión Ribas fell from 6.1% to 4.6% during the last year. (Datanalisis, Encuesta Ómnibus, several years)
A third type of evidence of whether the social missions have been successful or not tries to link those programs to the variations in the gross indexes for social and economic development. The works of Francisco Rodríguez, Leonardo Vera, Marino González and the Poverty Study Project (“Proyecto de Estudio sobre la Pobreza”) of Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, have determined almost no correlation between these programs and major improvements in social indexes to be expected if the missions really had an impact. After five years of missions, social indexes have not demonstrated any significant variation. The illiteracy rate has not been reduced (one of the lies frequently repeated by official propaganda and easily proven to be false by the government’s own literacy figures). Only tendential decline has been registered in infant and maternal mortality. The same holds for increase in life expectancy and improvements in the average numbers of years of schooling. The nature and structure of employment, the housing deficit and the lack of adequate urban housing have not budged. The latter is responsible for more than 70% of protests and community actions (UCAB, 2da Encuesta sobre la pobreza en Venezuela, Caracas, 2007).
Over and over again, the government tries to attribute the responsibility for reducing poverty to the missions and their social policy.. The truth is that changes in poverty measurements are due almost exclusively to an increase in the consumption of households as a result of an expansive economic policy, funded with the increase in oil revenues over the last four years.
The poverty figures measured from the household’s income indicate that from 1999 to 2007, the percentage of people in this status dropped from 53.3% to 37.7%. But, from a more structural standpoint, that is, including other features of households, such as unemployment, school attendance and the economic dependency in households, the reduction has been more modest, from 29.3% of poor households to 23.3% for the same period (UCAB, Cálculos propios en base a la Encuesta de Hogares por Muestreo del Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Caracas, several years).
The decrease in poverty may be due to the economic growth of the last five years, which had not occurred in the last 25 years. However, according to a study comparing the ratio between economic growth and reduction of poverty conducted by Francisco Rodríguez, this decrease is very modest and with few results. In these five years, poverty has been reduced by an average of 1.67 per each point in economic growth, while in other economies this ratio averages from 2 to 3.12. (Francisco Rodriguez, An Empty Revolution: The Unfulfilled Promises of Hugo Chavez, in Foreign Affairs, 3-4, 2008)
This is not the first time that poverty has decreased in Venezuela as a result of the economic expansion because of an increase in oil revenues. The difference now is that there has not been such a high increase in oil prices since the energy crisis of the 1960s, and never for such an extended period time.
If, measured with the scant information available, the missions have not had significant social impact, the next question is why, if this is so, has the government’s popularity and support not been drastically reduced. An easy way to answer this is that probably in fact a decrease in popularity has already taken place. The electoral defeat of the proposal for constitutional reform last December 2, 2007, and the estimated results of the regional elections in favor of the opposition’s candidates next month (November) are indications of this fact. But there is something more profound, although also more intangible, that should be taken into account for the future design of social policies in Venezuela.
We refer to the sense of belonging and identification that took place between the expectations set by the announcements of the Missions and the social status of the popular sectors. This affinity should be maintained or rescued, as the case may be, for what should be the future design of Venezuela’s social policy. But this time, improving the levels of efficiency in order to keep the promises, and not as at present, defrauding the hope of the people and turning the missions into an immense disappointment or a mere trick for winning elections.
Luis Pedro España N. is a sociologist with an Msc in Political Science. He is Director of the Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales of Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, Caracas Venezuela. Professor of Social Policies and Programs, and Coordinator of the Poverty Study Project for the Asociación Civil para la Promoción de Estudios Sociales.