Inequality persists in Chavista Venezuela

Why did Chavismo—equipped with a broad electoral mandate, a clear redistributionist agenda and a favorable macroeconomic context—not manage to reduce structural inequalities in Venezuela? Español

Matthias vom Hau
2 May 2018

A woman protests in front of a line of Bolivarian National Police during an opposition demonstration in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, June 7, 2016. AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos.

This article is part of the series "Persistent inequality: disputing the legacy of the pink tide in Latin America" produced in alliance with the Institute of Latin American Studies and at the Instituite of Sociology of the Freie Universität Berlin.

At a first glance, Venezuela stands out in Latin America’s pink tide cycle and its struggle for reversing the region’s staggering levels of inequality.

During the oil-fueled bonanza of the Hugo Chavéz years (1999-2013), the government did what a leftist government running on the promises of social justice and redistribution is supposed to do. It managed to lift thousands if not millions Venezuelans out of poverty and reduce income inequality, to the extent that Venezuela became the least unequal Latin American country in 2010.

These reductions in poverty and inequality—whether measures in terms of income distribution, average household income, calorie consumption, or access to health and education—were real and had lasting political impact, as powerfully indicated by Chavismo’s repeated electoral victories.

Obviously, Venezuela’s dramatic economic implosion since 2015 has rapidly offset most of the improvements from the previous decade.

Today, in a macroeconomic context of falling global oil prices, super-inflation and declining imports of even the most basic goods, poverty is again rampant. Ordinary Venezuelans confront hunger and empty supermarket shelves, and spend their days in long lines queuing for access to subsidized staples such as pasta, flour, and sugar.

Chavismo did not radically alter the distribution of assets and wealth in the country.

Hospitals report the dramatic increase of undernourished babies and children, and half of the population has lost 11 kg or more in weight. Venezuela’s crisis has also exacerbated inequality. The main divide now runs between those who have access to petro-dollars and those who do not.

The dollared classes still can pay the high black market prices for the things they need and even benefit from the weak national currency, because locally provided goods and services are cheap for them.

Yet, the current economic crisis is also a symptom of the persistence of deeper, structural inequalities. This is because upon closer scrutiny, Chavismo did not radically alter the distribution of assets and wealth in the country.

Neither did the government transform the main redistributive mechanisms available to address those issues. Venezuela continues to suffer from a severe housing crisis. Even during the most prosperous years of the 2000s, new housing developments stalled and affordable quality housing was rare, forcing many citizens to construct homes on their own, often on “unused land” with unclear property titles.

Public investment in infrastructure, whether parks, public transportation, neighborhood centers, or street lights, also remained low. Comparable patterns can be observed for health care.

The government managed to institute the provision of free health care to all Venezuelans, but the overreliance on Cuban medical professionals and imported medical supplies made the public health system vulnerable and ultimately unsustainable in the face of the recent economic crisis.

Why did Chavismo—equipped with a broad electoral mandate, a clear redistributionist agenda and a favorable macroeconomic context—not manage to reduce structural inequalities in Venezuela?

In answering this question, two factors stand out: (a) the extreme political polarization between two clearly demarcated power blocs, and (b) the institutional legacies inherited from the previous regime. Chavismo has based its power on a broad but diffuse coalition that includes popular sectors, pro-government community groups, the military and some evangelical churches.

Chavéz also managed to establish control over the main institutions of the central government and the state oil company. The Chavista power bloc stands in sharp contrast to the opposition. Fighting Chavismo tooth and nails, the opposition movement draws on the support of the upper and upper-middle classes, agro-industry and finance, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and organized labor.

When Chavéz was elected in 1999, he encountered a reasonably functioning state apparatus rather than a vacuum of power. 

And when Chavéz was elected in 1999, he encountered a reasonably functioning state apparatus rather than a vacuum of power. Consequently, the Chavéz government had to consistently adjust its projects to these already established institutional structures, and the actors embedded in them.

Education illustrates this argument. Immediately after Chavéz was elected in 1999, his government moved swiftly to introduce an ambitious reform agenda. It increased the budget earmarked for schooling, expanded the numbers of schools and teachers, and improved the training of the latter, all with the aim of making public education more inclusive and accessible to subordinate sectors.

Of particular importance for this initiative were the so-called Escuelas Bolivarianas, which were primarily set up in marginal neighborhoods and combined all-day schooling, extracurricular activities and a free meal program.

Another institutional innovation were the Misiones Educativas, which operated outside the traditional education system and were designed to establish new opportunities for adults, ranging from alphabetization to the completion of university degrees.

Yet, these educational reforms rapidly turned into one of the main battle grounds between Chavismo and the opposition. Especially from 2005 onwards, Chavéz moved away from associating education with the reduction of inequality and social exclusion.

The government instead began to see schooling as the crucial site for promoting the principles of the “21st Century Socialism” and inculcating students into the new Bolivarian nationalism. The opposition responded immediately.

It used its privileged access to and ideological control of Venezuela’s most prestigious public universities and private mass media to lambast Chavéz for politicizing public education and push back against any educational reform effort.

According to the opposition, the new national curriculum was solely about brainwashing Venezuelan children, while the Misiones Educativas were portrayed as a corrupt political tool of low educational quality.

The Chavista reforms also confronted a well-established educational apparatus with set routines. Most classroom teachers were already trained under the previous ideological regime and even teachers with political sympathies towards Chavéz saw the new Bolivarian curriculum as a direct threat to their professional identity.

Teachers and other educational officials could also draw on the necessary collective organization (e.g., teacher unions) to effectively oppose the educational reforms. As a consequence, an increasingly zealous government sought to ram through the new curriculum without much consultation, while an equally zealous opposition, in tandem with teachers from within the state, sought to maintain the status quo.

Enrollment in private education facilities soared during the Chavéz years.

Not surprisingly, enrollment in private education facilities soared during the Chavéz years, and a title obtained at one of the Misiones Educativas lacked recognition in the labor market, ultimately contributing to the persistence of inequality in education.

The reproduction of deeper structural inequalities in areas such as wealth accumulation, housing, health care and education also sheds light on another Venezuelan particularity: Against the established theoretical wisdom, the decrease in poverty and income inequality during the 2000s has not led to a decline in violent crime.

To the contrary, homicide rates increased to unprecedented levels under the watch of Chavéz. Persistent inequalities in the distribution of assets and life chances have certainly contributed to this outcome.

But also political polarization and institutional legacies played an important role. The rise of Chavismo instigated a prolonged conflict between the government and Venezuela’s main labor union, the Conferderación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), over the control of organized labor.

Moreover, Chavéz initially saw social policy as the most feasible remedy against crime, leading to a steady deterioration in the quality and professionalism of Venezuela’s police forces. And once police reform emerged on the agenda in 2008, it fell—echoing the fate of the educational reform—victim to the existing political polarization.

As convincingly argued by sociologist David Smilde and his co-authors, Chavista supporters tended to embrace any government initiative, regardless of the reform model proposed, while the opposition rejected any reform effort out of principle. In addition, institutional legacies privileged military over civilian police reform.

The military has been one of the institutions with the highest level of esteem in Venezuela and constitutes one of the crucial power resources for Chavéz and later his successor Nicolás Maduro.  Not surprisingly, the two Chavista leaders were generally more inclined to support militarized police initiatives, such as heavily armed operations by the National Guard against supposed drug traffickers, thereby further instigating an escalation of violence.

Taken together, the examples of educational and police reform in Chavista Venezuela illustrate the importance of taking power relations seriously when exploring why governments during the pink tide have been limited in their capacity to redistribute wealth and combat violence.

Specifically, the extent of political polarization and the institutional remnants of the previous regime need to be taken into account when seeking to understand the reasons behind the persistence of structural inequalities and their repercussions in Latin America.

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