Page last updated at 00:13 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

A tale of two Venezuelas


Winners and losers of the Chavez regime

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas

The question of whether the past 10 years in Venezuela should be considered a success or a failure depends very much on one's political viewpoint.

One of the key difficulties is that in Venezuela, unlike some other political debates in Latin America, neither side is prepared to concede a point to their opponents.

Similarly, both sides claim to have compelling evidence to back up their arguments.

President Chavez delivers the state of the union address on 13 January
Mr Chavez wants to be able to run for re-election indefinitely
As such, the pursuit of independent information in Venezuela is fraught with difficulty.

So, on the 10th anniversary of the inauguration of President Hugo Chavez, the BBC has asked both the government and the opposition for their versions of the last decade.

From the government of Hugo Chavez, we wanted to know what had been the main achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution.

From one of the main opposition parties, Un Nuevo Tiempo, we asked for what they consider to be the biggest challenges or problems which have arisen since Mr Chavez came to power.

The results make interesting reading.

Two lists

The government underlines its achievements in terms of poverty reduction, eradicating illiteracy and in improving access to healthcare.

A shantytown in Caracas
The government says the number of people living in poverty has fallen

The opposition, meanwhile, has voiced concern mostly in terms of the economy.

Un Nuevo Tiempo claims that the main consequence of the period under Hugo Chavez has been what it calls a "destruction of the economic system" during the past 10 years, leading to inflation and unemployment.

Indeed, one of the opposition's key complaints is that Venezuela has the highest inflation in the Americas.

The government meanwhile, has defended its economic record, saying that "the Venezuelan economy has experienced 20 consecutive quarters of growth".

At the top of the list, the government has highlighted efforts in tackling extreme poverty, saying: "During the administration of the Bolivarian government led by President Hugo Chavez, the extreme poverty rate significantly fell from 42% in 1998 to 9.5%."

Also high on the government's list of benefits, supplied by the ministry of information, is the area of healthcare, in which it argues that "Venezuela invests 4.2% of its GDP in health and it continues to deepen strategies to guarantee Venezuelans free access to health".

The opposition, meanwhile, has attacked the healthcare system, saying there has been "a re-emergence of certain endemic diseases and a closure of hospitals".

It has also highlighted what it says is "the highest level of corruption in the Americas, apart from Haiti", citing statistics from the NGO Transparency International.

'Battle of ideas'

In a sense, the arguments on both sides are well-rehearsed.

There was little in the series of bullet-points provided by either the information ministry or Un Nuevo Tiempo which could not have been roughly predicted.

Both sides have been arguing the cost-benefit analysis - from the eradication of illiteracy to rising inflation - since President Chavez came to power.

There are, however, significant areas of contention which mark the different versions of the Venezuelan reality.

For example, the government says unemployment has been reduced by 50% during the Chavez administration, whereas Un Nuevo Tiempo argues that under Mr Chavez, the manufacturing sector has been run down, "hitting small and medium-sized manufacturing companies particularly hard".

The opposition also argues that the human-rights situation has deteriorated significantly, quoting a controversial recent report from the New-York based organisation Human Rights Watch.

The government, meanwhile, has pointed to its successes in the areas of gender equality to underline their human-rights credentials.

This small examination of the perceptions of both sides about the successes and failures of the last 10 years reveals one key point - ultimately, both the government and the opposition see this revolution in terms of a "battle of ideas".

Big decision

As the referendum on the question of indefinite re-election approaches, Venezuelans are preparing for another election campaign and another visit to the ballot box.

It will be the 15th time President Chavez has held elections in Venezuela since coming to power in 1999, including an earlier vote on the right of indefinite re-election in December 2007 in which he was narrowly defeated.

But, despite that loss, his personal approval rating continues to be high, regularly polling over 50%.

On 15 February, the Venezuelan electorate will again have to decide which side of the political divide they support, as they choose whether to either grant President Chavez the right to stand again for office, or force him to stand down in 2012.

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