To the Editor:
Alvaro Vargas Llosa may have visited Venezuela, but his unfounded dismissals of its efforts to combat poverty and social exclusion ("Slum Lord," January 22, 2008) are short-sighted and dismissive of the many successes the country has had.
Since President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, he has made the fight against poverty his government's primary and most pressing priority. Starting in 2003, the government instituted a number of innovative social missions--targeted programs that brought vital social services into Venezuela's poorest neighborhoods. There are currently over 20 missions addressing everything from health and education to housing and employment. But more than simply providing services, the missions have engaged citizens on a level never seen before. The government's many social missions and the successes they have yielded help explain why President Chavez was re-elected in December 2006 with 63 percent of the vote.
Are Venezuela's social missions perfect? No. Have they proven to be an important step towards addressing Venezuela's social failings? Absolutely. According to a 2007 report by the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean, from 2002 to 2006 Venezuela reduced poverty by 18.4 percent and extreme poverty by 12.3 percent, the second highest decreases in the region. And according to the 2007 region-wide survey of public opinion by Latinobarometro, a well-respected Chilean polling firm, the Venezuelan people regularly express confidence in their government and its efforts to address political, economic, and social concerns. Their most recent survey found that Venezuela ranked highest in equality between the sexes, protection of private property, equality of opportunity, solidarity with the poor, employment opportunities, and even distribution of income. Moreover, 59 percent of Venezuelan people expressed satisfaction with their democratic system (the second highest rate in the region) and 66 percent expressed confidence in their government (highest in the region).
It would be foolish to deny that corruption and inefficiency do not exist in Venezuela. For decades, corrupt officials allied with Venezuela's two primary political parties siphoned off national resources, effectively degrading citizens' faith in the government's ability to address social and economic needs. President Chavez has fought to reverse that historic trend, though there is much left to be done.
The Venezuelan government has worked against all odds--including a coup in 2002 and sabotage of the national oil company in 2002 and 2003--to increase the means of democratic participation, create a sustainable and growing economy, and reduce poverty. While there have surely been mistakes and challenges along the way, an objective analysis finds that significant improvements have been made. It is not clear whether Mr. Vargas Llosa simply failed to see these advances while he was in Venezuela, or if he chose to ignore them.
BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA
Ambassador, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
By Bernardo Alvarez Herrera