On a recent trip to Latin America, President George W. Bush said people must choose between “two competing visions.” One, he said, “pursues representative government, integration into the world community and freedom’s transformative power for individuals.” The other, “seeks to roll back the democratic progress of the past two decades by playing to fear, pitting neighbor against neighbor, and blaming others for their own failures to provide for the people.” Bush’s “two competing visions” refer to U.S. capitalism and Venezuela’s “21st-century socialism.”

A little history

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the “end of history” was declared. Capitalism had won the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of the world, we were told. Socialism was pronounced done, dead, forever gone. Wall Street cheered.

International corporate conglomerates swallowed up more of the world’s wealth and concentrated it into fewer hands. Imperialist globalization became the dominant paradigm. After Sept. 11, 2001, unilateral, go it alone militarization and Bush’s pre-emptive strike ideology introduced the world to a new, more dangerous type of right-wing domination. The main enemy was “terrorism” and we were engaged in an “endless” war against it. Afghanistan and Iraq were attacked, while Bush and his “allies” basked in their self-satisfied version of reality.

Then President Hugo Chávez announced that Venezuela — the fifth largest oil producer in the world — and its 25 million citizens were embarking on the path of “21st-century socialism.” Not since President Ronald Reagan and his neo-fascist paramilitary forces, which engaged in wholesale bloodletting in El Salvador and elsewhere, had anyone really taken seriously the idea that the region might again seek an alternative economic, socialist path.

Newspapers began to call Chávez a “dictator.” Pat Robertson called for his assassination. And a steady stream of intellectuals labeled Chávez a “regional nuisance,” urging the Bush administration to “contain” him as an “unpleasant fever that will eventually pass.”

Chávez, who had friendly relationships with the Clinton administration, became Venezuela’s president in 1998, and since then has been using Venezuela’s billions in petrodollars — $13 billion last year alone, almost half of the national budget — to provide much needed social and medical programs, build local workers’ cooperatives, institutionalize land reforms, better regional and international relationships, initiate Telesur (a “Bolivarian alternative” to news organizations like CNN), and prepare for possible imperialist intervention. Below we will briefly analyze some of the internal aspects of Venezuela’s 21st-century socialism.

Food, health and education

In 1999, the “missions,” —local grassroots education and medical cooperatives— were founded. They are staffed by community volunteers who provide literacy tutoring, health care and dental services. The volunteers also assist with land usage issues, economic revitalization and job training.

According to Chávez, 1.4 million people have learned to read and write within the past year and a half and 3 million Venezuelans, previously excluded from education because of poverty, are seeking higher education free of charge.

Seventy-five percent of the Venezuelan population receives free health care; many from Mission Barrio Adentro or “Mission into the Neighborhoods,” where 20,000 Cuban doctors staff 3,000 distinctive two-story medical clinics — consultorios or doctors’ offices.

Venezuela recently started a new social program which sends poor Venezuelans to Cuba for free eye surgery. And thousands of Venezuelan students are training in Cuba to become doctors and will provide free health care upon return.

Fifty-eight percent of Venezuelans live off of less than $200 a month. Before Chávez was elected many had to choose between food and other expenses. Now, 45 percent of the population receives subsidized food from over 4,000 missions, special food programs and government distribution centers. The Venezuelan government provides kitchen equipment, including refrigerators, ovens and other tools for the missions. While the cooks are not professional chefs, they do attend hygiene and food preparation classes. Many kitchens are in close proximity to the neighborhood medical clinics, where the clinics can help ensure that meals are well planned to meet dietary needs.

Workers’ cooperatives and land reform

Local grassroots workers’ cooperatives and land reforms are major features of Venezuela’s 21st-century socialism. In fact, there has been a rapid growth of cooperatives and the establishment of hundreds of “endogenous nuclei,” communities where several co-ops work together, making products or offering services that complement and co-operate with each other.

There are now over 70,000 cooperatives in Venezuela. Profit is divided among workers, members elect their own supervisors and environmental concerns are monitored by community/worker representatives. Cooperatives also collectively organize as benefit and mutual aid associations.

The Venezuelan government provides start-up capital for the purchase of equipment or office supplies and coordinates technical training, enabling community residents to repair, rebuild and perform other skilled tasks. “If you want to get rid of poverty, we need to empower the poor, not treat them like beggars,” said Chávez.

Chávez has also nationalized failed or bankrupt companies, allowing workers to manage and work the industries on their own behalf. Carlos Lanz, president of Venezuela’s Alcasa aluminum plant in Puerto Ordaz, told reporters, “Democratic planning is such a powerful lever that even with rather outdated technology we have managed to increase production by 11 percent.” He added, “This is about workers controlling the factory and that is why it is a step towards socialism of the 21st century.” Of more than 700 companies in Venezuela with idled production, over 136 are being examined for nationalization.

Over 65 percent of the urban population does not formally “own” land titles, but that’s changing. Recently established Comites de Tierra, local committees comprised of 150-200 heads of households who conduct land surveys and secure land titles, are redistributing land back to community residents and poor families, the people who work the land. There are currently about 5,000 comites in Venezuela.

Mission Vuelta al Campo or “Return to the Countryside,” encourages unemployed or poor Venezuelans to return to rural areas where they are given land to farm or raise livestock.

Recently Chávez said the Venezuelan government expected to reclaim nearly 1.2 million acres of farm land in 2005 and redistribute it. He added, “We can not allow good land to lie uncultivated, [and] we can not allow perfectly productive factories to stay closed.”

A new way

Since Chávez’s election, Venezuela has worked to eradicate illiteracy, improve health care, provide food, empower workers and redistribute land. Venezuela has also moved more and more on to the world’s stage, providing international aid, solidarity and “a new way,” as Tran Dac Loi, a Vietnamese delegate to the 16th World Festival of Youth and Students, characterized it when he spoke with the World in Caracas.

While socialist Cuba remains Venezuela’s closest international ally, Chávez is making a lot of friends in the region and trying to expand trade partnerships with nations through out the world. In fact, internationalism may be one of Chávez’s greatest achievements yet. Not only has Venezuela’s 21st-century socialism created new, mutually beneficial trade deals throughout the world, but it is also providing cheap heating oil to poor communities here in the U.S., especially communities of color. Most recently Citgo Petroleum Corp., which is owned by the Venezuelan government, announced that it would supply heating oil to low-income communities in New York and Boston at about 40 percent below market price, and would offer steeply discounted diesel fuel to Chicago’s transit system to allow for reduced fares for low-income riders.

The Bush administration may be stuck in a Cold War mentality, foaming at the mouth about Chávez’s “other system,” but the rest of the world isn’t. And despite a U.S.-supported coup in 2002 and a recall referendum last year, Chávez seems more popular than ever.

Though Venezuela’s future is unclear, one thing is certain: Chávez’s 21st-century socialism has wide support among Venezuelans. Out of Bush’s “two competing visions,” they’ve chosen socialism, overwhelmingly!