Thousands of Venezuelans gathered outside the country's National Assembly (AN) on Saturday to hear President Chavez give his annual speech to the nation. Each year the Venezuelan president is obliged to give an "annual report" to the legislative body accounting for the management of his government and detailing its setbacks and achievements throughout the past year.
According to the Venezuelan constitution, the president must address the assembly within 10 days following the resuming of sessions for the year, on the 5th of January 2012. This year's speech comes at a critical political juncture in Venezuela, which will hold its presidential elections in October this year.
Achievements in 2011
During the speech, which was broadcast live on state television channel VTV, the president highlighted the advances of the revolution in 2011, paying particular attention to the government's investment in social programmes.
An unemployment rate of 6.2% and a 1800% increase in funding for higher education were some of the figures mentioned by President Chavez. The Venezuelan mandate also made reference to organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), which confirmed Venezuela as the least unequal country in Latin America, and reported a 26.8 point reduction in poverty and a 19.7 point decrease in extreme poverty in the past 12 years. University enrolment in Venezuela was also recorded as the second highest on the continent, after socialist Cuba, and the fifth highest in the world, said Chavez.
In terms of community organisation, the president confirmed that 5 billion bolivars($US 1.6 billion) had been given to grassroots organisations in 2011, including to cooperatives and to the emerging commune movement.
“This isn’t populism…this is justice,” added the president.
As well as noting a massive increase in the nation’s GDP, from US$91 million in 1998 to $US328 billion in 2011, Chavez also made reference to Venezuela’s level of public debt as evidence of the government’s successful economic policy.
"There are countries in the world whose debt is one and a half times their GDP, starting with those champions of democracy and the world economy, the United States," he stated.
In comparison, Venezuela's public debt is currently equal to 23.6% of the nation's GDP, marking a reduction of 43.2% since 1989.
"Now this is a normal, acceptable indicator, and we are going to keep managing it with good economic and political discretion," he said.
Although inflation has continued to fluctuate at around 22.2% from 1999 to the present day, this represents a historic low in Venezuela, and a decrease from the 1996 spike when inflation reached 103.2% under the administration of Rafael Caldera.
New security mission will tackle "culture of violence"
Despite having made serious advances within the realm of social security, such as in access to healthcare and education, personal security continues to be the biggest worry facing the Venezuelan population, said Chavez.
The president went on to describe the need to tackle the problem of violent crime in Venezuela from a “comprehensive” perspective, and announced his intention to create an extensive new security mission throughout the country.
The new mission will complement the other security initiatives undertaken by the government during the past 2 years, including the creation of the Bolivarian National Police and the recently created Criminal Investigation Service in the Capital District and Miranda state. According to comments made by Vice-president Elias Jaua, the new security mission will address the social elements of crime, such as changing the “culture of violence” which continues to affect some parts of Venezuela.
“Beyond the measures related to police reform, disarmament and the destruction of firearms, the cultural element is key. We have to keep deepening the promotion of values for life and peace, as opposed to a culture of violence, where a person ends up killing another in order to achieve social standing, that’s why the role of the media is fundamental,” said Jaua.
Similarly, President Chavez also criticised the Venezuelan media for sensationalising violence in the news, citing a 2008 study by Latinobarometro which highlights a large disparity between the population’s perception of crime levels and the levels of crime actually being committed.
Political lessons for the opposition
One of the opposition candidates for their presidential primaries in February, Maria Corina Machado, caused a furor in the AN towards the end of the president’s speech when she stood up and accused Chavez of “robbing” private property and demanding that the president engage in a debate with her.
Speaking on behalf of Venezuelan “women and mothers”, Corina spoke of the “decent Venezuela” which did not want to “advance towards communism”.
“We want respect for private property…how can you talk about respect for the private sector in Venezuela, when you have dedicated yourself to expropriating, which is robbing… the property of businessmen…Your time is over…It’s time for a new Venezuela,” said Corina.
Chavez responded by recommending that Corina gain more political experience and dedicate her efforts to winning the opposition primaries.
“First of all, I suggest that you win the primaries, right? Win the primaries, this is the first thing you have to do, because you are out of your league debating with me…I’m very sorry, I really am, but it’s the truth…You even called me a thief in front of the whole country. I am not going to offend you – the eagle doesn’t hunt flies, legislator,” replied Chavez.
According to a poll carried out by GISXXI in December, Chavez currently has approval ratings of 57% whilst Machado has 1%. Opposition candidate Capriles Radonski currently leads the opposition camp with 11% and is seen as a favourite to win the opposition primaries.