I write to nominate President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías for an honorary doctorate at the National University of Ireland, Galway. President Chávez is the head of State of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He was first elected to this post in 1998 and has won eight elections and referendums since then. He has survived a coup, a lock-out of Venezuela’s oil industry and other attempts backed by foreign interests to violently end his presidency. He enjoys immense popularity among Venezuelans – his approval rating is currently around 77% – and among many millions the world over as a result of the great achievements of the movement he heads and his outstanding and creative leadership of it.
Despite Venezuela’s huge oil revenue, prior to President Chávez’s election the Indigenous, Black and mixed race majority lived in great poverty. President Chávez has repeatedly said that ‘to end poverty we must give power to the poor.’ He has used the oil revenue to create social programmes called missions which are carried out by the communities themselves, starting with women, the majority in every initiative. The result has included a reduction in the general rate of poverty from 50% to 33%, in extreme poverty from 21% to 10.6%, the eradication of illiteracy within 2 years, substantial reductions in unemployment, housing and land titles for millions formerly without safe housing, basic services or land to grow food, free education at all levels and free health care in poor communities. The university programme which I have witnessed at first hand provides access to third level education among the poorest communities and is based on training professionals how to act accountably and make their skills available to communities.
President Chávez has often said that he is as concerned for the well being of the people of the world as for that of the people of Venezuela. Venezuela’s oil revenue has been made available to those with least throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and beyond for social programmes like health care, including free eye operations. In the US, CITGO, Venezuela’s oil company is providing heating oil to low-income communities, such as the victims of Katrina, at a 40% discount. On his visit to Europe in May, the President offered the same to poor people in Europe and Venezuela is also funding health care and other anti-poverty measures in Africa.
President Chávez has supported women, starting with single mothers and older women, the rights of Indigenous people, people with disabilities, gay people and other vulnerable sectors. He has promoted direct, participatory democracy so that the work and accomplishments of these sectors of society can be visible and their needs met.
He has spoken out and acted against war, torture, cultural destruction, environmental pollution, climate change and corruption, and has demonstrated on many occasions that his priority is to preserve and value every life and the planet. He has received honours and awards in several countries reflecting the high esteem in which people hold him worldwide; for example honorary doctorates from the University of Seoul in South Korea, Beijing University in China, University of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and other awards e.g. from the University of Brasilia and in Russia.
As an archaeologist, it is a particular pleasure for me to nominate someone who has done so much to promote the preservation of culture beginning with the culture of caring, which has been mainly women’s work not only in Venezuela but throughout the world for many generations past and continues to be so today.
A key achievement has been his recognition for the work that grassroots women do and their leadership of the immense changes taking place in Venezuela. President Chávez has repeatedly said that women are the poorest and work hardest. It is mainly women who as society’s main carers are most concerned with the community’s health and welfare. In Venezuela they run the missions. That is, they run water, health, housing and education committees and soup kitchens, to get water supplies, food security, housing, free health care and education for people of all ages, and free school meals. They run the land committees organising for millions of rural and urban people who built homes on squatted land, to get land rights, including the re-distribution of idle land, and record the origins of their community, their heritage and their future plans. They monitor local authorities to stop corruption. Many have formed co-operatives. With the help of the Women’s Development Bank of Venezuela that President Chávez set up, they get subsidised credit for income-generating projects that benefit the whole community.
On 3rd February I was in Venezuela when he announced that the poorest housewives, mostly single mothers, are to receive a monthly payment equivalent to 80% of the minimum wage, about $180 per month. Up to 500,000 women will eventually get this wage. This measure was inspired by Article 88 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which recognises that women’s work in the home creates wealth and social welfare. Women all over the world have greeted this historic recognition of caring work with great joy. The Mothers of the Neighbourhood mission has been set up to implement this first payment.
The President has acted against cultural destruction in many other ways. Proud of his African and Indigenous roots, he promotes anti-racism and places a strong emphasis on the recovery and development by communities in Venezuela and the people of Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole of their full history and culture rather than colonial accounts which made the Black and Indigenous majority invisible and denied their rich heritage. This has included funding for developing media, film and community art to portray this reality. He has promoted the culture of Indigenous people, the preservation of their language and way of life, the right to their land and customs, while making resources available to them.
UNESCO recently awarded President Chávez the International Jose Marti Award for promoting Latin American heritage, liberty and values – recognising the achievements of the Bolivarian process he leads. The distinction stresses his efforts towards Latin American and Caribbean unity, as well as the preservation of regional identities, traditions and cultures.
His interests range widely from sport to art, history and literature; for example he has a great regard for the history, culture and literature of the people of Ireland – in London in May 2006 his speech included references to the work of George Bernard Shaw and recognition of the historic struggle of the Irish people and its contribution internationally, mentioning for example Daniel Florence O’Leary, an Irishman who served as Simon Bolivar’s aide de camp during the liberation of Latin America.
These are some of the reasons why so many are ready to support and defend President Chávez’s great efforts on behalf of humanity and why many people call him ‘President of the poor’. In meetings around Ireland I have heard and seen great enthusiasm and love for President Chávez among communities also organising for resources and services and facing destructive, polluting and sometimes life-threatening developments. Everywhere people are proud of the film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised made by Galway-based filmmakers and produced by Rod Stoneman, director of this university’s film school who supports this nomination. They feel glad that skills and expertise from this country have contributed to bringing out the truth, counteracting the attempted coup and the media manipulations in its aftermath, which have threatened the President, the Venezuelan people and their extraordinary process.
I commend President Chávez to you for the award. Bestowing such an honour would not only be popular among a great many people in Ireland but would be well received internationally. Through him it would honour the work for survival and justice of grassroots women, children and men in Venezuela, which is a hope and inspiration for people throughout the world.
Looking forward to hearing your decision,
Lecturer in Archaeology
National University of Ireland, Galway