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Why Chavez Chose Social Safety Net Over Skyscrapers

The late Venezuelan president believed people needed and deserved a comfortable baseline from which to survive and prosper, and he put that ahead of capitalist shows of his country’s oil wealth.

Since news broke last week of the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, reactions to that leader’s passing have been pouring in. While many argue that Chavez did incredible things for Venezuela and its people, there are those, especially here in the US, who don’t have such a rosy view of the former leader.

That’s where Associated Press business reporter Pamela Sampson comes in.

In a piece from last Tuesday, speaking about the legacy of Chavez, Sampson wrote that, “Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.”

You heard that right.

Sampson appears to be arguing that providing healthcare, education and employment opportunities for millions of people is far less important than flaunting your wealth for the entire world to see. Lifting an entire nation out of crippling poverty is nothing compared to building a big glitzy building or opening up a new museum.

Now, if these were the feelings of just one journalist, we could move on. But the problem is that these sentiments are echoed throughout our country. Oil corporations have become so powerful and influential in our society that the idea of nationalizing our oil and using the money from it – the way the Venezuelans, the Saudis, and the Norwegians (among others) do – to help the American people is, according to conventional wisdom, crazy and absurd.

This is the reason why, up until Chavez’s death, the U.S and Venezuela had frosty relations at best. Chavez’s decision to use his nation’s vast sums of oil wealth to help his people, instead of adding to the bottom-lines of corporations, irked many U.S. politicians and government officials.

But what’s really going on here? Why do so many Americans believe that corporate luxury is more important than “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?

In a society, achieving safety and security is step one.

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans achieved safety and security by giving it to others, and getting it in return. And similarly, the more safety and security you gave to people, the higher status you achieved. Archeologists call societies like this “Potlatch societies,” as status is gained by giving away as much as you can at giant feasting parties called Potlatches.

This is only a slight variation on the model that Hugo Chavez used in Venezuela,
and it’s why his people loved him so much. By using his nation’s oil wealth to give Venezuelans access to education, healthcare, improved housing and better living conditions, Chavez gave safety and security to millions of people, and was rewarded with high levels of admiration and respect.

Unfortunately, our modern society has become infected with a sort of cultural mental illness. The late professor of Native American studies at UC Davis, Jack Forbes, told me his people called it wetiko, a Native American word meaning “cannibal” or “thief.”

In western society, we get safety and security from making money, and then using that to buy goods and services. The more goods and services you produced, the more you were paid, and the more you were paid, the more you were able to purchase to help achieve safety and security.

This is the model that America has today. And, in its extremely mentally ill form, it’s why some billionaires say things like “I only have $30 billion. Once I have $40 billion, I’ll be happy.” And it’s why Americans might think that shiny skyscrapers are more important than the social welfare of an entire nation.

But let’s look at the numbers behind these two approaches to safety and security.

Before Hugo Chavez was president, according to the British newspaper The Guardian, unemployment in Venezuela was at 15%. As of 2009, it was at 7.6 %.

Before Hugo Chavez was president, extreme poverty was at 23.4%. As of 2011, it was at 8.5%

Meanwhile, here in the United States, millions of Americans are consistently unemployed each year. And, in the last 15 years, extreme poverty in the United States
has doubled. The number of U.S. households living on less than $2 per person a day, which is known as the “extreme poverty” line, more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million

And, according to the latest Census Bureau data, a staggering 50 percent of Americans are either low-income or living below the poverty line.

The numbers here paint a pretty clear picture: The Chavez approach to governance, and his Robin Hood-esque mentality worked for Venezuela.

During 14 years in office, Chavez managed to drastically improve the lives of Venezuelans, while rebuilding an entire nation. He knew that the best way to achieve safety and security was not by constructing lavish buildings, but through maintaining a strong social safety net and ensuring that Venezuelans had the resources they needed to survive.

America should take a page out of the Chavez playbook.

Every Americans should have a comfortable baseline from which to survive and prosper. That means protecting this nation’s social safety net, and strengthening programs like Social Security and Medicare. It also means raising the minimum wage, and making it a living wage, so that Americans can provide for themselves, and for their families.

A country is only as strong as its people. It’s time that America was strong again.

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