The dozens of programs which the Chavez's administration established to build housing, healthcare, new schools and child care centres were rarely discussed despite their visibility everywhere around the country for the foreign press.
Programs like Mercal, where low income Venezuelans can purchase cheap food at a state-owned super market chain, are found in most working class areas. While criticisms abound that Mercal stores often run out of numerous products (a claim which is in fact true), few analysts bother to ask two simple questions: where did poor Venezuelans shop before Mercal and how well did they eat?
Discussions with government officials were also revealing as many of them came from humble back grounds having only completed their university degrees under the Chavez government. Many whom I talked to in 2005 and 2011 were of Afro-Venezuelan heritage which, under former governments that sold cheap oil to the United States, would have undoubtedly been condemned to a life of poverty, with little hope of social mobility in a country where racism is still prevalent. According to the United Nations, between 1999 and 2010 Venezuela reduced poverty by 21% which is a remarkable success given the powerful political actors who worked against Chavez and, in April 2002, briefly ousted him in a U.S.-backed coup.
At a regional level Chavez also had an enormous impact. In 2008, in close collaboration with Brazil, Venezuela played a key role in establishing the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which has begun to challenge the U.S.-sponsored Organization of American States (OAS).
In the coming weeks elections will now have to be held in Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro should win them comfortably. A former bus driver, trade union leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2006 to 2012, Maduro should continue Chavez's policies although perhaps with less rhetoric.
For now, millions of Venezuelans are deeply mourning Hugo Chavez while presidents from around the region arrive in Caracas to pay their respects. Although he certainly did not solve all of the country's major problems, Chavez's record in reducing poverty is far better than that of former governments.
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