Why I’m helping Hugo
BY KEN LIVINGSTONE | [print_link]
Despite what the media say, Chávez is a leader who listens to his people. I’m happy to take up a new job as his urban adviser
- DATELINE: guardian.co.uk, Friday August 29 2008 11:30 BST
There are some countries whose reality is distorted by sections of the media. And some about which straightforward lies are written. My first trip to Caracas revealed Venezuela to be firmly in the second category.
The idea that this country is a dictatorship is ridiculous – probably some of those assiduously promoting it have difficulty in keeping a straight face. Some “dictatorship” where the president accepts the loss of a referendum to change the constitution, which holds more national elections than virtually any other country in the world, and where walls and lamp-posts in areas of Caracas are vividly festooned with posters of anti-Chávez candidates. No, a dictatorship is a country like Saudi Arabia – whose leader is of course officially feted on visits to London.
Attending a meeting with pro-Chávez candidates for the forthcoming local government elections in the capital, there was very definitely no certainty of success – as with the recent constitutional referendum, defeat was possible. The discussion, as with any local election in Britain, was how to address practical issues affecting peoples’ quality of life.
Caracas showed visibly the problems the country faces and progress made in recent years. In west central districts the houses of the old elite and upper-middle class are better than the most upmarket London suburb. They are surrounded by several million people living in poverty in “barrios” – rough-built slums perched on the side of mountains without basic facilities. These areas were not even marked on the maps under previous administrations!
This is the product of a system where tens of billions of dollars of oil wealth each year were sent abroad to serve this elite without addressing the most elementary questions of quality of life of the majority of people.
That has changed. A trip to one of many new community facilities showed how millions of people have been given access to a new free healthcare system, including dentistry. Illiteracy has been eliminated to Unesco standards. Further education is being rapidly expanded.
A top priority now is to transform the basic infrastructure throughout the city. So that, as mayoral candidates put it to me, people feel like citizens with a stake in their neighbourhoods.
The keys are reducing crime and transforming the city’s economic efficiency and quality of life.
A remarkable programme of expansion of tube and rail lines in poor areas has begun. Alongside this it is necessary to tackle congestion, improve bus services, develop community policing, tackle waste and environmental protection.
Venezuela always had the resources, and now has the political will, to begin to raise its cities to world-class standards. But it needs expertise to do this effectively and rapidly.
That is where London’s experience helps. Between 2000 and 2008 London was recognised as the most successful city of its size in world and transformed its bus services, put the police back into local communities, tackled traffic congestion and won the Olympics.
That experience is now sought by very many other cities – including Caracas. It is why President Chávez invited me to Venezuela and why, together with other cities, I am pleased to continue the programme of advice and discussion between London and Venezuela.
KEN LIVINGSTONE is the combative and true socialist former mayor of London.
- guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008