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Venezuelans Have Little Consensus on '21st Century Socialism'

Venezuelans rally along a Caracas street
Venezuelans rally along a Caracas street

For years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has described his program of boosting state control over the economy as "21st Century Socialism". The president does not spell out how this version of socialism differs from 20th century socialist experiments in other countries, or from classical Marxism. Many Venezuelans have only a vague idea of what "21st Century socialism" means.

"I do not really know what his form of socialism is. I do not understand it. It must be something he invented," says one retiree from a well-to-do Caracas neighborhood.

Ask ordinary Venezuelans for a definition of 21st century socialism, and some are at a loss for words.

"I do not know a precise word. I know it has helped me," says a disabled woman from a poor neighborhood. "Some say socialism means assistance, protection, that sort of thing."

President Chavez defines his program in generalized terms.

"This nation belongs to everyone," he said. "It is everyone's property. And that property must be distributed equally, in harmony."

He ties his socialist ideals to Christianity.

"Christ cared about the poor, not the rich," he said. "Christ said: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the poor."

Among Venezuelans who say they understand the meaning of 21st-century socialism, most define it in relation to their own political beliefs. A Caracas chef sees it in a positive light.

"Equal earnings, everyone living at the same level," he said. "Living well, with wealth distributed equally among the people."

But clothing designer Leslie Contreras heaps scorn on the concept.

"21st century socialism: a pretty way to say communism. That is all it is," she said. "Everyone ends up the same. The rich leave and the middle class becomes poorer."

President Chavez has been intentionally vague in defining the term, allowing him to mold the concept to fit the rhetorical need of the moment - according to political analyst Luis Vicente Leon, who adds that few Venezuelans spend time pondering political terminology as long as their needs are met.

"What do Venezuelans care about? That they have food, health care, medicine, and services," he said. "They do not care how it is provided, just that they have it."

In a neighborhood that sports a free dental clinic thanks to the government, Chavez-backers note that 21st century socialism is in its infancy.

"It is a work in progress," said one man. "We are on the path to socialism, to greater equality among Venezuelans."

But economist Orlando Ochoa says a day will come when the concept implodes.

"Twenty-first century socialism is an attempt to revive 20th century Marxist socialism, financed by oil money," he said. "Some people see it as humanism, cooperation, and social investment - the way the government portrays it. The gulf between reality and perception will have to be bridged."

Until then - whether anyone can define it or not - the term remains the daily bread of Venezuela's political diet.