It was Thursday evening a few weeks ago as I rushed home from work. Suddenly, the music on the radio stopped, giving way to the beginning of a Cadena Nacional — a mandatory government broadcast carried simultaneously on every TV and Radio Station. My car’s cd player hasn’t worked for a long time, so I kept the radio on and listen to whatever Mr. President Maduro was about to announce. I can’t stand to watch his speeches on TV, but somehow I don’t get anxious at all when listening to them on the radio. Mr. Maduro was talking about the new Carnet de la Patria. As we found out, getting the Carnet de la Patria was the key first step to opting for a direct cash transfer scheme, called “Gran Misión Hogares de la Patria”.
Maduro was eager to introduce us to the schemes’ beneficiaries. From behind the wheel, I heard two women thanking for their new card while they were asked about their children. The third interview jolted me to my core. I stopped my car, listening enthralled, as she started crying.
“Thank you for calling me so quickly,” she said on air. I didn’t see her face or how the stage was set, but her image in my mind was of somebody crying, not believing she just won the lottery.
If health, education and freedom from extreme deprivation are considered rights, the state has an obligation to guarantee these things are available to all citizens entitled to them.
T.H. Marshall, in his classic essay collection “Citizenship and the social class” (1949) analyzed the evolution of citizenship rights in England from civil, to political, to social rights. In his analysis, social rights are strongly tied to democratic development, where the guarantee of a minimum social well being is necessary if civil and political rights are to be exercised by the majorities.
Social rights and social citizenship are key concepts for social policy orientations: if health, education and freedom from extreme deprivation are considered rights, then the state has an obligation to guarantee these things are available to all citizens entitled to them. So social services become something you’re entitled to demand as a matter of law, and courts of law become a venue you can turn to when your social rights are not fulfilled.
In Venezuela, our constitution grants all sorts of social rights. It’s just paper, though, and el papel lo aguanta todo. Almost since the beginning of Chávez’s first government, social policy was used as a political tool: investments were made when votes were needed, but people do not really act as though they understand are legally entitled to receive benefits from las misiones. That’s not what they’re about; they’re favors from Mi Comandante.
Social rights go hand in hand with the exercise of mass democracy. In Venezuela, today, we have neither.
And this new Carnet de la Patria that would allow its holder to pay for Clap bags or to receive any kind of new social benefit can only be obtained through consejos comunales, your friendly neighborhood UBCh (ruling party local committee) or other chavista organizations. You are explicitly asked which party you support when you go to sign up. It isn’t hard to imagine how difficult it will be for people with different political opinions to obtain a Carnet de la Patria from his chavistas neighbors.
So there I was, all these years later, listening to a poor old woman crying on national TV thanking President Maduro (and President Chávez) because she now has a Hogares de la Patria card. She was so grateful because she was called only a few days after she got her carnet de la patria.
Let’s pay attention to this detail: In her mind, the card itself didn’t entitle her to any kind of benefit. She was lucky because she was selected. She took out the Carnet de la Patria the way you buy a lottery ticket: getting one is no guarantee, but what is sure is that you will not get a social benefit unless you have one.
T.H. Marshall understood social rights went hand in hand with the exercise of mass democracy. In Venezuela, today, we have neither. Today, receiving a social benefit depends on luck, like a lottery, or else on connections.
But many of us aren’t even allowed to buy the tickets to this particular lottery. And true citizenship, of course, is far out of reach.