|The Venezuelan leader's strong-arm tactics and redistributionist
policies present progressives with a real dilemma.
January 12, 2007 07:45 PM
MANY OF THOSE WHO identify with the desire for redressing Latin
America's deep social and economic inequalities face a real dilemma
when confronted by the figure of Hugo Chávez. On the one hand, his
strong-arm tactics are not exactly what progressives who believe in
democratic and open societies have in mind when we think about the
On the other hand, as Richard Gott recently pointed out, Chávez seems
to be redistributing the country's wealth to the poor, has been
democratically elected and re-elected, and is immensely popular.
I know the tension. In 2000, as a young Venezuelan assistant professor
in a US university, I decided to take a leave from academia and go
work towards the transformation of Venezuela. I left excited at the
possibility of contributing to the building of a new society.
During four years I headed the Venezuelan Economic and Financial
Advisory Office to the National Assembly, a recently created team of
economists roughly modeled on the US Congressional Budget Office. Our
task was to help deputies craft legislation while advising them about
the potential economic effects of their law projects. I was able to
put together a group of committed economists who had the greatest
desire of helping shape historical changes in their country.
What we found was very different from what we expected. It wasn't just
that the government did not understand the difference between
dissenters and opponents - perhaps understandable in a climate of
heightened political polarization. Nor that they seemed genuinely
disinterested in anything that was not directly connected with their
staying in power - also understandable when the opposition seems to
only think about how to oust you from power. It was that they really
didn't seem to care much about any of the reasons we were there:
improving the well-being of the poor and making Venezuela an open,
My first assertion will surely seem puzzling to many readers. Wasn't
Chávez reelected because he has reduced poverty? If he doesn't care
for the poor, why do the poor seem to care so much for him?
There is a broad gap, however, between what the government says it is
doing for the poor and what is actually going on. Did you know that
the percentage of underweight and underheight babies has actually
increased in Venezuela during Chávez's administration? That, once you
take out social security - which, in Venezuela, benefits mostly the
middle and upper classes who work in the formal sector - the fraction
of social spending in the government budget has actually decreased?
That, despite the government's claim of having eradicated illiteracy,
its own Household Surveys revealed more than one million illiterates
in Venezuela at the close of 2005, barely down from pre-Chávez levels?
Yes, Chávez just won reelection by a wide margin. So did Alberto
Fujimori in Peru in 1995 and Carlos Menem in Argentina that same year.
They won not because their policies were pro-poor, but because they
produced very high rates of economic growth. In the case of Menem and
Fujimori, the growth came from huge capital inflows generated by the
support that the World Bank, IMF, and financial markets gave to their
economic reforms. In the case of Chávez, it has come from a five-fold
expansion of oil revenues, which has allowed his government to enjoy
double-digit growth for the last three years.
But there is a dark side to chavismo which should not be discounted.
If you believe the government's claim that it has respected freedom of
speech and other political liberties, I suggest you take a minute to
look up the case of Angel Pedreańez, a 20 year old soldier who was
burned alive in a Maracaibo fort prison. According to his family's
attorney, this was in retaliation for having signed the petition to
hold the recall referendum against Chávez. Francisco Usón, a former
Chávez finance minister, is currently under 5 years imprisonment for
insulting the Armed Forces when he said that the soldier's death could
not have come about, as the government claimed, from smoking in his
Indeed, what is most worrying about Chávez's repression is how
systematic it has become. The government has built a detailed list -
the Maisanta database - that documents the political leanings of 12.4
million Venezuelan registered voters. The list is routinely used to
deny opposition supporters access to public jobs and government social
programs. Last week, the government confirmed that it will not renew
the concession of RCTV, the nation's oldest TV station, which is
closely associated with the opposition. During his inauguration,
President Chávez promised to abolish more than 200 mayoralties, thus
"paving the way for one communal city where municipalities and mayors
will not be needed, only communal power." Chávez's intolerance of
dissent is so high that he has even ordered the nation's Communist
Party to disband itself, in order to become a member of the
government's "Unified Socialist Party."
Venezuela's poor do not live in a better society. They live in a
society whose government is systematically squandering the nation's
largest oil boom since the seventies while at the same time
restricting basic political freedoms. Those of us who want to build a
truly democratic and egalitarian future for Latin America should
support democratic movements committed to the respect of civil and
political liberties and whose leaders genuinely care about the
region's poor. We should not support Hugo Chávez.