From The Guardian, a most interesting article, in full (emphasis added):
Should egalitarians support Chávez?
The Venezuelan leader’s strong-arm tactics and redistributionist policies present progressives with a real dilemma.
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 future.
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, democratic society.
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 Pedreañez, 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 cell.
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.