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Chávez’s Grand Illusions

5 minute read
Jorge Castañeda

The Venezuelan opposition’s decision to participate in the presidential election on April 14 may not immediately seem like a wise one. In the contest to succeed Hugo Chávez, little favors opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. The Chavista candidate, Nicolás Maduro, has already been sworn in as President; the deceased leader’s funeral turned into a campaign event with most of Latin America’s heads of state attending; and Maduro, Chávez’s handpicked successor, will have unlimited television and radio airtime at his disposal. Capriles obviously fears a replay of the 2005 parliamentary vote, when the anti-Chávez coalition abstained and was eliminated from the National Assembly. But perhaps Capriles’ decision to participate in this poll — a direct presidential election — is based on a more profound understanding of Venezuelan society, and of Chávez’s legacy, than many observers abroad may have.

Critics and supporters alike tend to emphasize two of Chávez’s achievements. The first is his restoration of a sense of dignity to a majority of the Venezuelan people, who had long been dominated by a corrupt, elitist oligarchy. The second achievement that is frequently touted is a significant reduction in the number of people living below the poverty line, going from a peak in 2003 of more than 62% (three years into Chávez’s rule; at the beginning of his first term, it was 46%) to approximately 28% in 2012. But, as Capriles knows, both claims are only partly true.

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Let’s take the poverty issue first. Nearly every country in Latin America has reduced poverty in the past decade. The reasons for this progress are well known: economic growth in Latin America has generally been strong during that period. That has benefited commodity-exporting countries like Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. Furthermore, most governments have managed their accounts responsibly during this time of growth.

This has led to a reduction not only in poverty but also in inequality. According to an essay by Nora Lustig of Tulane University in New Orleans, published recently in Current History, from 2000 to 2010, “income inequality had declined in all 17 Latin American countries for which comparable data exist.”

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The difference with Venezuela, of course, is that Chávez spent an estimated $1 trillion in achieving the same feat his colleagues did, in a country with one-sixth the population of Brazil and slightly more than one-quarter that of Mexico. Social spending in those two countries also increased during these years but on a much lower level in per capita terms and as a percentage of national income. Moreover, the corollaries of “Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century” — the destruction of the country’s industrial base, the increase in violence, the explosion of its foreign debt and the depletion of its hard-currency reserves — are either absent or far less present in most other countries in the region.

The other main achievement the late President’s followers like to trumpet — that he allowed Venezuelans to feel that their leader was looking out for them — is a bit more robust, but not by much. It is true that Venezuela is a rich nation whose natural resources have been exploited by the elites. But it is equally true that Venezuela had enjoyed, until Chávez, 40 years of democratic rule. Large swaths of Venezuelan society rightly felt excluded from a cozy arrangement whereby two parties dominated politics, but much of the rest of the population had grown into an aspiring middle class. That divide in the country is greater today than ever.

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It may well be that Chávez’s purported feats and popularity will outlive him. Instead of a simple rotation of the elites, as there was in the decades before him, perhaps what occurred during his time in power was the advent of a political leadership that looks, talks and worships like the majority of Venezuelans. In that case, Maduro’s defeat of Capriles will be effortless. But whatever the outcome of these next elections, all the mourning and embalming — Chávez’s body is to be put on display in a museum — will not alter a simple fact: Venezuela and its people are not clearly better off than if the country had simply followed the region’s inertial movement, largely driven by outside events. And whatever modest improvements they may have been blessed with were certainly not worth $1 trillion.

Castañeda was Foreign Minister of Mexico and teaches Latin American studies at New York University

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