Venezuela and the Wonders of Equality

Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, is one of the most demonized presidents in the world. Yet, he is also the most successful Latin American president for an emerging ever-larger portion of his country. Go figure!

Over the past week, Chávez won his third term, as reported by NBC News: “Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez wins 3rd term, vows to deepen socialist revolution.” Voter turnout was 80% and Chávez won 54% to 45% versus his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor.

According to the Western press, Venezuela is autocratically controlled, has a bloated bureaucracy, and is riddled with violent crime, but Chávez is the first leader who the people of the country feel really cares about their best interests. This is why they came out in record numbers to support his re-election.

Speaking from the balcony of the neoclassical Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Chávez, holding Simón Bolívar’s sword, promised: “Venezuela will continue along the path of democratic and Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century.” Bolivarian socialism is named after Simón Bolívar, a 19th century Venezuelan military leader who triumphed over the Spanish monarchy’s colonialism. Nineteenth century Bolivarian socialism is based upon the following tenets: Democracy and independence for Latin America, freedom for slaves and indigenous peoples, land reform, and education for all.

Whether published or not, it is almost a given that the Western press believes Chávez fraudulently rigged the election in his favour, but an American editor of The Economist, Dan Rosenheck, takes issue with that line of thinking. According to him, “The system would have been pretty hard to tamper with. There were tons of observers… The opposition had people covering every voting site….”  Rosenheck says there was a massive effort by the opposition to assure a fair election, and it would have been nearly impossible to violate the actual vote count of the people. Also, the very fact that Chávez won by 10 points was decisive in and of itself.

According to former President Jimmy Carter’s observations of elections in Venezuela:

I think the elections in Venezuela – although some people have criticized the result, which is Hugo Chávez having won – there’s no doubt in our mind, having monitored very closely the election process, that he won fairly and squarely. In fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world. They have a very wonderful voting system where you go in and you touch the screen and you vote the way you want to, and instantly that touch-screen result is recorded, to be transmitted electronically to the central counting headquarters.

Chávez, who has a history of keeping his campaign promises, has followed the principles as laid down by Simón Bolívar in the 19th century. Gabriel Furshong (London-based officer of Justice for Colombia) visited working class Venezuelan Missions; i.e., social nucleus developments around neighborhoods, in areas where the government has established ambitious social programs focused on education, vocational training, nutrition and health. According to Furshong, “They are the most visibly impressive examples of progress in a country full of contradictions.” He visited a shoe factory and a textile factory both of which are cooperatives and operate with remarkable efficiency. He spent time at an organic agricultural project that is utilized for both practical and educational purposes and a free clinic staffed by Cuban doctors, providing free health care to thousands, “many of whom never previously saw a doctor,” according to Professor Wilfredo Roche, director of the project.

According to Arturo Contreras, an activist working with the Bolivarian Circles, “The gap between the rich and poor has bridged; we are now the most equal country in Latin America” (Class War Polarizes Venezuela’s Vote, Al Jazeera, October 7, 2012); furthermore, based upon reports from the World Bank and the UN, poverty and inequality have dropped sharply during Chávez’s regime. Contreras claims, “Chávez showed people that the rich enjoyed all the benefits at the expense of the poor.”

According to the Western press, Chávez and his genre, like President Evo Morales of Bolivia, are wild-eyed socialists who only see red (which happens to be Chávez’s favorite colour), and they prey upon the past success of the upper classes. Newsweek (which periodical appears to be in the pocket of U.S. anti-Chávez newsleaks) has been especially effective at lobbing barbs at Chávez; e.g., recently Newsweek (October 2012) started a rumor that Chávez faked his cancer to win the sympathies of the voters. In contrast, The Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C. claims Newsweek only reports negatives about Venezuela:

Newsweek has never reported the Venezuelan government’s slashing poverty in half, cutting extreme poverty by 70 percent, or even Venezuela’s strong economic growth once the government got control over the oil sector.

Western economists continually predict the demise of Venezuela’s economy, but: “The predictions of economic collapse, balance of payments or debt crises and other gloomy prognostications, as well as many economic forecasts along the way, have repeatedly proven wrong.” Venezuela’s Economic Recovery: Is It Sustainable? Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnston, Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C., September 2012. “We find that Venezuela’s current economic growth is sustainable and could continue at the current pace or higher for many years.”

According to Global Finance and the CIA World Factbook, a snapshot of Venezuela’s economy looks like this: Unemployment rate= 8%; government (public) debt as a percent of GDP= 45.5% (by contrast:  the European Union debt/GDP is 82.5%); Core Inflation= 21.7%; Real GDP growth in 2011 the Venezuelan economy defied most forecasts by growing 4.2 percent, and is up 5.6 percent for the first half of 2012; GDP per capita= $13,070. Venezuela’s favorable fiscal and debt situation, with debt-to-GDP ratios comfortably below the U.S. and the UK, is stronger than European countries, but Venezuela’s S&P government bond rating is BB-, a speculative grade. This may be the result of Venezuela’s choice of socialism as its socio-economic system, as well as Chávez’s penchant for nationalization of natural resources.  Furthermore, the country’s inflation rate is a problem that must be controlled or, in time, Chavez will lose the allegiance of his base constituency. In this regard, Venezuela’s inflation rate has fallen to a four-year low, or 13.7%, over the most recent 2012 quarter.

Based upon the fact that stock markets reflect, and also anticipate, economic performance, Venezuela is looking strong, assuming Venezuelan stocks are not driven upwards by inflationary pressures more so than by ‘real’ earnings. According to The Wall Street Journal, Venezuela’s stock exchange is by far the best-performing stock market in the world, reaching an all-time high in October 2012, and Venezuela’s bonds are some of the best performers in emerging markets. According to the web site Emerging Markets: “In sharp contrast to Europe, debt levels across Latin America are low and falling, reducing borrowers’ financing requirements.” Venezuelan capitalism is thriving amidst a socialist government, and according to Russell Dallen of Caracas Capital Markets, “Venezuela is home to some great companies even if they happen to be in a bad neighborhood.”

The American press depiction of Venezuela is one of an old West gun-fighting scenario on the streets of Caracas, but this characterization is hypocritical. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated population (Source: MSNBC.) According to Nationmaster, a data source that gathers establishment information from various sources like the CIA World Factbook, UN, and OECD, Venezuela ranks substantially behind the United States in almost all categories of major crime; e.g., on a worldwide rating basis: (1) the U.S. is 1st for the most prosecutions; Venezuela is 23rd and as for (2) prisoners held in jail the U.S. is #1 and Venezuela is #22 and for (3) total crimes the U.S. is #1 and Venezuela is #30 and (4) prisoners per capita the U.S. is #1 and Venezuela is #107th and (5) frauds the U.S. is #2 and Venezuela is #23. However, Venezuela’s homicide rate is 10 times the U.S. rate of 4.8 at 48 per 100,000 population in 2010, and as of recent the homicide rate is higher yet. One of Chávez’s campaign promises is tackling high levels of violent crime.

The Chávez victory is felt around the world according to, The Chávez Victory Will be Felt Far Beyond Latin American, Seumas Milne, Associate Editor, The Guardian, October 9, 2012:

The transformation of Latin America is one of the decisive changes reshaping the global order. The tide of progressive change that has swept the region over the last decade has brought a string of elected socialist and social-democratic governments to office that have redistributed wealth and power, rejected western neoliberal orthodoxy, and challenged imperial domination. In the process they have started to build the first truly independent South America for 500 years and demonstrated to the rest of the world that there are, after all, economic and social alternatives in the 21st century.

Hugo Chávez, by spearheading radical change, has been central to the process of social innovation in all Latin America. If Henrique Capriles, Chávez’s oligarch challenger, had won the election, the Latin American revolution would have been dealt a serious setback, triggering privatizations and slashing social programs, similar to the goals of the right-wing infested Republican Party in the U.S. According to Seumas Milne, “Even senior Western diplomats in Caracas roll their eyes at the absurdity of the anti-Chávez propaganda in the Western media.” He is demonized because he is anti-neoliberal and opposed to capitalistic tendencies to upstreaming natural assets, like oil or timber, into the hands of a few aristocrats. His theory is these assets belong to the people of the country, not to wealthy individuals or international corporations. By diverting natural resource revenues away from control by a select few directly to the government, Chávez has a) slashed poverty, b) massively expanded free health care and education, c) sharply boosted the minimum wage and pensions while d) cutting unemployment by half and e) providing slum communities direct control over social programs. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast, Western democracies are headed in the opposite direction!

Based upon the political premise of election results living up to one’s campaign promises, it appears Chávez would be a dead-ringer to win the presidency in several Western democratic capitalistic countries where the same programs he supports are subject to cuts and austerity measures or altogether non-existent. Interestingly, Chávez led his first attempt to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andres Perez amid growing anger at economic austerity measures in 1992, similar to what haunts Europe today, but he finally won by the ballot in 1998.

Most Western prognosticators got the Venezuelan election wrong, claiming the progressive wing was exhausted and certain to lose. However, left wing and center-left governments continue to be re-elected from Ecuador to Brazil to Argentina because they reduce poverty and inequality by taking control of natural resources to benefit the people. Latin America is living the 200-year-old Simón Bolívar dream.

Chávez has proven to be the most successful popularly elected radical left leader in history at a time when the socio-economic model of capitalism is failing, especially in several European countries, while Venezuela and its Latin American allies, boasting healthy finances, have instituted innovative social programs, experiments in direct democracy, and proven it is possible to be both genuinely progressive and democratically popular.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.