Chávez in Retrospect

Chavez march in Timor Leste
Less than two years ago, the Isocracy Network published a brief piece on the Venezuelan elections and the major economic and political changes that had occurred in that country in the preceding decade [1]. Standing outside of the hyperbolic opposition of the (usually) U.S. right-wing who condemned the Chávez government, sometimes for an apparent lack of democracy but mostly for its socialism, and the similarly the Chavistas of the left who could see in no (or at best) very little wrong with his rule. In contrast to these positions, the Isocracy Network article noted the real reductions in poverty, establishment of co-operatives, land reform, health care and education, employment, and improvements in real GDP. These were largely built on oil wealth, operating on a sound principle that natural resource wealth belongs to the people in common, and achieved more with elections that were mostly free, albeit insufficiently fair. Now that Chávez has died, like so many others it is necessary to engage in a retrospective.

For opponents of Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution the succession of election victories (1998; 56.20% to 39.97%., 2000; 59.8% to 37.5%., 2006; 62.84% to 36.90%., 2012; 55.07% to 44.31%), would have been a source of some frustration, and for his supporters, a cause for elation. Both emotional responses were quite legitimate. For there can be absolutely no doubt that Chávez was a genuine advocate for the seriously impoverished of his country, who had been disenfranchised for generations. Not only did Chávez himself came from a working-class family and from 2002 to 2011, since 2004 poverty has been halved and extreme poverty reduced by seventy percent, not through cash handouts but by the provision of housing, education, and - surpising to some - private sector growth [2]. It is not without reason that Chávez's death was met with an enormous outpouring of support from among the poorest people of the world, whilst the well-off members of the capitalist world who loathed his rule expressed a weirdly necrophiliac joy.

Despite the wishful thinking of some, the fundamentals of Venezuela's economy shows the signs of some resilience. Public debt as a percentage of GDP has increased significantly over the past three years, but it is still well within manageable limits. The economy, and especially exports is highly oil dependent, an issue which caused the Venezuelan economy to suffer enormously in the early to mid 1990s. Inflation remains very high, but brought down from extreme levels of the mid-1990s. Unemployment, usually over 10%, remains far too high. But with real GDP increases and reductions in the Gini coefficient, and with good natural resource reserves, the country simply doesn't have any major economic disasters looming. The greatest problems are the difficulties for foreign investors, a series of currency devaluations, and staple shortages.

The frustrations, much overlooked by the Chavistas, are real. The homocide rate is estimate at 57 per 100,000, one of the highest in the world [3]. Corruption, according to Transparency International, is extremely high even by the standards of the region, ranked one of the ten most corrupt countries on the index in 2012, ranked 165th out of 176 (tied with Burundi, Chad, and Haiti) [4]. Whilst this is no doubt partially due to the continuing illegal drug trade through Venezeuela (fourth in the world in cocaine seizures, around 5% of the total [5]), this is far less than sufficient explanation. As our local correspondent "L.Z." reports:

"It can all be boiled down to the biggest problem in Venezuela: absolutely insane rates of violent crime. If there is one fault of Chávez's government that cannot be denied by anyone regardless of political affiliation, it's the governments utter failure at controlling crime, investigating culprits, and a competent courts system."

Crime and corruption come from multiple vectors, all of which are present in Venezeula. One is external destablisation, of which there can be little doubt of being a real factor, although the degree is both denied entirely by the U.S. government and elaborated to excessive proportions by the Venezuelan government - both of which do not concur with the actual evidence provided through Wikileaks in 2010 [6]. Corporate interests in the United States were clearly less than happy with the government overturning the privatisation of the state-owned oil company, and the U.S. government establishment obviously dislikes the friendly relations established between Venezeula and Cuba. Whilst a cloud hangs over the degree that the United States was involved in the 2002 coup (let alone any other activities [7]), the fact that the U.S. government rushed to recognise it, is clear enough indication of their preferences.

Whilst the degree of external destablisation is disputed, what is certainly the case is the confusion between state and party, a defining feature of fascistic tendencies of the political and right, and a prime institutional design that inevitably generates corruption. The classic liberal ideology first expressed in the modern and complete form by Montesquieu for the separation of powers is no mere fancy in this regard, but rather a protection against demagoguery and to ensure that two branches of government always have the ability to engaged on a check on the third. The ever prescient Locke noted that the temptations when:

"the same persons who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them; whereby they may exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make, and suit the law, both in its making and execution, to their own private advantage, and thereby come to have a distinct interest from the rest of the community, contrary to the end of society and government" [8]

The Venezuealan government could certainly do well to consider the separation of powers in the Costa Rican constitution and why it is so far advanced in Latin America in terms of political transparency and lowered corruption.

There is a positive, if disruptive, role that successive Chávez governments played in Venezuela and indeed, in contributing to the region, inspiring a sucession of democratically-elected left-wing governments; an economy that was brought out of a disaster zone and managed to shift the gross impoverishment of millions. It has achieved this through a democracy, of sorts, where mass mandates have stood up against attempted coups actively supported by sections of the press (who in turn, with some legitimacy, complain about restrictions on press freedom). But there is evidence of small numbers of political prisoners of conscience in Venezuela, with the aforementioned extreme crime rates matched with prison overcrowding, police violence and extrajudicial killings.

For Nicolás Maduro, the caretaker President and, in all probability, the candidate who will be elected in April 2013 a real opportunity exists to solidify the 'Bolivarian Revolution' and extend the foundations of the "socialism of the 21st century", as expressed by theoretician Heinz Dieterich [9] and is achieving some notable success. Radical socialism has least finally caught up with the realisation that it must come from the democratic will of the population at large to acquire legitimacy and acts appropriately according to industrial scale (hence the heavy use of cooperatives in Venezuela). It is yet, however, to thoroughly incorporate the liberal individual rights and the separation of political parties from governance as a matter of conviction, nor yet to assign the right mix of regulation and market-relations - although to be fair, liberal-capitalist regimes struggle with the latter as well!

Great headway can be made nevertheless, if the Boliveran revolution applies higher levels of independence to its governing institutions and assigns the sort of civil rights and liberties that are more expected from the most advanced liberal democracy of Europe (for example). Not only will the institutional changes provide the most significant means to curtail corruption and crime, critics of the regime's human rights record will be completely silenced - relegating any possible debate to the relative success of socialist economic policy in the country - a debate which "21st century socialism" would most certainly win.

[1] Lev Lafayette. Venezuelan Elections and the Bolivarian Revolution, The Isocracy Network, October 11, 2010
[2] Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnston, Venezuela's Economic Recovery: Is It Sustainable?, Center for Economic and Policy Research, September 2012
[3] P.G., Shooting the messenger, The Economist, Aug 16th 2010.
[4] David Cutler, Factbox: Transparency International's global corruption index, Reuters. 5 December 2012
[5] United Nations, World Drug Report 2010 Statistical Annex: Drug seizures
[6] Eva Golinger, Wikileaks in Venezuela: Espionage, Propaganda, and Disinformation,, December 3, 2010
[7] Mention must be made - in a footnote at this stage - of the conspiracy expressed by Chávez and some of his supporters that the United States or its agents were behind the introduction of cancers to political opponents. In December 2011, Chávez, already under treatment for cancer, questioned: "Would it be so strange that they’ve invented the technology to spread cancer and we won’t know about it for 50 years?". This was one day after Argentina's leftist president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, announced she had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and after three other prominent leftist Latin America leaders had been diagnosed with cancer: Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff; Paraguay's Fernando Lugo; and the former Brazilian leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
[8] John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Chapter XII, s143, 1690
[9] Heinz Dieterich, "The Advance of 21st Century Socialism in Latin America and Europe, The 4th Forum of the World Association for Political Economy, Paris, 2009

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