Archive for January 13th, 2007

Should egalitarians support Chávez? by Francisco Rodriguez

January 13, 2007

Sort of busy switching computers including the one the blog is in, if I disappear for a few days, you will know I screwed up, cross your fingers. Meanwhile, here is an article by economist Francisco Rodriguez who led the Economic OffIce of the National Assembly until it was disbanded for telling it like it was.

Should egalitarians support Chavez? by Francisco Rodriguez in The Guardian.

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 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 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.

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