Number 527 March 19, 2013

This Week: Venezuela

"Quote" of the Week: Various; They're scattered throughout this week.
Hugo Chávez in the National Memory System
Was Chávez A Dictator?
The Economy Under Chávez
Social Health Under Chávez: Poverty, Inequality, and More


This issue of Nygaard Notes is entirely about Venezuela. It presents many positive facts about the changes initiated during the 14-year presidency of Hugo Chávez, who died on March 5th. I'm sure some people will think that I am painting too rosy a picture of the situation and, in a sense, I think I am. That's because this issue is the "other side" of the picture of Chávez's Venezuela that's been painted in the U.S. media, which has been a simple story of a totalitarian dungeon with a dictator in charge. As TIME Magazine put it, "It's tempting to remember [Chávez] as an erratic, messianic retro-revolutionary whose country's petro-wealth let him indulge his Marxist nostalgia."

My argument in this issue is that such a simplistic rendering of Hugo Chávez is not just "tempting" but, in the U.S. Propaganda system, essentially mandatory.

The reality of Venezuela complex, and if some of the complexity of the issues and struggles of a nation undergoing rapid social change had made it into the corporate media in this country, then there would be no need to spend so much energy giving the "other side" of the story, as I do here. But that's not how the corporate media works, so an issue like this is necessary.

I don't spend any time in this issue addressing some pretty serious charges of human rights abuses by the Venezuelan government, such as those reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. I don't think it's necessary, as the charges have been well-reported in the mass media in this country. To get that "side" of the story, just open your daily newspaper.

This Venezuela Issue of Nygaard Notes has three goals: 1. To present enough information that runs counter to the official "Venezuela-As-Enemy" Propaganda line that skeptics begin to see that there is such a Propaganda line. 2. To paint a picture that is so different from the picture that most people in the U.S. have about Venezuela that it creates what is called "cognitive dissonance"—a feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. 3. To encourage people to generalize from the example of Venezuela (about which people may or may not care all that much) and, perhaps, end up with a felt sense that something is deeply wrong with our media system in general.

The point of this issue, then, is not to convince anyone that Venezuela is absolutely better off because Hugo Chávez was its President. All I want to do is suggest that such an idea is at least thinkable. And, if any or all of the facts in this issue of Nygaard Notes shock or surprise you, or maybe even seem unthinkable, then we have to begin to ask why that would be, and what we can do about it.

There are larger lessons to be learned from the story of Venezuela under Chávez than are covered in this issue of the Notes, and I'll get to them in the next issue.

Until then, Happy Spring!



"Quote" of the Week: Various; They're scattered throughout this week.


Hugo Chávez in the National Memory System

In a piece in these pages back in 2008 I wrote about the death of the Indonesian dictator Suharto. I said then that "Looking at the obituaries for notable figures almost always offers a revealing glimpse into the prevailing moral and intellectual climate of our times." I concluded that essay with these words:

As we consider the role of the media in the construction of the image of one of the major criminals of the 20th Century [Suharto], it's worth remembering that similar construction projects are underway for various contemporary political figures. It may be an ally, like Musharraf in Pakistan or Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, or it may be an official "enemy," such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Now, a little more than five years later, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has died, and the U.S. media has been filled with obituaries and reflections on his 14-year presidency. And, once again, the media has played its part in what I have called the National Memory System, a system whose duty it is to tell the U.S. public whom to love and whom to hate. In the case of Hugo Chávez, the construction of the image, which had been ongoing since his arrival on the international scene, reached its culmination after his death, following to a "T" the design drawn up in official Washington. Really, a state-run media system couldn't have done much better.

Here is a sample of headlines from the corporate press in the United States in the day or two after Chávez's death was announced:

• Miami Herald (as reprinted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press): Hugo Chávez and His Legacy of Plunder
• The New York Times: In the End, An Awful Manager
• The Investor's Business Daily: Chávez's Gift: More Poverty
• The (Norfolk) Virginia Pilot: Venezuelan President Was a Hero to the Poor but Seen as a Dictator
• The Washington Post: Anti-U.S. Leader Had Promised Revolution
• USA Today: Chávez Put Vanity Ahead of Country
• New York Post: 'El Loco' Bids Farewell: Loss Felt Only on the Left

So there you have it: Chávez was incompetent, a dictator, all talk and no action, a vain man who plundered his country, a man who impoverished his people and still snookered them into worshiping him, and a man who, on top of it all, was crazy.

The National Memory System, then, wants us to remember four broad themes about the Chávez era in Venezuela:

1. Chávez was a dictator; democracy suffered under his presidency.

2. Venezuela went backwards under Chávez, and is now worse off than other Latin American countries.

3. His numerous failures were due to incompetence and vanity, if not dishonesty and criminality.

4. Chávez was "anti-American" or "anti-U.S.".

That's the line, echoed endlessly in the halls of North American power. How does it square with reality? That's what this issue of Nygaard Notes is all about.


Was Chávez A Dictator?

U.S. journalists always seem to quote Venezuelans who see Chávez as an enemy of democracy. While there no doubt are plenty who do see things this way, most people in Venezuela don't seem to agree. In a 2010 poll, the Chile-based polling firm LatinoBarómetro found that "democracy has a high level of legitimacy" in Venezuela, and that the level of "satisfaction with democracy" within Venezuela ranks third in the region, behind only Costa Rica and Uruguay.

In an earlier poll (2008) LatinoBarómetro asked Venezuelans "Do you think that democracy in Venezuela works better or worse than or equal to the rest of Latin America?" 33 percent in Venezuela said "Better", behind only Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay. The average for citizens of the various Latin American countries is 21 percent.

A Vanderbilt University report from earlier this month concluded that "according to the most recent AmericasBarometer survey carried out by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), the Venezuelan public's support for democracy is the second highest in the region."

Are the people of Venezuela deluded about their own country, having been blinded by what TIME Magazine called "Chávez's quasi-religious bond with Venezuela's poor"? It doesn't seem like it.

Former President Jimmy Carter mentioned Venezuelan democracy in a speech last fall marking the Carter Center's 30th anniversary. The corporate news service "Business Wire" began its September 21st report like this: "Former US President Jimmy Carter stated, 'As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we've monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world' during the kickoff of the Annual Conversations at the Carter Center series. Basing his opinion on the vast experience amassed by the institution observing and monitoring elections around the world, Mr. Carter praised the South American nation for having a voting system that makes verifying results an easy task."

Carter's remarks went unreported in U.S. newspapers, but Venezuela's elections have repeatedly been judged by international observers to be, if not "the best in the world," certainly free and fair.

For example, the National Lawyers Guild sent a delegation to observe the 2012 elections. Their report, released on January 23rd, noted that "The NLG delegation concluded, as did all the other delegations that submitted reports, that the voting process in Venezuela's 2012 Presidential Election was fair, transparent, accessible, participatory, fully auditable, and accountable to all Venezuelan citizens."

The Venezuela Solidarity Campaign UK noted last October, just before the election, that "This will be Venezuela's 15th set of national elections since Hugo Chávez was elected President in 1999. That is more sets of elections than took place in the 40 years prior to Hugo Chávez becoming President. It is also one of the highest number of elections held in any country in the world in that time. All have been declared free and fair including by international bodies such as the European Union and the Organisation of American States (OAS)."

In light of this record, it's worth stating some facts about the four presidential elections that have been won by Hugo Chávez. In 1998, Chávez first won the presidency with 56 percent of the vote, amidst a turnout of 63 percent, "one of the largest margins in Venezuelan history." After voters approved a new constitution, another nationwide election was held in the year 2000, which Chávez won with 60 percent of the vote; turnout was 56 percent. In 2006 he won with 63 percent of the vote, turnout of 75 percent. And last October he won with 54 percent of the vote, in a very high turnout of 77 percent.

Democracy is more than elections, of course. Greg Wilpert, in a March 7th article "The Life and Legacy of Hugo Chávez" on the website Venezuelanalysis, referred to what he called the "project" of "participatory democracy" in Venezuela. Wilpert noted that "This project, which is still incomplete, has put over 30,000 communal councils in charge of their own neighborhoods, so that people feel like they have a stake in their future like never before."

In a recent newscast on The Real News Network, correspondent David Dougherty gave a hint of what these councils mean to the Venezuelan people. Reporting from a poor Venezuelan neighborhood called La Vega, he noted that the people living in such neighborhoods "often encounter problems with basic infrastructure that can make life difficult, and at times dangerous." But things have changed, as Dougherty explains:

Residents had petitioned previous governments for decades to build a proper drainage system to address the problem, which often left homes flooded or inaccessible. Now community residents are almost done with the construction of a drainage system along the side of the road, one of the latest examples of a series of projects proposed and executed by their consejo comunal, or communal council. The communal councils are an initiative of president Hugo Chávez's government that have grown in Venezuela, described as a new model of participatory democracy. They involve the formation of self-organized neighborhood organizations comprised of residents from the community who propose and vote on development projects and public policies, which they then execute themselves utilizing resources distributed by the state.

The idea that Venezuela may have become more democratic under Chávez will sound crazy to anyone whose knowledge of the country comes entirely from the U.S. media. And that should tell us something.


The Economy Under Chávez

Hugo Chávez was elected for the first time in 1998. However, as economist Mark Weisbrot points out in his essay "Economic Growth in Venezuela" from last October,

It is not reasonable . . . to include the years 1999-2003 in looking at the Chávez government's growth record. During these years, the government did not have control over the national oil industry; even worse, it was controlled by people who, according to the prominent Venezuelan opposition journalist Teodoro Petkoff, had a strategy of "military takeover." Not only the military coup of 2002, but the management-led oil strike of 2002-2003 was devastating to the economy, inflicting a loss of about 29 percent of GDP.

Weisbrot recommends, for fairness' sake, that the relevant starting point for looking at economic performance in Venezuela under Chávez would be 2004. So, for the most part, that's what I'll do.

Economic Performance in General

According to Weisbrot, in the years before Chávez was first elected—1980-1998—Venezuela's "per capita GDP actually declined by 14 percent." Adds Weisbrot, "Since 1998, the economy has had modest per capita GDP growth," and "Measuring from 2004. . . GDP per person has grown by an average of 2.5 percent annually" which has "led to a large reduction in poverty and extreme poverty, as well as numerous other gains in health care and education due to increases in social spending."

Critics often cite high inflation as an indictment of the Chávez years, yet Weisbrot notes that "as high as Venezuela's 22 percent annual rate of inflation has been (since 1998), it was much worse (34 percent) in the pre-Chávez years."

According to the CIA, the unemployment rate in Venezuela in 1999, when Chávez was sworn into office, was 18 percent. In 2011 it was 8.2 percent. Urban unemployment in 2009 was 8th in the region, better than Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, and Peru.

A January 23rd opinion piece in the New York Times complained that Chávez had saddled his country "With dwindling productivity, an overvalued currency and an enormous foreign debt load." Leave aside for the moment that these accusations apply to the United States as well, and consider that "real GDP per capita, which is mostly driven by productivity growth, expanded by 24 percent since 2004." It's true that Venezuela's currency is overvalued, but nonetheless its external debt burden is lower than those of Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia, lower than virtually all the European countries, and far lower than the external debt of the USA. The interest burden of Venezuela's foreign debt, as a percentage of its public sector export earnings "is also not very high—peaking in 2012 at about 3% of export earnings," according to Weisbrot.


Social Health Under Chávez: Poverty, Inequality, and More

Although many economists tend to measure the success or failure of an economy largely by growth—and Venezuela is doing quite well by that standard; see previous article—a growing economy does not necessarily benefit everyone equally. To assess the social health of a society it is necessary to look at levels of poverty and inequality. And here Venezuela in the Chávez era—1998-2013—appears to have made significant progress.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research noted in a report from September 2012 that "both poverty and extreme poverty have seen a large decline in Venezuela over the past 13 years. . . Measuring from 1999—ignoring that the government could not do much of anything during the first four years—poverty has fallen from 42.8 percent of households to 26.7 percent, or a 37.6 percent decline in the poverty rate. Measuring from 2004. . . the decline is 49.7 percent... Extreme poverty declined even more, from 16.6 to 7.0 percent from 1999 to 2011, or a 57.8 percent decline. Measuring from 2004, the decline is 70 percent."

In comparison to other countries, United Nations figures from last year show that Venezuela ranks 8th (out of 18 countries studied) in overall urban poverty rates, and 9th in "extreme poverty."
A new anti-poverty program, introduced in December 2011, "is expected to lower the extreme poverty rate by half, to about 3.5 percent."


A March 7th article in the business wire service Bloomberg News reported that "Venezuela has the lowest rate of income inequality—the smallest gap between the rich and the poor—of all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a March 5 report by UN-HABITAT, the United Nations Human Settlements Program. . . Venezuela has the region's lowest [rate of inequality]." Adds Bloomberg, the level of inequality "has fallen 'significantly' since 1990." [Nygaard: The report actually came out in August 2012, but the Bloomberg report is otherwise accurate.]

Duncan Green writes a blog for the anti-poverty international development group Oxfam called "From Poverty to Power." In a 2010 piece in his blog entitled "Venezuela: Latin America's inequality success story," Green noted that "Venezuela certainly seems to be getting something right on inequality. According to the highly reputable UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, it now has the most equal distribution of income in the region, and has improved rapidly since 1990."

Overall Social Health

The Bloomberg article cited above led off by saying that "Venezuelans' quality of life improved at the third-fastest pace worldwide and income inequality narrowed during the presidency of Hugo Chávez, who tapped the world's biggest oil reserves to aid the poor. Venezuela moved up seven spots to 73 out of 187 countries in the United Nation's index of human development from 2006 to 2011, a period that covers the latter half of Chávez's rule, which ended with his death March 5. That progress trails only Cuba and Hong Kong in the index, which is based on life expectancy, health and education levels."

Other Signs of Progress

INFRASTRUCTURE/PUBLIC HEALTH: Venezuela ranks fifth in the region in terms of the percentage of its urban population with piped water. In "access to sanitation" Venezuela ranks 3rd in the region.

WOMEN: UN-HABITAT reported last August that "According to data available for 17 countries, the greatest degree of equality exists in Venezuela, where women earn 94.8 per cent of men's wages." The same report notes that Venezuela has the third-highest percentage of female mayors in the region, at 18 percent (behind Belize and Cuba). The regional average is less than 10 percent.

IMMIGRATION: In a telling statistic, Venezuela has the second-highest number of immigrants in the region (after Argentina). Back in 2010 the New York Times reported that "Venezuela is in the throes of an immigration puzzle. While large numbers of the middle class head for the exits, hundreds of thousands of foreign merchants and laborers have put down stakes here in recent years..."

About that "puzzle"... On May 21st last year, Tamara Pearson reported in that "Immigrants are attracted to Venezuela for a number of reasons including ease of migration, ease of setting up a small business, the political situation, and access to health care. Public health care in Venezuela does not discriminate according to country of origin or residency status. Venezuela also does not deport foreigners, even if their visa has expired. It will only deport them if they are committing serious crimes in the country."

HUNGER AND NOURISHMENT: In a December 2012 article in Counterpunch called "The Achievements of Hugo Chávez," three scholars discussed food security in recent years in Venezuela: "Before the Chávez government in 1998, 21 percent of the population was malnourished. Venezuela now has established a network of subsidized food distribution including grocery stores and supermarkets. While 90 percent of the food was imported in 1980, today this is less than 30 percent. Misión Agro-Venezuela has given out 454,238 credits to rural producers and 39,000 rural producers have received credit in 2012 alone. Five million Venezuelan receive free food, four million of them are children in schools and 6,000 food kitchens feed 900,000 people. The agrarian reform and policies to help agricultural producers have increased domestic food supply. The results of all these food security measures is that today malnourishment is only 5 percent, and child malnutrition—which was 7.7 percent in 1990—today is at 2.9 percent."

In an opinion piece in The Real News on March 7th entitled "The Life and Legacy of Hugo Chávez," Gregory Wilpert listed other programs initiated under Chávez "having to do with the eradication of illiteracy, providing elementary, high school, and university education for the country's poor, giving financial support to poor single mothers, expanding and increasing retirement benefits, providing neighborhood doctors to all communities, introducing a comprehensive land reform program, and, most recently, launching a massive public housing construction program, among many other social programs."

This is the reality to which the Miami Herald, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, were referring with their headline, Hugo Chávez and His Legacy of Plunder.