Venezuela’s HUGO CHAVEZ is a symbol of hope for all of Latin America
Hugo Chavez was re-elected president of Venezuela on Sunday,
by a margin of 11 percentage points. For most people who have
heard or read about Chavez in the international media, this
might be puzzling. Almost all of the news we hear about
Venezuela is bad: Chavez is cantankerous and picks fights
with the United States and sides with “enemies” such as Iran;
he is a “dictator” or “strongman” who has squandered the
nation’s oil wealth; the economy is plagued by shortages and
is usually on the brink of collapse.
Then there is the other side of the story: since the Chavez
government got control over the national oil industry,
poverty has been cut by half and extreme poverty by 70
percent. College enrollment has more than doubled, millions
of people have access to health care for the first time, and
the number of people eligible for public pensions has
So it is not surprising that most Venezuelans would re-elect
a president who has improved their living standards. That’s
what has happened with all of the left governments that now
govern most of South America: they have been re-elected. This
is despite the fact that they, like Chavez, have most of
their countries’ media against them, and their opposition
also has most of the wealth and income of their respective
The list includes Rafael Correa, re-elected President of
Ecuador by a wide margin in 2009; the enormously popular
Lula da Silva of Brazil, re- elected in 2006, and
successfully campaigned for his former Chief of Staff, now
President Dilma Rousseff, in 2010; Evo Morales, Bolvia’s
first indigenous president in a majority indigenous country,
re-elected in 2009; José Mujica succeeded his predecessor
from the same political alliance in Uruguay – the Frente
Amplio — in 2009; Cristina Fernández succeeded her husband,
the late Néstor Kirchner, winning the 2011 Argentine
presidential election by a solid margin – also with the
largest media against her.
All of these left presidents and their political parties won
re-election because, like Chavez, they brought significant,
and in some cases huge, improvements in living standards.
They all originally campaigned against “neoliberalism,” a
word used to describe the policies of the prior 20 years,
when Latin America experienced its worst long term economic
growth failure in more than a century.
Not surprisingly, the other left governments have seen
Venezuela as part of a team that has brought more democracy,
national sovereignty, and economic and social progress to the
region. Yes, democracy, too: even the much-maligned
Venezuela is recognized by most scholarly research as more
democratic than it was in the pre-Chavez era.
And democracy was at issue when South America stood together
against Washington on such issues as the 2009 military coup
in Honduras. The differences were so pronounced that they led
to the formation of a new hemispheric-wide organization
including everyone but the U.S. and Canada, as an alternative
to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States.
Here is Lula last month: “A victory for Chavez (in the
upcoming election) is not just a victory for the people of
Venezuela but also a victory for all the people of Latin
America . . . this victory will strike another blow against
imperialism.” The other left presidents have the same views
The Bush administration pursued a strategy of trying to
isolate Venezuela from its neighbors, and ended up isolating
itself. President Obama promised in the 2009 Summit of the
Americas to pursue a different course; but he didn’t, and at
the 2012 Summit he was as isolated as his predecessor.
Although the media has been dominated by stories of
Venezuela’s impending economic collapse for more than a
decade, it hasn’t happened and is not likely to happen. After
recovering from a recession that began in 2009, during the
world economic crisis, the Venezuelan economy has been
growing for two-and-a-half years now and inflation has fallen
sharply while growth has accelerated. The country has a
sizeable trade surplus. Its public debt is relatively low and
so is its debt service burden. It has plenty of room to
borrow foreign currency (it has borrowed $36 billion from
China, mostly at very low interest rates), and can borrow
domestically as well at low or negative real interest rates.
So even if oil prices were to crash temporarily (as in
2008-2009), there would be no need for austerity or
recession. And hardly anyone is predicting a long-term
collapse of oil prices.
The U.S. economic embargo against Cuba has persisted for more
than half a century, despite its obvious stupidity and
failure. U.S. hostility toward Venezuela is only about 12
years old, but shows no sign of being reconsidered, despite
that it is also alienating the rest of the hemisphere.
Venezuela has about 500 billion barrels of oil and is burning
them currently at a rate of one billion barrels a year.
Chavez or a successor from the same party will likely be
governing the country for many years to come. The only
question is when – if ever – Washington will accept the
results of democratic change in the region.