Wednesday 6 March 2013

The death of Hugo Chávez

On March 4th 2013 the President of Venezuela died after a 21 month battle against cancer. 

Chávez was a man that divided opinion like no other: He had his critics, but he also had the adoration of the Venezuelan public for his genuine efforts to drag the majority of his people out of abject poverty. He was as much a figurehead for the anti-neoliberal anti-imperialist left as he was a hate figure for right wingers.

It didn't matter where you read about him in the mainstream press, within the first few comments someone would always show up to denounce Chávez as a "dictator" and decry the "damage" he'd done to the Venezuelan economy. Even on the day after his death the vile Murdoch press wouldn't give it a rest, printing a revoltingly gleeful piece the Boston Herald deriding him as a "despot".

The problem with most of these right-wing criticisms is that they are completely inaccurate. Chavez won democratic elections with huge majorities time and again. Not only did he win elections, he also established in Venezuela a modern democratic voting system that should be the envy of the world.

In Venezuela voters first register by inputting their name, national ID number and thumbprint into a console. They then cast an electronic vote for their preferred party candidate on a touchscreen. Their vote is counted electronically and is also printed so that the voter can confirm that it has been recorded properly before putting this paper copy in a ballot box (the contents of which is later cross-checked with the electronic data to ensure the system has not been manipulated). Voters then sign a form to confirm they have cast a vote. Before they leave, the little finger on their left hand is marked with indelible purple ink so they cannot return to vote a second time. External observers and domestic analysts have praised the procedure as one of the most sophisticated systems in the world. Luis Guillermo Piedra, of the National Electoral Council stated that "our system is 100% fraud proof and has been recognised as such by outside political institutions". Former US president Jimmy Carter has described the Venezuelan voting system as superior to that of the US and Forbes even suggested the US copy Venezuela's electoral system.

Not only was he repeatedly elected, he did it under one of the fairest and most robust voting systems in the world (a system implemented by his own party). It would take a tremendous sufferer of confirmation bias to read that and stick with their interpretation that Chávez is a dictator.

Chávez inspired such strong feeling that the turnout at his last election was over 80.5%. 55.1% of voters cast their vote for Chávez, but a huge 44.3% cast their votes for his rival Henrique Capriles. 

To put this into perspective, Chávez gathered 44.32% of votes from the eligible electorate (every eligible voter, whether they voted or not). No post-war British Prime Minister has even managed to gather 40% of the eligible vote, the highest being Winston Churchill who claimed 39.65% of the eligible vote in 1951. In recent years the mandate from the UK electorate has been absolutely abysmal. Only 23.47% of eligible voters cast their votes for the current Prime Minister David Cameron and in 2005 the votes of just 21.58% of the eligible voting public were enough to hand Tony Blair a thumping parliamentary majority.

In fact, political participation is so poor in the UK that having gathered 35.65% of the eligible vote, the runner up in the 2012 Venezuelan election Henrique Caprillas would have had a much stronger mandate to rule his country than any UK Prime Minister since Harold Wilson picked up 36.38% of the eligible vote way back in 1966!

One of the most mealy-mouthed responses to the death of Chávez came from the supposedly left-wing US President Barack Obama who tried to desperately imply that Chávez was a dictator and a despot with the statement that "as Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights." Would this be the same United States that backed a military coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chávez in 2002 and were the only country to officially recognise the new military regime until it was toppled just days later by a huge popular uprising? Yes it would!

The accusation that Chávez "ruined" the Venezuelan economy is as inaccurate as the claims that he was a dictator. When Chávez came to power in 1999 Venezuelan GNI (in current US dollars) was $3,763, by 2011 that had risen to $11,820.  A threefold growth in per-capita wealth in the space of 12 years hardly looks like economic ruination to me!

Despite the gross inaccuracy of the criticisms from the right-wing, Chávez did have faults, his seemingly endless speeches, his adoption of the "an enemy of my enemy is my friend" policy with various despots and dictators (Lukashenko, Ahmadinijad, Gadaffi)  his decisions to shut down several TV stations and rising levels of violent crime in Venezuela.

There are mitigating factors for all of these bar the first (there is no excuse for eleven hour long televised polemics, even if you are a President with a thumping democratic mandate).

The cosy relations Chavez maintained with despots like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is my biggest criticism, it can be mitigated by the fact that the "Western imperialists" in the US and the UK he so vocally opposed have also maintained very cosy relationships with dictators and despotic regimes (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain...). However, the fact that he was only doing what his enemies did is hardly an excuse.

I'm a vocal critic of censorship and an advocate of press freedom, so the shutting down of TV stations is never going to appeal to me, however there is a much better excuse for this than his cosy relationships with dictators. Several of the TV stations he shut down called for and celebrated the 2002 military coup. Imagine if Sky or Fox News started openly advocating for a military coup against the British or American government... Under these circumstances I believe that fabled western freedom of the press might be somewhat curtailed, don't you? It doesn't matter which definition of "freedom of the press" you're using, it doesn't extend to inciting military coups against your own government.

The rise in violent crime in Venezuela over the last decade is very difficult to explain. It is generally accepted that poverty and crime are related, so one would have expected the dramatic decline in absolute poverty under the rule of Hugo Chávez to result in a fall in violent crime, not a surge. One possible explanation is that Venezuela is situated next door to one of the most violent and crime riddled nations on earth. Perhaps criminal and paramilitary elements from Colombia attracted by Venezuela's new found prosperity under Chávez could form part of the explanation.

Despite these criticisms, one thing is absolutely certain: Hugo Chávez was good for the majority of Venezuelans. Under the Chávez presidency, rates of poverty in Venezuela were slashed; education, public infrastructure and health services were dramatically improved; the economy improved and unemployment declined rapidly.
  • In 1999 when Chávez came to power, 23.4% of Venezuelans were living in extreme poverty, by 2011 that figure had fallen to just 8.5%. 
  • In 1999 general poverty stood at 62.1%, by 2011 it was down to 32.9%. 
  • In 1999 Venezuelan GNI (in current US dollars) was $3,763, by 2011 that had risen to $11,820. 
  • In 1999 infant mortality was 20 per 1,000 live births, by 2011 that was down to 13 per thousand. 
  • In 1999 Venezuelan unemployment was 14.5%, by 2011 that was down to 8.2%. 
  • In 1999 Venezuela's GINI Index rating was a shockingly unequal 47.8%, by 2011 that had fallen to 39%.
It is for these reasons that Chávez is hated by the right wing, he clearly demonstrated that left-wing policies such as lifting people out of poverty and improving infrastructure and public services could be compatible with prosperity and economic growth. By leading his nation to increased prosperity with democratic, popular, progressive and left-wing policies he demonstrated that the beloved neoliberal orthodoxy of the West is not the only economic option and inspired a new generation of progressive left-wing populists in South and Central America..

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