Supporters of Hugo Chavez, the recently deceased former Venezuelan president, and even many of his critics, have repeatedly emphasized two supposed achievements that will burnish his legacy. First, the share of people living in poverty plummeted to approximately 28 percent last year, from a peak of 62 percent in 2003 (though it was 46 percent three years earlier, at the beginning of Chavez’s first term). Second, he gave to a majority of Venezuelans a sense of identity, pride and dignity long denied them by a corrupt, elitist, light-skinned oligarchy.
However, both claims are only partly true, and only partly account for Chavez’s recurrent electoral victories — 13 of 14 popular votes, including referendums. As for the first claim, both The Economist and the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa were right to put Chavez’s achievement in perspective. Almost every country in Latin America has reduced poverty significantly since the beginning of this century, with the extent of progress depending on baselines and cut-off dates, good years and bad years, the reliability of official data, and other factors.
The reasons for this progress are well known: With the exception of 2001 and 2009, these were boom years for commodity-exporting countries like Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and, of course, Venezuela, as well as for manufacturing-based economies, such as Mexico. Furthermore, during these nearly 15 years, most governments have managed their accounts responsibly: small or no fiscal deficits, low inflation, well-targeted anti-poverty programs and so on.
This has helped to lower not only poverty, but also inequality, Latin America’s traditional scourge. According to the economist Nora Lustig, between 2000 and 2010, “income inequality … declined in all 17 Latin American countries for which comparable data exist.”
The decline was especially pronounced in the three largest countries — Brazil, Mexico and Argentina — which comprise nearly 75 percent of the region’s population.
One difference in Venezuela is that Chavez spent more than US$1 trillion to achieve the same feat — in a country with a population one-sixth the size of Brazil’s and slightly more than one-quarter the size of Mexico’s. While the long-term viability and effectiveness of conditional cash-transfer programs in Brazil and Mexico is questionable, these anti-poverty initiatives certainly are better designed than Chavez’s massive, blanket subsidies on everything from poultry and flour to housing and gasoline.
Then there is the destruction of Venezuelan industry, the spectacular increase in violence, the explosion of foreign debt and the depletion of foreign-currency reserves that has accompanied Chavez’s so-called “Bolivarian socialism of the 21st century.” None of these problems has afflicted the region’s other large countries — or at least not to anywhere near the same extent. If Chavez had not played with the numbers, as demagogues and populist leaders tend to do, the results would be more disheartening.
The second argument in defense of Chavez’s legacy is a bit more robust, but not much. True, Venezuela’s immense natural riches have been exploited and often squandered by elites more accustomed to the boulevards of Miami than to the slums of Caracas. However, it is equally true that Venezuela enjoyed 40 years of democratic rule before Chavez, under the 1958 Punto Fijo Pact, whereby two parties, one social democratic and the other social Christian, alternated in power peacefully.
Venezuela also boasted one of the region’s most vibrant civil societies, with some of its freest and most vigorous media. With the exception of the Caracazo — a wave of protests against free-market reforms in 1989 that resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths — there were only minor bouts of repression.
To be sure, large swaths of Venezuelan society rightly felt excluded from the country’s cozy elite consensus and insular governing arrangements, and resented it immensely; but an aspiring middle class comprised roughly half the population. Chavez exploited — and widened — that division; indeed, as the current campaign to elect his successor shows, the country remains more polarized than ever.
It may well be that Chavez’s purported feats and popularity will outlast him. Instead of a simple rotation of elites in power, perhaps what occurred during his time in office was the advent of political leadership that looks, talks, worships and loves like the people of the country — leadership that identifies with and benefits the millions of Venezuelans who previously were marginalized. In that case, Chavez’s designated successor, Nicolas Maduro, will make short work of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the upcoming election. Chavismo will outlive Chavez.
However, whatever the outcome, all the mourning and embalming will not alter a simple fact: Venezuela and its people are not clearly better off than they were 14 years ago and whatever modest improvements they may feel in their lives were also secured elsewhere, at a far lower economic and political cost.
Jorge G. Castaneda, former foreign minister of Mexico, is professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate