A Few Myths About Chavez’s Venezuela

Okay, I promise this will be the last post on the matter. But some of the tropes that come up time and time again in coverage of Chavez’s legacy, from neocons and faux-leftists alike, just have to be addressed for me to rest easy. Note that this is NOT meant to be comprehensive; just some things that continuously get slipped in on the side and tend to get taken for granted.

Chavez rigged elections. Look, I like to think I’m objective here. Some politicians I like rule countries where electoral fraud is widespread. But Venezuela isn’t Russia in this respect. Not only are election results consistent with pre-elections, unbiased polls, but Venezuela’s voting technology makes fraud extremely difficult. See Mark Weisbrot:

In Venezuela, voters touch a computer screen to cast their vote and then receive a paper receipt, which they verify and deposit in a ballot box. Most of the paper ballots are compared with the electronic tally. This system makes vote-rigging nearly impossible: to steal the vote would require hacking the computers and then stuffing the ballot boxes to match the rigged vote.

Unlike in the US, where in a close vote we really have no idea who won (see Bush v Gore), Venezuelans can be sure that their vote counts. And also unlike the US, where as many as 90 million eligible voters will not vote in November, the government in Venezuela has done everything to increase voter registration (now at a record of about 97%) and participation.

Chavez closed down critical TV stations. And yet the old case of the failure to prolong RCTV’s broadcasting license continues to be cited as the main evidence of this media “suppression.” E.g. from the faux-liberal Daily Beast:

And yet Latin America’s new democratic leaders rarely spoke against the excesses of Chávismo, turning a blind eye when he canceled the operating license of independent broadcaster RCTV in 2007…

What typically goes studiously unmentioned is that RCTV gleefully and one-sidedly supported the foreign-backed coup attempt against the legitimately elected Chavez administration in 2002. In many other countries, this would have been considered treason, with the attendant penalties of long-term imprisonment or even execution. In humane Venezuela, however, you just lose your broadcasting license.

Electricity blackouts. Guardianista presstite Rory Carroll, who clearly has an agenda:

He leaves Venezuela a ruin, and his death plunges its roughly 30 million citizens into profound uncertainty.

Because that exactly describes an increase in GDP per capita from $4,105 in 1999 to $10,810 in 2011 (according to his own newspaper). As Craig Willy says:

But particularly hilarious is this statement:

Underinvestment and ineptitude hit hydropower stations and the electricity grid, causing weekly blackouts that continue to darken cities, fry electrical equipment, silence machinery and require de facto rationing.

Because of course they never happen in pro-Western, investor-friendly countries.

Chavez stole $2 billion. These are rumors that keep slithering about in the comments from various neocons, although they rarely pop up into mainstream media texts outright. Apparently this claim comes from some right-wing law firm in Miami that claims the Castro brothers of Cuba are billionaires too. I find it about as credible as claims about Putin’s $40 billion fortune (or is it $70 billion now?), initially made by some non-entity Russian political scientist, and Gaddafi’s $200 billion fortune, probably spread by the CIA or somesuch in the course of NATO’s assault on the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (very ironic, coming from thieves who had seized Libya’s foreign-based assets). Funny how it’s always those who dare stand up to Western imperialism who get accused by their flunkies of massive corruption, no? I wonder if one causes the other?

Oil dependence. A lot of the presstitutes have accused Chavez of increasing Venezuela’s oil dependence, e.g.:

Former minister Gerver Torres points out that in 1998 oil represented 77 percent of Venezuela’s exports but by 2011 oil represented 96 percent of exports. That means today only around 4 percent of the goods that Venezuela exports are non-oil products! The Venezuelan economy relies almost exclusively on the price of oil and the ability of the government to spend oil revenues.

That’s kind of what happens when the oil price goes from being $11.91 per barrel (in 1998) to $87.04 (in 2011)! Funny how they harp on about how rising oil prices “unfairly” helped Chavez but then instantly shut up about it when making THIS particular point.

Higher violent crime. Not a myth. In fact, as I made clear, it’s one of the Chavez administration’s very biggest failings. Then ago, we also have many of the presstitutes claiming he was a dictator – even though the precise opposite happens with real dictators (they don’t tolerate alternate sources of violence, and they don’t bother with legal niceties; they just put all the suspected mafiosi up against a wall – put the two together, and violent crime almost always plummets under the rule of real dictators. The Sicilian Mafia actually provided help to Allied troops against the Mussolini regime).

He was friends with Ahmadinejad. Plenty of Western politicians are friends with Saudi prices. Drop the double standards.

He was anti-American. Well, what can you expect if you plot a coup against someone and then incessantly demonize him for not respecting democracy? Like Castro, incidentally, he actually started out fairly pro-American. It didn’t have to be this way.

He didn’t build skyscrapers. This has to be read to be believed. From AP’s Pamela Sampson:

Chavez invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world’s tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.

The author’s agenda speaks for itself. (Not to mention her ignorance – while Venezuela remains fiscally sound, Dubai’s big tower remains 80% unoccupied and needed a $10 billion bailout. Had Chavez listened to people like these then Venezuela would have gone bankrupt for real, not just in their sordid, bitter like imaginations).


  1. Dear Anatoly,

    First of all apologies for my delay in commenting on your previous fine article and on this one. I had my second eye operation on Tuesday. It was successful but this time there were complications and it is only today that I have been able to start reading and writing again. If you don’t mind since both your two most recent articles are about Chavez I will say what I think about him in a single comment on this thread.

    Any discussion of Chavez must explain why he was (to his detractors) such a terrible man. He was a terrible man because he did a terrible thing. This terrible thing was to distribute Venezuela’s oil wealth to the majority of its people by funding ambitious health, education and social security programmes.

    To understand why doing this was so terrible one must understand something about the historic situation not just in Venezuela but throughout Latin America (Costa Rica being the exception). Briefly, political and social power in Latin America since before independence from Spain has been concentrated in a small group of wealthy families who conduct bitter and even violent political feuds with each other using labels such as “Liberal” and “Conservative” but who unite when faced by a challenge to their power. This oligarchy sustains itself through the support of a middle class that sees its social and economic interests as bound up with those of the oligarchy. Concepts of a wider social contract underpinned by shared patriotism and by a sense of social responsibility do not exist. The mass of the population are excluded and typecast as lazy, shiftless, dishonest and violent. This justifies denying them a share in the country’s economic profits, which supposedly neither belong to them or are deserved by them, and which makes any attempt to share these economic profits with them a theft from those to whom these profits supposedly actually belong. All this is underpinned by an ugly strain of racism with the middle class and the oligarchy priding themselves on their whiteness whilst often concealing their mixed origin whilst emphasising or exaggerating the colour of the poor.

    The result is that governments in Latin America have historically failed to provide even the most basic services at even a remotely satisfactory level. The only institutions in Latin American that have historically been reasonably funded have been the very highest echelons of the state bureaucracy and the judiciary (which is usually recruited directly from the oligarchy) and the army and police whose main function is not to defend the nation from foreign aggression to keep the poor in order.

    In such a system requiring the oligarchy and the middle class to pay taxes to fund say a good system of universal secondary education from which the poor might benefit is an idea so outrageous that it is guaranteed to provoke passionate and often violent anger and resistance. Americans, Europeans, East Asians and indeed Russians find all this very difficult to understand. As a Greek I am better able to understand it not only because it resembles the historic situation in my own society but because a section of my family emigrated to Argentina where they are today members of what was once the country’s oligarchy.

    Not surprisingly in a Continent where basic education and health care for the bulk of the population was scarcely provided (though the means to do so was always there) economic development has been disappointing to say the least. However since this is a system that is deeply embedded and which is sustained by often extreme violence all previous attempts to change it have been largely unsuccessful with reformers likely to end up either in exile or dead. I am not going to discuss the role of the US in sustaining this system since it is so well known. I would say that I do think people who blame the US for Latin America’s problems overlook the many internal reasons why Latin American societies have historically been as dysfunctional as they are.

    For Chavez to redistribute the country’s oil wealth to the poor instead of doling it out to the rich and the middle class – who have an absolute belief in their entitlement to it – was outrageous enough. What made it made more outrageous still is that he got away with it. Over the time he was President he saw off every challenge the oligarchy and its American friends could throw at him. This included the whole bag of tricks: media campaigns, middle class demonstrations with all the usual colourful paraphernalia (banging kettles etc), economic destabilisation (eg. the 2003 oil workers’ strike), attempted coups (in 2002) and endless constitutional “challenges” and legal and electoral subterfuges rubber stamped by a predictably pro oligarch judiciary.

    Chavez’s success in seeing off these challenges was bad enough but what was perfectly monstrous and completely unforgiveable both to his domestic detractors and even more so to their foreign patrons is that he saw off all these challenges whilst remaining a democrat. At no point, even in the face of the most extreme provocations when he would have been fully justified to do so, did he proclaim martial law, round up and gaol his opponents (let alone exile or murder them), impose censorship, ban opposition newspapers and parties (though he had cause enough) or set up a secret police. The result was that he not only deprived his enemies of the single greatest and most convincing propaganda instrument in their arsenal, but he also deprived them of the excuse they needed to blockade or embargo his country, seize its assets and foment armed resistance to his government as a possible prelude to armed intervention and externally imposed regime change.

    To see how frustrated Chavez’s opponents are with his survival in office as a democrat just consider the bizarre contortions their media organs engage in to prove that despite holding and repeatedly winning internationally recognised free elections Chavez was a dictator after all. Thus ludicrous claims of Chavez being a “democratic autocrat” and the like, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, which whatever traction they may have in the west with the prejudiced and the credulous, in Venezuela itself have no traction at all.

    Chavez’s greatest victory is that he died in office as President and as a democrat having seen off all challenges whilst persisting with his policies against all the odds. By doing so he has shown to the people not just of Venezuela but of all Latin America that it is possible to take on the oligarchy and the US and their middle class supporters and win without giving up on democracy. This is a momentous achievement, never achieved by anyone else before, which will not be forgotten. Whatever happens in Venezuela now, even if there is a rollback, Chavez will cast a long shadow and his example will remain an inspiration to millions. Far from being a dictator or a despot he was Latin America’s greatest and most important democratic politician since Bolivar.

    I would just finish with a few further points:

    1. The Economist in its article on the death of Chavez has managed to surpass even itself in its lying and mendacity.


    Note specifically the way the Economist describes the 2002 coup attempt

    “…..But he (Chavez) ruled by confrontation and decree rather than by consensus. That triggered severe political unrest. The tensions came to a head on April 11th 2002, when hundreds of thousands marched on the presidential palace to demand Mr. Chavez’s resignation: 19 people died, many killed by snipers who were never identified. When the army refused his order to use force to suppress the protests, the president surrendered his office; his most senior general told the nation he had resigned. But after a conservative business leader proclaimed himself president on April 12 and declared the constitution abolished, the army switched sides again and restored Mr. Chavez to power.”

    These weasel words to describe a coup planned months in advance fill one with disgust. Chavez never ordered the army “to suppress the protests” (instead he tried to go on television to appeal for calm but his broadcast was blocked), the army never refused to carry out his order “to suppress the protests” since he never gave such an order in the first place, he was in no way responsible for the killing of the 19 demonstrators (some of whom were his supporters), the identity of their killers has never been firmly established but the most likely theory is that it was a provocation planned in advance and carried out by the Caracas police who supported the coup, Chavez never “surrendered office” (whatever that means) or resigned (no written resignation document was ever produced) though this was falsely claimed at the time by the coup plotters and was falsely reported by Venezuelan television and radio (which supported the coup), the army did not “change sides” and “restore” Chavez to power, the army split into pro and anti Chavez factions but the decisive factor in defeating the coup and in bringing Chavez back to power was the massive popular mobilisation in his support by the people of Caracas when they heard over Cuban radio and television (Venezuela radio and television refusing to broadcast it) confirmation from Chavez that he had not resigned.

    Reading comments like this clarifies who the true democrats are. The Economist says it champions democracy but calls Chavez an “autocrat”, though he always governed constitutionally and democratically, and falsely claims he ordered his army to fire on peaceful protesters, which he never did. At the same time it repeats the lies of those who sought undemocratically and unconstitutionally to overthrow him and to establish a dictatorship. Here is one instance when the mask has well and truly dropped. Given a choice between a left wing democrat and right wing would be dictators the Economist supports the right wing would be dictators and lies on their behalf.

    2. It has become an axiom in sections of the western media that Chavez mismanaged Venezuela’s economy, which supposedly is teetering on the brink of collapse or hyperinflation or both. The facts (discussed in your article) do not bear out these claims. No one would claim of Chavez that he was much of an administrator but his handling of the economy though hardly brilliant was perfectly creditable and to call Venezuela a basket case (as some do) is nonsense.

    The point critics of Chavez ignore is that no one else in Venezuelan history has done better. Venezuela’s economy (like the economies of practically all Latin American countries) has been badly managed for most of its existence as an independent country, which is why when Chavez came to power despite its enormous oil wealth it was as poor as it was. By comparison with what came before him Chavez has done well. Many of the people in Venezuela who criticise Chavez for his supposedly poor economic management and alleged squandering of the proceeds of the oil boom are of course the same people who were responsible for Venezuela’s earlier disastrous economic mismanagement and for the squandering of the proceeds of the previous oil boom. To the extent that Chavez invested some of Venezuela’s oil money in providing poor Venezuelans with educational opportunities they might not otherwise have had rather than invest it to build skyscrapers (http://www.fair.org/blog/2013/03/06/ap-chavez-wasted-his-money-on-healthcare-when-he-could-have-built-gigantic-skyscrapers/), he has laid a better foundation for Venezuela’s economic future than did his predecessors, who did as it happens invest the money in building skyscrapers (Caracas has plenty left over from that time).

    For what it’s worth and contrary to the criticism that tends to be made of him I would say that part of the reason for Chavez’s political success was precisely the modesty and realism of his economic ambitions. He never had any flights of fancy about turning Venezuela into an industrial superpower or world economic powerhouse. His interest was always far more on his social programmes with which he sought to help the poor. The result was that he never succumbed to the disastrous hyperexpansionary policies and economic megalomania of (say) Argentina under Peron, Chile under Allende or Brazil in the 1950s (“twenty years in four”) and during the “Brazilian miracle” of the 1970s.

    3. It is another axiom of certain sections of the western media that other Latin American countries have done better or as well in recent years in achieving economic growth and in reducing poverty as did Venezuela under Chavez. To the extent that this is true it completely ignores the fact that the governments in the rest of Latin America that did these things did them in Chavez’s shadow and following his example. This fact is well understood in Latin America itself and has been pointed out repeatedly by say Lula of Brazil even if it is ignored in the west where it is not convenient. If Chavez had not existed or had failed, the turnaround in the rest of Latin America would not have happened. The comparison between what was achieved in Venezuela and what was achieved elsewhere in Latin America is therefore a false one since the one would not have happened without the other.

    4. One of the things that has united western opinion against Chavez was his constant use of the “S” word – “socialism”- at a time when “socialism” was supposed to have been discredited and defeated. However Chavez was never a “socialist” in the way that this might have been understood in say the USSR in the 1960s. By his own admission he was no Marxist. He never ran a planned economy or aspired to do so and it seems he never considered the sort of sweeping nationalisations that happened in some other places. It makes far more sense to understand Chavez first and foremost as a democratic politician than as a “socialist” one. As a democratic politician facing constant challenges from an anti democratic opposition Chavez could only survive by keeping his lower class political base continuously mobilised. This explains some of his more eccentric personal habits (intended to connect with his base and to project him as someone larger than life), his anti imperialist rhetoric and his friendship with Castro who together with Che Guevara is an almost talismanic figure in Latin America especially amongst the young and poor (see for example the picture of Guevara stencilled on the main building of the university campus in Bogota in Columbia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_City_of_Bogot%C3%A1). It was this need to keep his lower class base mobilised that was also what was largely behind his constant invocations to “socialism”. In Latin America (and many other places) “socialism” is simply political shorthand for policies that favour the poor. This is not to say that Chavez’s “socialism” was insincere. However Chavez was no theorist or ideologue and one gets the sense that for him most of the time “socialism” was simply the word he used to describe whatever it was that any particular point in time he was doing. Keeping his political base continuously mobilised required continuous activity and concentration and must have taken an immense physical and emotional toll and almost certainly contributed to Chavez’s early death.

    • An excellent comment Alexander that is in tune with my own impression of Chavez’s Venezuela (but with a lot more detail).

      Thus ludicrous claims of Chavez being a “democratic autocrat” and the like, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, which whatever traction they may have in the west with the prejudiced and the credulous, in Venezuela itself have no traction at all.

      The only thing to add is that it if you are too cerebral and aloof as a leftwinger in that part of the world then you end up like Salvador Allenda.

      It is another axiom of certain sections of the western media that other Latin American countries have done better or as well in recent years in achieving economic growth and in reducing poverty as did Venezuela under Chavez. To the extent that this is true it completely ignores the fact that the governments in the rest of Latin America that did these things did them in Chavez’s shadow and following his example.

      Also, I’m not sure that Venezuela did worse than the Latin American average in the growth stakes. Barring 2002-2003 (when growth plummeted due to extraneous factors beyond Chavez’s control), it performed much better than Brazil from the mid to late 2000’s. Now it also had a deeper recession in 2009-2010, but has since recovered vigorously, growing at 4.2% in 2011 and 5.2% in 2012 (meanwhile Brazil is back in stagnation).

      Could I republish this comment as a separate post?

      PS. Please don’t apologize for not commenting let alone delaying them! Your comments are always a great privilege, not a right. 🙂 Sorry to hear of the complications from the second eye operation (of which I was not aware of). Please don’t unduly strain yourself – reading and commenting can always wait.

      • Dear Anatoly,

        Thank you for your kind words. Of course feel free to republish my comment. On the subject of economic performance, I am sure you are right, it’s just that for the reasons I said I simply haven’t been able to check the numbers. On the “culture war” aspect of the western (especially the western faux Leftist) hostility to Chavez, I totally agree. We have discussed this previously.

        • Dear Anatoly,

          Apologies I didn’t read your comment correctly. Your point about more “cerebral” personalities like Allende failing in this region where Chavez succeeded is spot on. Another good example is Arbenz, the reformist President of Guatemala in the 1950s, who was another upper class intellectual overthrown like Allende in a coup.

  2. Anatoly,

    there’s an update of Weisbrot work, http://www.cepr.net/index.php/publications/reports/venezuelas-economic-recovery-is-it-sustainable, I don’t think I’ve seen this link on your site.

  3. Not to go too much into the details (because I admit that my knowledge in the topic discussed is not that good), I just wanted to make a comment on one thing.

    If I understood well, you say that claims about high oil dependence of Venezuela are somehow misleading, because in reality it is due to the increase in the price of oil in the past 10 years (which does make sense to me, no problem). But you are also praising Venezuela for doubling GDP per capita!!! My point is, knowing that Venezuelan economy relies in great part on oil trade, isn’t this increase in the GDP per capita due to the increase in oil prices too (the price of oil is 8x higher than 10 years ago afterall)
    (However, I believe that immigration/emigration could also have something to do with the calculation , and I am not familiar with the facts regarding it)