Mark P. Sullivan, Hugo Chávez’s Death: Implications for Venezuela and U.S. Relations (Congressional Research Service, 8 March 2012), pp. 4-5:
One of the legacies of President Chávez is his extensive financial support for the poor, supported by high oil prices, which was a significant reason for his continued popularity and re-election over the years. His government established social programs known as misiones or missions offering an array of services in education, health, nutrition, and housing. As a result of increased social spending, the rate of poverty fell from about 49% in 2002 to about 29% in 2011. The political empowerment of the poor under President Chávez will likely be an enduring aspect of his legacy in Venezuelan politics for years to come. Any future successful presidential candidate will need to take into account how his or her policies would affect working class and poor Venezuelans.
On the other hand, President Chávez also left a large negative legacy, including the deterioration of democratic institutions and practices, threats to freedom of expression, high rates of crime and murder (the highest in South America), and an economic situation characterized by high inflation (over 20% in 2012), crumbling infrastructure, and shortages of consumer goods. Ironically, while Chávez championed the poor, his government’s economic mismanagement wasted billions that potentially could have established a more sustainable social welfare system benefiting poor Venezuelans.
Multiple things are notable about this.
First off, when this report mentions the massive reduction in poverty under Chavez, it cites an external source: the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean‘s Social Panorama of Latin America 2012. By contrast, when mentioning all of Chávez’ faults it does not feel the need to identify a single external source to support its claims. I suppose that the crime rate and inflation are quantifiable and easily proven, but that isn’t the case with dubious assertions of a “crumbling infrastructure” and “economic mismanagement.”
So while outright admitting that Chávez massively reduced poverty and empowered the poor, this report seeks to convince people that he was not a True Friend of the poor because the social welfare system he established is not “sustainable.” Unsurprisingly, this claim is short on details. Without any external source to look up or any specific examples of Chávez’ mismanagement cited, it is unclear why any reader should be convinced that this is the case.
It is very typical for liberal critics of Chávez to proclaim their sympathy for the impoverished majority of Venezuelans while arrogantly brushing aside the fact that they elected him repeatedly. They are often taken in by the most inflammatory propaganda pieces in the purportedly “liberal” Western press that assailed his rule based on anecdotes and misrepresented his statements to make him look buffoonish. They are made unjustifiably nervous by his illiberal (but often wholly justified) actions such as the closing of RCTV. Perhaps more than anything, they held his reign to a higher standard than that of other regimes in Latin America, be they center-left or right-wing. Every time someone brings up Venzeuala’s high murder rate, it should be kept in mind that post-coup Honduras’ murder rate is even higher–the highest in the world in fact. Rarely is Honduras’ homicide problem ever attributed to its US-backed neo-liberal government.
It is entirely possible that because Chávez’ government vocally rejected the neo-liberal framework and actively took responsibility for the health of its citizens that its shortcomings were more noticeable. The cruel irony of the rhetorical battle between capitalism and socialism is that capitalism has little pretext for providing economic necessities to each and every citizen while socialism does. This means that those who die from neglect and deprivation under free market-based societies are rarely held up as examples of capitalist failure. Since capitalism declares itself devoid of any duty to provide food and health care to every human being regardless of their class or employment status, it is considered blameless for any “unfortunate” deaths that occur. By contrast, socialism is lambasted and ridiculed as a direct cause of economic ruin and poverty even in countries that are not socialist by any stretch of imagination. So even if it is the case that socialism does a better job of providing for basic human needs, it often becomes discredited by its own high expectations.
That there are massive problems in Venezuelan society is undeniable. That Chávez’ vision of socialism and his regime are solely to blame for most of these problems is doubtful. That these problems are worse than in economically neo-liberal Third World countries is even more doubtful.