Setting the Record Straight on Venezuela

Source: Jacobin

The Bolivarian Revolution hasn’t been perfect, but it’s improved the lives of millions in the face of violent opposition.

In many ways, Hugo Chávez’s legacy is at stake on December 6.

An opposition victory in Venezuela’s National Assembly elections would undoubtedly fuel an anti-Chávez narrative that is both simplistic and deceptive, jeopardizing the deceased president’s well-earned fame as a champion of the underprivileged.

The opposition is poised to benefit from the country’s ongoing economic difficulties. Venezuelans face hours-long lines to purchase some basic commodities and an inability to obtain others, as well as an annual inflation rate that for the first time since 1996 has reached three digits.

In the face of these real political and economic problems, which are partly due to plummeting oil prices, opposition forces are ratcheting up their attacks by harping on the unsustainable nature of Chávez’s policies. The Washington-based magazine Foreign Policy titled one article on Venezuela’s economy “The Curse of Chávez’s Ghost.” Similarly, the opening sentence of a Council on Foreign Relations report titled Venezuela’s Economic Fractures reads “Hugo Chávez’s transformative presidency left behind an economic model that has sown deep, heated divisions within Venezuelan society.”

The basic argument here is that the chickens — in the form of Chávez’s populist policies — have come home to roost, generating extreme hardship. Some anti-leftist writers such as Mexico’s Jorge Castañeda even maintain that the social programs of leftist (or “populist”) leaders such as Chávez (as well as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa) are inherently unsustainable.

According to these writers, the original sin of the Chávez government was not so much its socialism but its Keynesian-style intervention in the economy. Indeed, the allegedly unsustainable policies responsible for the nation’s economic predicament — such as price controls and currency exchange controls decreed by Chávez in 2003 — were longstanding features of state interventionism in Venezuela.

Even Chávez’s nationalization of basic industry carried out in 2007 and 2008 was a fixture of non-socialist political parties in Venezuela dating back to the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the industries that Chávez took over, including steel, telecommunications, and electricity, had long been state-owned only to be privatized in the 1990s.

Thus the discursive offensive against the Chavistas constitutes a broadside against state intervention in the economy even prior to Chávez’s ascent to power, and a vindication of neoliberal principles.

The arguments are based on a deceptive half-truth. It is true that certain policies Chávez enacted in his early years created patterns that generated problems further down the road. The implementation of those policies, however, has to be placed in a broader context. They were not the result of cheap populism, as the anti-leftists claim. Rather they were a logical response to dire circumstances, including politically motivated violence and economic disruptions.

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