Foreign Policy and the Party Line: Chavismo and Its Discontents

Ideologues construct arguments by arranging selective constellations of facts and half-truths to support preconceived conclusions. Scholars construct arguments by assaying and weighing facts to determine conclusions and approximate truth. Javier Corrales seems to have adopted the former approach in his January/February contribution to Foreign Policy, "Hugo Boss."

In his article, Corrales presents the Chávez administration as politically authoritarian and economically incompetent. He writes of how Hugo Chávez "engineered a new constitution that did away with the Senate." Yet Corrales neglects to note that a democratically elected Constitutional Assembly, dominated by a heterogeneous political coalition, drafted the constitution, which was then approved by 71 percent of the population—a political thunderclap. Political analyst Eva Golinger concurs, referring to the document as "one of the most progressive constitutions in the world in the area of human rights." But Corrales demurs, referring to Chávez as a "competitive autocrat."

Corrales also writes that this was "one of the most antiparty constitutions" in Latin America. He omits the historical context. The policies of the Patriotic Pole—the Chavista coalition—and its antidemocratic atavism can be overwhelmingly attributed to 40 years of corruption and collusion on the part of the two theretofore regnant parties, COPEI and Acción Democrática (AD), and their inability and unwillingness to do anything for Venezuela’s desperate poor. The population blamed these two parties "for establishing a pattern of exclusion" that kept the Venezuelan poor—80 percent of the population—and even the left wing of AD out of the decision making process, as Steve Ellner, a leading expert on Venezuelan politics and history, notes. In the process of doing so AD and COPEI politically enshrined economic apartheid.

Corrales then intimates that the Chávez regime is bordering on military authoritarianism, writing of how Chávez aims to expand the membership of the army reserve to two million people, which "may mean never having to be in the opposition." Others understand the role of the army in Venezuela as far more complex: "Chávez does see the military as partners in development," writes Julia Buxton, who has done some of the best work on post-1998 Venezuelan politics, but only because "In the absence of any other body or organisation capable of delivering social policy and infrastructure repairs, the government has employed the armed forces." The Chavez government is also understandably chary about American military intervention, either directly or through proxy warfare. They may have in mind a monograph from the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, discussing a "possible Venezuelan threat" to America and American interests in Latin America, and the United States’ government’s reaction to the 2002 coup, when a State Department spokesman said that a "coup" was not "an accurate description of what happened," averring that coup "is not a word we are using."

Corrales also hints at Chavista voter fraud, writing of how the opposition was "shocked not so much by the results as by the ease with which international observers condoned" the electoral audit. Observers did not simply facilely approve the audit; the Carter Center, hardly a radical outfit, appointed an independent statistician to reexamine the results. The conclusion, as put forth by Jennifer McCoy, an elections observer, in The Economist, was that "the vote itself was secret and free." The conservative Organization of American States agreed, issuing a post-referendum press release stating, "citizens participating in the referendum did so freely, without hindrance or restrictions on the expression of their will." In contradistinction to Corrales’s conclusions, the opposition, "Surrounded by family and neighbors, cut off from the poor sections of town" were stunned by the results, confusing " ‘their’ reality with ‘the’ reality; ‘their’ country with ‘the’ country," as Venezuelan political scientist Margarita López-Maya described elite perceptions of the 2004 referendum results.

Corrales then turns to Chávez’s mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy. Chávez and his administration, Corrales writes, have done little for the Venezuelan people, having "failed to improve any meaningful measure of poverty, education, or equality." Yet the Chávez government’s promotion of "educational reform which schooled over 1 million children for the first time and doubled investment in education," as Greg Wilpert, a former Fulbright scholar in Venezuela, writes, has increased the percentage of children in school from 83 percent to 90 percent. Illiteracy has precipitously declined due to the successes of the Mission Robinson project, through which nearly 1.5 million unschooled Venezuelans have learned to read. Corrales casts this as "lavishing [Chávez’s] supporters with booty"; an alternative interpretation might be more objective and, in turn, more generous.

Corrales also dislikes the public health measures of the Movement of the Fifth Republic. He aspersively refers to Chávez’s "ad hoc Cuban clinics" as an exemplar of the Potemkin policies of the administration, incapable of effecting "meaningful" change. Yet the Barrio Adentro project, in which over 10,000 Cuban doctors tend to Venezuela’s immiserated poor, has enabled "more than 60 percent of Venezuelans" to receive free healthcare, saving thousands of lives, reports the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington think tank. Life expectancy has concomitantly increased, and infant mortality has dropped by nearly twenty percent. I do not know what Corrales means by meaningful, but I do imagine that Venezuelan mothers cry when their babies die.

Poverty, too, has declined: the most recent statistics show that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty—families that lack the means to feed their children—has decreased by 40 percent, in the midst of an opposition-engineered oil strike, economic sabotage, and the shattering effects of massive capital flight. Estimates also suggest that roughly 40 percent of the population shops at government-subsidized food markets, further ameliorating the effects of structural poverty. Corrales calls this giving "his supporters" a raft of "unimaginable favors." Again, I do not know what Corrales means by unimaginable, but surely the starving poor of Caracas can imagine feeding their malnourished children.

Finally, Corrales writes, Chávez, following a well-trod authoritarian path, has raised "society’s tolerance for state intervention." Chávez has failed to adhere to neoliberal economic policies, namely by not "addressing the economy’s lack of competitiveness," by failing to "kill inflation," and by failing to promote "stable property rights." Instead, Chávez has charted a course sharply tangent to Corrales’s orthodoxy, offering "subsidies and protection to economic agents in trouble," daring to set "price controls and creatin[ing] local grocery stores with subsidized prices," and, finally, expanding "state employment." Yet with all this, the economy grew by 9.4 percent in 2005, led by the non-oil sector, the fastest growth in Latin America, and Chávez’s approval rating remains almost unimaginably high—the latest polls place it at close to 75 percent.

Corrales is right to posit a relationship between economics and democracy. But he is wrong to prescribe the neoliberal economic policies that are "responsible for the spread of global austerity," as Robert Pollin, an economist at University of Massachusetts—Amherst, writes. Pollin continues, noting that "the world has experienced increasing disparities between the very rich and the very poor" during the "the neoliberal era." In particular, South America was a testing ground for the neoliberal experiment: Argentina followed precisely the policies prescribed by Corrales for Venezuela. Resultantly, "unemployment and inequality began rising sharply almost immediately after the plan was implemented, and the country began sinking into depression by 1997," as Pollin concludes. Yet Corrales would offer this toxic elixir to Venezuela, although it is clear that Bolivarian economic policies are redistributing the country’s wealth in a more egalitarian manner than ever before, while simultaneously catalyzing robust growth.

Corrales may not like the kind of democracy emerging in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. But it is an awesome mistake to mistake this democracy for something else.