A Benign Revolution

In Latin America, Venezuelans are the most likely to describe their government as "totally democratic." Washington's policymakers and thinkers should realize that Venezuela's changes are occurring with the approval of its people and are having an impact on their daily lives.

In her recently released book, Friendly fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century, Latin America scholar Julia Sweig writes, "When U.S. elites — in government, media, and the private sector — get their information mainly from their counterparts in other societies, the United States becomes disconnected from the conditions, feelings, preferences, and experiences of those living on the margins of what Americans have incorrectly assumed to be a universal phenomenon of political, social, and economic progress promised by democracy and globalization."

As Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, I have spent a large part of my tenure attempting to encourage Washington’s policy and government establishments to look beyond the information they receive about Venezuela from Venezuelan elites. Given the generally hostile attitudes toward Venezuela and its president, Hugo Chávez, in Washington today, it seems that there is much work left to be done.

In recent months, there has been a lot of discussion of Venezuela in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Peter Hakim ("Is Washington Losing Latin America?" January/February 2006) sharply criticized President Chávez in an article on U.S. relations with Latin America; former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda attacked his "populism" ("Latin America’s Left Turn," May/June 2006); and Michael Shifter negatively assessed his domestic and foreign policies ("In Search of Hugo Chávez," May/June 2006). Unfortunately, their analyses misunderstand the dramatic processes of change that are occurring in Venezuela. If anything, their opinions reflect a rightward shift in Washington’s perspective on Latin America, a region that is slowly escaping the binds of an economic and social model imposed on it by the United States and international financial institutions in the 1980s and 1990s. People across the region are electing leaders who promise to lead their countries down an independent path, one that expands the means for democratic participation while narrowing the large gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in the region. This trend is not a threat to the United States, nor should it be perceived as such.

President Chávez is often accused of many things: undermining democracy, mishandling the country’s economy, and promoting regional instability are but a few of the claims I have heard recently, many times from officials in the Bush administration. Others repeat those charges. Hakim calls him a "vexing and potentially dangerous adversary," and Castañeda claims, in reference to President Chávez and heads of state like him, "For all of these leaders, economic performance, democratic values, programmatic achievements, and good relations with the United States are not imperatives but bothersome constraints." Similarly, Shifter refers to President Chávez’s regime as "illiberal" and his policy ideas as "mostly dubious." These opinions do not reflect an understanding of what is an inevitable process of change in Venezuela — one that seeks to correct long-standing social ills and allow Venezuelans to direct the future of their country.

A recent survey on democracy in Latin America sheds some light on contemporary Venezuela. Conducted by Latinobarómetro, a well-respected independent Chilean polling firm, the survey found that of the populations of the 18 Latin American countries studied, Venezuelans were the most likely to describe their government as "totally democratic." Similarly, Venezuela came in second in terms of citizens’ satisfaction with their system of democracy, ranking behind only Uruguay. In fact, satisfaction with the government in Venezuela has been higher during President Chávez’s tenure than ever before, and it remained so even during 2003, when an opposition-led oil sabotage heightened a sense of political crisis. None of this should be surprising: the 1999 constitution broadened the definition of rights and responsibilities, expanded political participation, and encouraged Venezuelans to become more active stakeholders in the country’s political, economic, and social development. Venezuelans have participated in numerous elections since President Chávez took office, including one specifically designed to allow citizens to cut short the tenure of an elected official — in this case, the president himself.

President Chávez has remained a responsible steward of the Venezuelan economy, implementing policies that have promoted growth while lowering inflation and unemployment. His responsible management of the economy became obvious during his first years in office, when he twice trimmed the budget and implemented measures to control inflation. Except for the negative impact of the 2002 opposition-led coup (which the United States tacitly endorsed) and the 2003 oil sabotage, the economy has remained strong since he took office. It grew by 17.9 percent in 2004 and by 9.3 percent last year, and it looks like it will continue such growth this year. More important is the fact that the non-oil sector has been growing faster than the oil sector — by 10.6 percent in 2005 — indicating an important diversification of the country’s economy. Inflation, interest rates, and unemployment have fallen, while gross fixed investment, microcredit, construction, purchases of cars, and consumer confidence have all risen. Tax collection has increased, and Venezuela’s tax revenues as a percentage of GDP now stand at close to 25 percent, higher than in any other country in the region and approaching the percentage in the United States. Venezuela also recently paid off some $4.7 billion of its international debt ahead of schedule, leading to a 15.2 percent decrease in annual payments for foreign debt. Venezuela has become the United States’ second-largest trading partner in the region, second only to Mexico, and the United States’ thirteenth-largest trading partner globally, doing over $39 billion in commerce in 2005. It’s no surprise that Venezuela’s country risk rating has fallen continually since 2003, when President Chávez began a concerted effort at economic recovery.

More important than simply promoting economic growth, though, is paying down the social debt that the government built up over four decades of neglect of Venezuela’s most pressing problems. President Chávez is overseeing an ambitious program of social missions meant to correct some of Venezuela’s most outstanding inequalities in education, housing, health care, food security, and job training. Government spending on social programs has risen dramatically since President Chávez took office, and it now stands at roughly 15 percent of GDP. Fifteen million Venezuelans — roughly half the population — have received free health care from 20,000 doctors located in Venezuela’s poorest areas through Mission Barrio Adentro, and some nine million have benefited from subsidized prices on basic foodstuffs through Mission Mercal. The various educational missions — for basic, secondary, and university education — have benefited millions more, allowing the country to declare itself free from illiteracy last year. In fact, Venezuela’s social programs will allow the country to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2012, three years ahead of schedule, and the country’s ranking on the UN’s Human Development Index (a broad measure of economic and social welfare) continues to rise. Although some critics have called these programs clientelistic, they are simply responding to long-ignored needs and building much-needed human capital in Venezuela. The Venezuelan people are being provided with the basic tools to become productive and competitive, so much so that even members of the opposition have recognized the inherent value of the social missions.

It is no secret that relations between the United States and Venezuela remain tense. But Venezuela is simply not a threat to the United States, much less an enemy. Many in the Bush administration — still convinced that the Cold War has not ended in Latin America — see it as such, going so far as to try and have Venezuela listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, despite lacking evidence to prove such a claim and even while cynically refusing to extradite Luis Posada Carriles, a well-known Cuban terrorist, to Venezuela to stand trial for the 1976 killing of 73 innocent civilians. Internally, Venezuela seeks to implement the measures needed to promote growth and secure social development; externally, it seeks regional political integration with which to ensure that Latin America can spur the growth of internal markets and more fairly negotiate with other global powers, the United States included.The Bush administration continues to view changes in Venezuela as a threat and has sought to use every political means at its disposal to isolate President Chávez. The people of Venezuela and the region know better.

The changes occurring in Venezuela reflect the true spirit of the country’s people, and if these changes did not happen now, they would happen eventually. President Chávez’s emergence is not an accident, nor should it be taken as a surprise. The model of economic development and democratic governance imposed by the United States for decades failed to secure social progress, and the results were obvious: increased poverty, instability, and disillusionment with democratic governments. In the wake of the structural reforms instituted in 1989, the percentage of Venezuelans living in extreme poverty jumped from 43.9 percent to 66.5 percent in a single year. Consequently, the percentage of Venezuelans who demanded radical changes increased steadily from 51 percent in 1995 to 63 percent in 1998, according to Consultores 21, an independent polling firm. Because the country’s two dominant political parties had become an extension of business interests and had a dismal record on promoting growth and social justice, they were peacefully and democratically replaced.

Thankfully, Venezuela’s changes are occurring with the approval of its people and are having an impact on their daily lives. I wish some of Washington’s policymakers and thinkers would finally realize this.

Bernardo Alvarez Herrera is Venezuela’s Ambassador to the United States.

Source: Foreign Affairs