As Venezuela approaches its presidential elections on December 3, the predictable attacks on Hugo Chávez - that he is a dictator in the making, a ballot rigger, a populist buffoon - are becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. For sure, the eight years since Chávez was first elected president have not been short of drama. Against the odds, he managed to defeat a US backed coup in 2002 and an oil executives' strike which brought the economy to its knees, and went on to win, fairly, a recall referendum that threatened to cut short his term in office.
Many rulers (Bush and Blair spring to mind) might have responded by suspending civil freedoms and elections. Yet instead, Chávez risked invoking the wrath of his own supporters by sticking resolutely to the constitution and the rule of law. No opposition newspapers or TV stations were closed down, opposition political parties remained free to organise and most extraordinarily of all, almost all of the participants in the coup escaped prosecution. One of those who signed the decree that abolished the National Assembly and democratic institutions was a little known state governor from Zulia called Manuel Rosales. He is now the opposition's presidential candidate.
As these basic facts about Venezuela become more widely known, so the attacks on their Bolivarian Revolution have become more subtle and sophisticated. Yesterday's Guardian was a case in point. Rory Carroll penned a long piece which questioned the redistributive policies of the Bolivarian Revolution. You can get a flavour of its contents from the headline: "Welcome to the Chavez revolution - where the rich keep getting richer."
Carroll spent what must have been a delightful afternoon at the Caracas Country Club interviewing millionaires, all of whom claimed to have become even richer under Chávez. Whilst this is probably good news for the Guardian accounts department (which won't have to pick up the tab for the "Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, the chef's famous flan and a round of espressos"), it isn't, strictly speaking, true.
Whilst household income for all social classes is currently rising, Datanalysis, the main opposition leaning pollster, reported in September that the richest 5% have actually experienced a drop in income of 28% in real terms over the entirety of the Chávez administration. By contrast, the poorest 60% have seen their income rise by a staggering 45%. Voting patterns mirror income changes, with 75% of the poor supporting Chávez, compared with just 25% of the rich.
In contrast to Rory Carroll's rich man's paradise, Phil Gunson paints a picture of Venezuela as a sort of modern Orwellian nightmare, where the population has been cowed into submission by an authoritarian state. Nothing could be further from the truth. Millions of previously excluded citizens are directly involved in organising and administrating their own communities, social programmes, co-operatives and political movements. This is genuine participatory democracy and is light years ahead of the model of liberal democracy promoted by Gunson, which promises everything in theory and delivers little of substance in practice. Ask a Venezuelan.
Space does not permit me to counter all of Gunson's half-baked allegations, but typical of his approach is his attack on Chávez for having led a failed military-civilian rebellion in 1992. No mention is made that this uprising was a response to the mass slaughter of 2,000 slum dwellers in 1989 who were protesting against the neo-liberal programme of President Carlos Andr&eactue;s Pérez, nor that the action was supported by the vast majority of
Venezuelans. Neither does Gunson mention the racism and contempt for the working class and the poor (Manuel Rosales calls them "parasites"), which typifies the opposition and makes them unelectable.
Gunson criticises the pace of economic reform in Venezuela and compares it unfavourably with Roosevelt's New Deal and Attlee's 1945 Labour government, whilst ignoring the different historical context. In today's neo-liberal world, redistribution and public ownership are revolutionary concepts. Gunson fails to acknowledge the obvious; that the key achievements of the Chávez administration - a million more kids in school, free health and education, subsidised food markets - were opposed tooth and claw by the United States and the Venezuelan elites who wielded huge economic power and controlled the civil service, the media, and large sections of the police force and army.
Gunson knows all this, and yet he writes as if Chávez has a magic wand and faces no opposition. Chávez may not be a magician and possibly Bush may not really be a devil. But if you grew up in a shack on the hills surrounding Caracas and have seen your life transformed for the better, it probably feels very much like they are.