What Effect has 10 Years of Hugo Chávez Had on Venezuela? A Debate

Francisco Toro, one of the writers of the anti-Chavez blog Caracas Chronicles, and Redmond O'Neil, the director of the Venezuela Information Centre in London, enter into a written debate on 10 years of the Chavez presidency.

By Francisco Toro and Redmond O'Neill - Comment is free
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Francisco Toro, one of the writers of the anti-Chavez blog Caracas Chronicles, and Redmond O'Neil, the director of the Venezuela Information Centre in London, enter into a written debate on 10 years of the Chavez presidency on the Comment is free website of The Guardian.

Francisco Toro to Redmond O'Neill

Venezuelans
who understand that democracy means more than just elections have
little reason to celebrate today. Ten years into the Chávez era,
Venezuela is a more violent, less tolerant and far more divided country
than it was. Despite an oil boom that has brought an unprecedented gush
of petrodollars, Venezuela's economy is more oil-dependent than ever.

And
while the oil boom has brought a much needed decline in poverty, the
price we've paid has been the gradual debasement of our democratic
institutions, our public discourse, and our capacity to co-exist
peacefully, side-by-side, with people whose political ideas we do not
share.

Let's be clear: by 1999, Venezuela's democratic
institutions had become ossified and corrupt. They were in dire need of
reform; nobody sane would deny that. Rather than reforming them, Chavez has relentlessly undermined them, purging all but die-hard loyalists from every state body right up to the supreme tribunal and leaving notionally independent
agencies unable to curb on a hyper-empowered executive. Egged on by a relentlessly polarising discourse, the Venezuelan state has morphed into an extension of a single man's will, where every dissenting idea is presumed treasonous and where only unquestioning submission to the president's ideology protects you from the increasingly brazen abuse of state power.

Redmond O'Neill to Francisco Toro

Objective
discussion of a serious topic requires a thorough examination of the
relevant facts. If the facts contradict a theory it must be changed.

For
the half century before the election of President Chávez, income per
head in Venezuela rose just a quarter of the average rate of the other
large Latin American economies. Since the Chávez-led government gained
control of the national oil company in 2003, this disastrous economic
performance has been transformed, with one of the highest growth rates
in the region, a dramatic reduction in debt and an accumulation of
currency reserves sufficient to offer significant protection from
fluctuations in oil prices.

This economic success has been used
to eradicate illiteracy, provide free healthcare to the majority of the
population for the first time and radically reduce poverty.

Social
progress has been accompanied by a dramatic expansion in democracy with
more national electoral contests than virtually any other country in
the world and respect for the outcomes, including the defeat of Chávez
in last year's constitutional referendum.

That is why the respected polling organisation Latinobarometro, found that by 2008 satisfaction with democracy in Venezuela was the second highest of all countries in Latin America.

Mr Toro should change his theory because it does not fit the facts.

Francisco Toro to Redmond O'Neill

Of
course, it's easy enough to cherry pick statistics, but it doesn't get
us very far. To extol Venezuela's falling poverty between 2003 and 2008
without acknowledging that oil revenues rose four-fold, from $22bn to a dizzying $93bn, is to make gobbledygook of our recent past.

By
the same token, I could retort that poverty in Venezuela fell abruptly
between 1973 and 1978, and the government of the time was extremely
popular as a result as well ... but that gets us nowhere, because it
isn't really news that petrostate leaders become extremely popular when the oil market freaks out. Ask Vladimir Putin, the Iranian mullahs, or even Sudan's Omar al-Bashir.

Much
like them, Chávez has exploited the popularity the oil boom has brought
to cement his unyielding grip on power. Somehow, their popularity is
seldom mistaken for proof of democratic legitimacy; only his is.

Under
Chávez, Venezuela has more and more elections but less and less
democracy. Only two months ago, for instance, the opposition's Antonio
Ledezma was elected mayor of Metropolitan Caracas. Pro-government paramilitary groups
have harrassed him from day one, spraying his office with bullets and
eventually occupying it to make it impossible for him to actually take
charge of the post the people elected him to, all as the
Chávez-controlled city police looks on passively.

This is democracy chavista style: we get to vote, yes, but we don't get to decide who governs.

Redmond O'Neill to Francisco Toro

Mr
Toro still avoids the facts. Obviously, as a major oil exporter,
Venezuela s prosperity is significantly affected by the price of oil.
But it is not true that during previous oil booms the population
benefited to anything like the degree they have under President Chávez.

The
1970s oil price increases were greater in real (inflation adjusted)
terms than those seen recently. Yet throughout the 1970s, income per
head in Venezuela fell relative to the average for the eight other
largest South American economies even though they did not possess Venezuela's oil wealth.

No
system of free healthcare for the mass of the population was developed,
illiteracy remained a major problem and at the end of the 1970s,
despite the oil boom, the country's international debt was a major
burden.

By 1989, the situation of the population had become so
dire that people erupted in demonstrations – only to have thousands
gunned down in the streets by the old regime. That is the record of
those who are now the opposition in Venezuela: economic incompetence
and corruption accompanied by real, not imagined, repression of the
population.

Under President Chávez the only attempt to overturn democracy was the opposition's unsuccessful military coup in 2002.

In
reality, Chávez has done nothing to stop opposition candidates elected
in recent local elections from taking office, including in Caracas, as
we know because the new Mayor Ledezma is behind his desk sacking
thousands of local employees.

Equally, when Chávez lost a key
vote last year he immediately accepted the result. That was not the
action of an abuser of state power and it is strange kind of
"democratic" opposition which complains about "too many" democratic
elections.

Francisco Toro to Redmond O'Neill

Is there no
chavista propaganda claim Mr O'Neill won't parrot? There are too many
of them to deal with in this short space, so I'll concentrate on one
especially obnoxious howler. The idea that Venezuela had no free public
health system in 1999 is simply bizarre. Mr O'Neill has been to
Venezuela; surely he noticed that nearly every public hospital in the
country dates back to the 1930s-70s. In fact, this entire line of
argument is hard to make sense of except as an attempt to mislead
readers unfamiliar with the country.

What the Chávez government
has done – and for this it is to be commended – is build a network of
out-patient clinics, typically staffed by a single Cuban doctor, and
located them in the country's most deprived neighbourhoods. This
important initiative has gone hand-in-hand with the ongoing neglect of
the increasingly ramshackle hospital network, where supplies are so short patients are typically expected to bring the drugs and medical materials doctors need to treat them.

In
fact, the health system presents a neat microcosm of Venezuela over the
last 10 years: an inadequate pre-existing system badly in need of
reform has simply been left to decay, its very existence denied, while the
government concentrates its resources on parallel structures that, despite being hyped with wildly overstated propaganda claims, cannot truly address the underlying problems.

Redmond O'Neill to Francisco Toro

Again
Mr Toro dodges the facts. A proper system of public healthcare, along
with most public services, was almost completely neglected by the
regimes preceding President Chávez. In the capital, Caracas, half the
population ended up in shanty towns with virtually no proper local
public services.

Chávez's real "crime" in the eyes of the
opposition is that he has devoted a steadily growing share of the
country's resources to addressing the accumulated needs of the poor
majority of the population.

This started with health, education
and subsidised food. The share of national income devoted to public
health has more than doubled. This has been used to give the majority
of the population access to free local healthcare: with thousands of
new local GP centres, hundreds of new modern local clinics providing
comprehensive free treatment daily, one of the most advanced children's
heart hospitals in South America and a programme of renewal of the
decaying hospitals inherited from the past.

The results have been
tangible. For example, infant mortality in Venezuela has been reduced,
from 21.4 per 1,000 live births under the old regime in 1998 to 13.7 in
2007.

Naturally, it is not just "chavistas" who comment on this. The World Health Organisation has reported (pdf): "an accelerated decline in the infant mortality rate and prevalent childhood diseases".

I
have personally visited new health centres, providing even free dental
care, and few would not be moved by the parents' stories of their first
ever visit to a doctor. That is why even one of Mr Toro's sources
(quoted in the Lancet, 14 June 2008) admits: "Whatever its failings,
however, Barrio Adentro 1 is providing healthcare to a sector that
previously went largely ignored."

Francisco Toro to Redmond O'Neill

Mr
O'Neill has learned the chavista playbook well. Step one is to ascribe
unambiguously evil intentions to anyone who questions the government.
Rather than accepting it as normal that we have different views on
health policy, he happily slanders the millions of Venezuelans who
dissent from the government line, delegitimating our views by accusing
us of thinking it a crime to want to devote more resources to the poor.

In
Venezuela, we hear variations on this theme constantly. Over the past
decade, we've had ample opportunity to learn that chavistas see those
who disagree with the leader not as fellow citizens to debate with, but
rather as enemies to be crushed.

This deep vein of intolerance
running right through the heart of the Chávez movement is built on a
deep disdain for democratic give-and-take. A government that refuses to
accept that any dissident ever acts out of legitimate motives inevitably devolves into autocracy.

President
Chavez's thirst for submission runs deep. He has no use for conditional
supporters. Again and again, he has shown that he views those who agree
with him 99% of the time as, if anything, more dangerous than
those who openly oppose him. Their determination to retain some space
for independent thought is proof positive of their unreliability, of
the danger they represent. Having purged them from every position of
power in the state, he faces no institutional checks on his power. In
Venezuela, today, the formal structures of democracy remain in place,
but they've been thoroughly hollowed out, grotesquely disfigured and
slowly transformed into extensions of the autocrat's power.

This
is the Mugabe-esque slope that Venezuela has been slipping down for the
full decade of Chávez's rule. As slippery slopes go, this one has been
well lubricated by the plentiful wealth oil has brought, which perhaps
explains why the slide has not, so far, been marked by the extremes of
dictatorial violence typical of regimes that equate dissent with
treason. That's some comfort, yes, but not much, because the direction
of travel is clear.

By a quirk of fate, while yesterday was the 10th anniversary of Chávez's elected
rule, tomorrow marks the 17th anniversary of his failed attempt to
topple an elected government through violence. The proximity between
the two dates serves as a constant reminder that, for Hugo Chávez,
elections were just one means to his ultimate end: the consolidation of
unchecked, unlimited power.

Redmond O'Neill to Francisco Toro

Of
course, it is normal for people to have different views. That is why we
discuss. However, semi-hysterical assertions produce heat, not light.
They are no substitute for sober evaluation of the relevant facts in
deciding an issue.

President Chávez is not some monstrous genie
who inexplicably popped out of the bottle of Venezuelan politics 10
years ago. His government is part of a phenomenon which has swept
almost the whole of South America.

From the end of the 1990s,
one Latin American country after another moved to the left as the
population reacted to the terrible effects of the kind of neo-liberal
economic policies, promoted by the US, which have now returned to haunt
Wall Street itself. By 1998 nearly half of the population of Latin
America, that is more than 200 million people, were living in poverty.

That
is why the old oligarchies linked closely to Washington were swept from
power in democratic elections which saw, not only the election of
Chávez in Venezuela, but Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, Morales
in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Bachelet in Chile and Lugo in Paraguay,
for example.

None of these governments is the same and the most
radical, such as, Chávez in Venezuela and Morales in Bolivia, are most
detested by the old upper classes because they have shifted their
countries' resources to improving life for the majority of the
population, brought millions into political activity and taken
practical steps to improve the gross under-representation of indigenous
peoples and women for the first time.

Far from democracy being
hollowed out, Chávez has led the greatest increase in democratic
participation in Venezuelan history, not merely with as many elections
in the last 10 years as in the previous 40, but with an enormous
increase in the numbers of people voting. His election in 2006 saw the
most votes cast in the countryís history.

Those changes,
together with acts of elementary humanity, like the project with Cuba
restoring the sight to more than 1.3 million people throughout the
Americas, are the basis of his popular support.

In a nutshell,
it is the combination of democracy with social progress which has
earned President Chávez such support, not only at home, but throughout
Latin America, and in many other parts of the world.