Responses to Common Questions on Venezuela’s Politics

By Ewan Robertson
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By Joe Emersberger's ZSpace Blog

Q: Why should people in the USA (or in other rich countries like Canada or the UK) care about what is going in Venezuela?

People who live within imperial countries should not only learn what they can about successful movements, and applaud them, but also do what they can to prevent our governments from destroying them with the help of the corporate media. It is really just basic decency and common sense. The more people in rich countries believe lies, the more rotten things their governments can get away with doing.

Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have died in the post WWII era alone as a result of savage US opposition to basic social reforms – often far more timid reforms than what the Chavez government has undertaken. Recent US backed coups in Venezuela (2002), Haiti (2004), and Honduras (2009) illustrate that the threat “we” pose to Latin America remains very real. Fortunately, the 2002 coup in Venezuela was quickly defeated. Haiti and Honduras were not so fortunate.

Moreover, the US does not work alone in subverting democracy abroad, and never has. Both the coups in Haiti and Honduras were helped along by the actions of Canada, for example, and its corporate media. Canadians, in particular, tend to greatly underestimate how extensively our government goes along with US foreign policy – even in the “good old days” before Stephen Harper blew our cover.

Q: Isn’t Venezuela’s economy a mess and isn’t the country’s infrastructure falling apart? How is that possible in such an oil rich country?

There is no doubt that Venezuela is still a poor country by US or EU standards. It was much poorer when Chavez was first elected in 1998.

As the Center of Economic and Policy Research noted in this detailed study of Venezuela’s economy

“from 1980-1998, Venezuela’s per capita GDP actually declined by 14 percent. It was one of the worst economic performances in a region that, as a whole, experienced its worst long-term growth failure in a century.”

By 1997, a year before Chavez was elected, over 55% of Venezuelans lived in poverty, over 25% lived in extreme poverty. This was several decades after the country became a major oil exporter. Falling real oil prices during the 1980-1998 period cannot justify how the most vulnerable were made to suffer during this period.

By 2011, poverty had fallen to 27.4% and extreme poverty to 7.3%.

Q: Hasn’t Chavez simply improved the Venezuelan economy because of a surge in oil prices since he was elected in 1998? Shouldn’t the Venezuelan economy be in even better shape given that surge in oil prices?

It took a lot more than surging oil prices for the Chavez government to reverse the disastrous trends of previous decades.

The government did not get control of PDVSA, the state oil company, until late in 2003. The government had to reverse a coup in 2002 and defeat a devastating management-led oil strike that ended early in 2003 before it could divert much oil wealth towards the poor. Both acts of destruction by elite Chavez opponents inflicted tremendous damage on the economy. By late 2003, the poverty rate, which had been declining in the early years of the Chavez presidency, was back up to 55% despite the oil boom. If not for the extreme intransigence and destructiveness of powerful Chavez opponents, the country could have made even more impressive gains since 1998. Venezuelan voters have certainly held the opposition accountable for that fact at the polls over the years.

Q: Hasn’t violent crime, specifically homicide, become much worse in Venezuela under Chavez?

Violent crime plagued Venezuela years before Chavez took office. For example, in 1995 a Miami Herald article reported “Crime the top Concern for Venezuelans” (Mary Beth Sheridan, July 31). Similarly, the Christian Science Monitor reported in 1995 that “Frustrated With Crime, Vigilantes Roam Caracas” (Jane Knight, September 21). There is no denying, however, that violent crime has increased under Chavez even though poverty and extreme poverty have decreased at the same time. According to the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, in a report enttlied "Global Study on Homicde, 2011', Venezuela's homicide rate was two and half times higher in 2010 than it was in 1998 when Chavez was first elected. If Venezuela's homicide rate were, today, what it was in 1998, there woud be roughly 10,000 fewer deaths last year from violent crime.

One major problem Venezuela has is impunity. Serious crimes go unpunished because the perpetrators can bribe their way out of being caught by the police. Even if caught by the police, they can often bribe judges or prosecutors to avoid being convicted.

The worst political violence (as opposed to non-political violent crime) has victimized Chavista peasant activists. Roughly 300 hundred have been killed since 2001.

While the peasants represent a tiny fraction of all homicide victims in Venezuela, the fact that their killers have been shielded from accountability dramatically illustrates how deeply entrenched impunity - purchased by money and connections - remains in Venezuela. These peasants have been killed attempting to implement land reform - a high priority for the Chavez government. It speaks volumes about violent crime in general that the government has not even been able to hold these killers accountable. There is a harsh critique of the Chavez government to be made, but it is exact opposite of the one the media continuously make. Chavez has actually not been aggressive enough in going after his wealthiest opponents and the corrupt networks they have established within the judiciary and police.

Any serious attempt to do this will be portrayed in the international press as an accelerated "crackdown" on “judicial independence” or some other type of "power grab". However, a more formidable problem for the government may be well-placed and opportunistic “Chavistas” who would block progress against impunity. Edward Ellis, though very sympathetic to the Chavez government, has made this provocative point in his work.

Q: Capriles received 45% of the vote in the October 7 election. Doesn’t that reveal that a significant number of people are very displeased with Chavez? Are you sure you are not exaggerating his government’s achievements?

Three things should be born in mind:

1) Capriles had to try to pass himself off as "center-left". He wouldn't have had a chance to compete at all if he had openly run as a right wing candidate. He still lost decisively to a president seeking a third term.

2) The private media remains dominated by elite Chavez opponents. Private televisions media, for example, has over a 90% audience share. Many use that as talking point to expose the idiocy of calling Chavez a dictator, or of saying that he dominates the media. However, it also highlights a weakness in the movement he has led. It has not done nearly enough to democratize control over public debate.

3) Violent crime continues to be a real and growing problem. Chavez has spread the oil wealth around, but it is clear that there has to be a much deeper decentralization of wealth and power before impunity can be effectively addressed.

Source: ZSpace Blogs

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