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Has the Venezuelan government helped or hurt the country’s poor?

The protests in Venezuela haven’t attracted as much attention from the international media as the violence in Ukraine. One thing that might contribute in a small way to the relative lack of coverage is that many people may not be sure who they should be rooting for. It’s not immediately obvious that the battle between the Chavista government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition in the streets has a clear protagonist or a clear villain.

On the one hand, the tactics of the security forces have been deplorable — see this gripping account (in English) of the chaos in the border town of San Cristóbal. No one praises the government’s habit of discriminating against dissenters or of intimidating journalists who criticize the government. On the other hand, Maduro was democratically elected, and he apparently retains the support of a narrow majority of the population. What’s more, the ideology he represents as the successor to Hugo Chávez is ostensibly committed to improving the lot of Venezuela’s destitute.

“Many of those who identify with the desire for redressing Latin America’s deep social and economic inequalities face a real dilemma when confronted by the figure of Hugo Chávez,” as Francisco Rodríguez wrote in the Guardian in 2007 in a detailed, tough-minded appraisal of the late leader.

Disparities between Latin America’s rich and poor are extreme. In several countries, as in the United States, the richest fifth of the population receive more than half of national income, as shown in the chart above from the advisory firm Oxford Analytica (used by permission). In Latin America, however, total wealth is less than it is here, so the poor are even worse off.

Yet the Chavista government, despite its stated intentions, has not succeeded in its goal of helping Venezuela’s poor. While the gap between rich and poor is smaller than in many other Latin American countries, it is still quite large. And while Venezuela is wealthier than some of its neighbors, the economy has performed badly since Chávez took office fifteen years ago, according to data from the World Bank. The economy has expanded by less than 3 percent per year on average, despite an oil boom, and is now in crisis. Shortages of staples and basic commodities are now routine, and Maduro’s government nationalized a major manufacturer of toilet paper last year in a desperate effort to keep shelves stocked. The official inflation rate is now at 56 percent per year, and the true rate might be much higher. (A tip of the hat to David Frum.)

A useful contrast is with Uruguay, where the economy has expanded at a rate of more than 5 percent per year since 2008 and less than 10 percent of the population is living in poverty, according to the World Bank. No one could accuse Uruguayan President José Mujica, who took office in 2010, of being a fascist — he rides around in an old Volkswagen, and his government passed laws legalizing gay marriage and marijuana last year. Yet Mujica is focused on managing the country effectively, not on curtailing the freedoms of his political opponents.

There are advantages to a free market like the one we have in the United States, and to socialist systems such as those of the Scandinavian countries. Venezuelans have enjoyed neither under Chavismo. Instead, they’ve suffered the loss of a free and stable society.

Venezuela arouses powerful feelings on all sides, and it can be difficult to think about the country in a rational way. Moisés Naím, for example, is right to attack Maduro’s record on civil liberty and the economy and to laugh off conspiracy theorists who blame Venezuela’s troubles on the Central Intelligence Agency. Yet in his next paragraph, without irony, he attributes a similarly mysterious and sinister influence on Venezuelan affairs to the Cuban intelligence services. On the other side, meanwhile, Maduro’s defenders make even more serious mistakes in argument when they claim that Chavismo has been good for the country’s poor. Click below for a thorough, well-rounded introduction to the history and politics of Venezuela.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Uruguayan President José Mujica.

Max Ehrenfreund | February 25 at 6:01 pm
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