The Chavez Way
Just before the Venezuelan elections, we opined in this space: “There is no doubt that the Oct. 7 presidential vote will be Hugo Chávez’s most difficult election to date. The man who has dominated Venezuela’s politics for over a decade — and has often expressed his will to rule for at least one more — is suffering from voter fatigue and an uncertain health outlook after being diagnosed with cancer in mid-2011.
He also faces an emboldened opposition and a contender who has managed to create a compelling campaign and policy platform. Some believe that Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, could win the elections. But betting on such an outcome is risky, for despite all his administration’s failures, Chávez remains one of Venezuela’s and Latin America’s most astute political leaders in modern history.”
It turned out that the elections were not that difficult for Chavez, even though his majority was reduced to 11% over the Opposition – down from the 26% in 2006. He has now been at the helm of Venezuela since 1998 – a remarkable fourteen years, with another six years ahead. He is now the longest serving Latin American President holding office through democratic elections. It should be useful for our political elite, seemingly locked in a death embrace, to review the reasons for Chavez’s amazing political popularity.
The most salient factor has been his ability to deliver on his promise to improve the conditions of the poor and the downtrodden. Since he acceded to office and took control over the national oil industry, poverty has been cut by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. This massive redistribution of wealth has, as expected, not gone down well with the old elite. They control most of the media and have consistently presented an image of an economy perpetually on the verge of collapse. This, of course, has not materialised. In addition, college enrolment has more than doubled, millions of people have access to health care for the first time, and the number of people eligible for public pensions has quadrupled.
It is therefore not surprising that most Venezuelans would re-elect a President who has improved their living standards. That is what has also been the case with all of the left governments that now govern most of South America: they have been re-elected. This is despite the fact that they, like Chávez, have most of their countries’ media against them, and their opposition also has most of the wealth and income of their respective countries.
The list includes Rafael Correa, re-elected President of Ecuador by a wide margin in 2009; the enormously popular Lula da Silva of Brazil, re-elected in 2006, and successfully campaigned for his former Chief-of-Staff, now President Dilma Rousseff, in 2010; Evo Morales, Bolvia’s first indigenous President in a majority indigenous country, re-elected in 2009; José Mujica succeeded his predecessor from the same political alliance in Uruguay – the Frente Amplio — in 2009; Cristina Fernández succeeded her husband, the late Néstor Kirchner, winning the 2011 Argentine presidential election by a solid margin – also with the largest media against her.
All of these Left Presidents and their political parties won re-election because, like Chávez, they brought significant, and in some cases huge, improvements in living standards. They all originally campaigned against the “neoliberal” policies of the Washington Consensus, imposed by the IMF when Latin America experienced its worst long term economic growth failure in more than a century. They rejected its mantra of ‘privatisation, stabilization and liberalisation’ and replaced it with the present pro-poor redistributive programmes.
Predictably, the other left governments have seen Venezuela as part of a team that has brought more democracy, national sovereignty, and economic and social progress to the region. Efforts to paint him as an extremist have failed. His democratic credentials are impeccable with Venezuela’s electoral system certified by no less than former US President Jimmy Carter as ‘the best in the world”.
Maybe, Guyanese politicians might understand the fundamental lesson of democracy: take care of the people and the people will take care of you.