Hugo Chávez was re-elected president of Venezuela on Sunday, by a margin of 11 percentage points. For most people who have heard or read about Chávez in the international media, this might be puzzling. Almost all of the news we hear about Venezuela is bad: Chávez is cantankerous and picks fights with the United States and sides with “enemies” such as Iran; he is a “dictator” or “strongman” who has squandered the nation’s oil wealth; the economy is plagued by shortages and is usually on the brink of collapse.
Then there is the other side of the story: since the Chávez government got control over the national oil industry, poverty has been cut by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. College enrollment 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.
So it is not surprising that most Venezuelans would re-elect a president who has improved their living standards. That’s what has happened 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 “neoliberalism,” a word used to describe the policies of the prior 20 years, when Latin America experienced its worst long term economic growth failure in more than a century.
Not surprisingly, 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. Yes, democracy, too: even the much-maligned Venezuela is recognized by most scholarly research as more democratic than it was in the pre-Chávez era.
And democracy was at issue when South America stood together against Washington on such issues as the 2009 military coup in Honduras. The differences were so pronounced that they led to the formation of a new hemispheric-wide organization including everyone but the U.S. and Canada, as an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States.
Here is Lula last month: “A victory for Chávez (in the upcoming election) is not just a victory for the people of Venezuela but also a victory for all the people of Latin America . . . this victory will strike another blow against imperialism.” The other left presidents have the same views of Chávez.
The Bush administration pursued a strategy of trying to isolate Venezuela from its neighbors, and ended up isolating itself. President Obama promised in the 2009 Summit of the Americas to pursue a different course; but he didn’t, and at the 2012 Summit he was as isolated as his predecessor.
Although the media has been dominated by stories of Venezuela’s impending economic collapse for more than a decade, it hasn’t happened and is not likely to happen. After recovering from a recession that began in 2009, during the world economic crisis, the Venezuelan economy has been growing for two-and-a-half years now and inflation has fallen sharply while growth has accelerated. The country has a sizeable trade surplus. Its public debt is relatively low and so is its debt service burden. It has plenty of room to borrow foreign currency (it has borrowed $36 billion from China, mostly at very low interest rates), and can borrow domestically as well at low or negative real interest rates. So even if oil prices were to crash temporarily (as in 2008-2009), there would be no need for austerity or recession. And hardly anyone is predicting a long-term collapse of oil prices.
The U.S. economic embargo against Cuba has persisted for more than half a century, despite its obvious stupidity and failure. U.S. hostility toward Venezuela is only about 12 years old, but shows no sign of being reconsidered, despite that it is also alienating the rest of the hemisphere.
Venezuela has about 500 billion barrels of oil and is burning them currently at a rate of one billion barrels a year. Chávez or a successor from the same party will likely be governing the country for many years to come. The only question is when – if ever – Washington will accept the results of democratic change in the region.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.