For most people who have heard or read about Hugo Chávez in the international media, his reelection on Sunday as president of Venezuela by a convincing margin might be puzzling.
Almost all of the news we hear about him is bad: He 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 Venezuelan 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 should not be surprising that most Venezuelans would reelect a president who has improved their living standards. That’s what has happened with all of the leftist governments that now govern most of South America. This is despite the fact that they, like Chávez, have most of their countries’ media against them, and their opposition has most of the wealth and income of their respective countries.
The list includes Rafael Correa, who was reelected president of Ecuador by a wide margin in 2009; the enormously popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who was reelected in 2006 and then successfully campaigned for his former chief of staff, now President Dilma Rousseff, in 2010; Evo Morales, Bolvia’s first indigenous president, who was reelected in 2009; José Mujica, who succeeded his predecessor from the same political alliance in Uruguay — the Frente Amplio — in 2009; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded her husband, the late Néstor Kirchner, winning the 2011 Argentine presidential election by a solid margin.
These leftist presidents and their political parties won reelection 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 economic growth in more than a century.
Not surprisingly, the leftist leaders 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: even the much-maligned Venezuela is recognized by many scholars to be more democratic than it was in the pre-Chávez era.
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 hemisphere-wide organization — the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which excluded the United States and Canada — as an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States.
Here is what Lula said last month about the Venezuelan election: “A victory for Chávez 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 administration of George W. Bush pursued a strategy of trying to isolate Venezuela from its neighbors, and ended up isolating itself. President Obama has continued this policy, and at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia he was as isolated as his predecessor.
Although some media have talked 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, 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 [pdf], 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 they did in 2008-2009), there would be no need for austerity or recession. And hardly anyone is predicting a long-term collapse of oil prices.
Venezuela’s economy does have long-term problems, such as relatively high inflation and inadequate infrastructure. But the substantial improvement in people’s income (the average income has risen much faster than inflation under Chávez), plus gains in health care and education, seems to have outweighed the government’s failings in other areas, including law enforcement, in the minds of most voters.
The U.S. economic embargo against Cuba has persisted for more than half a century, despite its obvious stupidity and failure. American hostility toward Venezuela is only about 12 years old, but shows no sign of being reconsidered, despite the evidence 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 his 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 codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington and president of Just Foreign Policy.