Venezuela’s Referendum Should be a Wake-Up

August 22, 2004

Mark Weisbrot
San Jose Mercury News, August 22, 2004

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, August 17, 2004
Atlanta Constitution-Journal, August 22, 2004

On a TV show in Caracas last week, supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez picked up a six foot long baseball bat, taking up their baseball-loving leader’s metaphor for the “home run” he would hit in the country’s recall referendum. And on Sunday the ball was indeed knocked out of the park, with voters choosing to keep their president by 58 to 42 percent. It’s the third time that Chavez has won the popular vote by a large margin, and it is time for the U.S. foreign policy establishment — including the media — to take another look at their scorecards.

The result has implications not only for Venezuela, but for the entire region. First, it shows that an anti-poverty agenda can be an electoral success in a country where the majority of people are poor — as is true for most of Latin America. Millions of Venezuelans now have access for the first time to medical and dental care, education, literacy programs, microcredit loans, and even some land that has been redistributed in rural areas.

There is no doubt that these programs, as well as a sense of political inclusion that the country’s impoverished majority did not have prior to Chavez’ first election in 1998, were a huge factor in this election. It is true that recent oil price increases have made it easier for the Venezuelan government to keep its promises to share the country’s oil wealth with the poor. But there are many Latin American countries that could afford similar improvements in the lives of poor people, if they were willing to make it a priority.

Of course social programs for the poor are not sustainable if the economy does not grow, and that has been the number one economic problem in Latin America for the past quarter-century. That is why Venezuela is just one of several countries where left-wing or populist candidates have won elections (Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador) or come very close (Bolivia) in the last few years. A long-term, unprecedented economic failure is driving these political developments.

From 1960-79 the region grew by 80 percent per capita, allowing for considerable improvement in overall living standards despite the worst income inequality in the world. From 1980-99, it grew by only 11 percent, or hardly at all; and for the first half of the current decade, an abysmal one percent for the whole five years. It is hard to comprehend the magnitude of this failure, which is worse than any comparable period, even including the Great Depression.

And since most of the post-1980s economic reforms — liberalization of trade and investment flows, privatization, high interest rates and tight fiscal policies, even during recessions — have carried “made in the USA” label, it is not surprising that the political revolt in Latin America has been against Washington’s influence and the economic policies that are called “neo-liberalism” there.

So it is a mistake to try and demonize or isolate Chavez. He is only the most vocal representative of a broad swath of political leaders and social movements with the same view. Indeed, President Lula’s Workers Party of Brazil, along with their largest trade union confederation and leading intellectuals and artists, took the unusual step of publicly expressing support for Chavez in the referendum.

And despite the disingenuous efforts of U.S. officials such as Roger Noriega and Otto Reich to paint Venezuela as another Cuba, the country is as free and democratic as any in Latin America — as the world witnessed once again in this latest vote. Despite political polarization and class conflict, no reputable international human rights organization would argue that political rights or freedoms have deteriorated under the Chavez government, as compared with either previous governments or others in the Americas.

The Bush team supported a military coup against Chavez in 2002 as well as the recall effort — which also received U.S. taxpayer dollars from the Congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy. But they were unusually quiet as the vote drew near. They do not want to promote any instability that might raise the price of gasoline between now and November 2. But whatever happens in our own election, we are going to need a new foreign policy towards Venezuela — and the rest of Latin America.

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