Despite West's hatchet job on Chavez, facts and figures say otherwise
Lawrence Powell, World Watch
"I hereby accuse the North American empire of being the biggest menace to our planet." - Hugo Chavez
One might be forgiven for wondering if Hugo Chavez has nine lives. Sitting atop the world's second-largest cache of oil for the past decade, Venezuela's popular president has survived multiple attempts by angry former elites, allied with United States (US) destabilisation operations, to unseat him.
He has survived a constant barrage of negative international press reports that daily portray him as some kind of mad, evil dictator. And so far, at least, he has even managed to survive the ravages of two recent bouts with cancer.
As an icon of anti-colonialism and champion of the rights of indigenous peoples against foreign domination, scholars have begun to compare the legacy of the Chavez years in Latin America with those of Mandela in South Africa and Gandhi in India.
All of these controversial icons found themselves being stereotyped negatively by the Euro-American press during their peak years of struggle. And all three had to face repeated attempts to imprison, assassinate or unseat them for daring to challenge colonial hegemony. Also, like Mandela and Gandhi, Chavez's tenacity in standing up against domination has given inspiration to other anti-colonial efforts - most notably Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
Despite formidable obstacles to be overcome this time - including recovery from a second cancer operation that limited his ability to campaign - last Sunday 55 per cent of Venezuelans gave Chavez thumbs up for yet another presidential term, six more years, if health permits. His party won 22 of the 24 regional state contests as well, with only two states, Merida and Tachira, going to the opposition. That gives him a renewed popular mandate with which to continue delivering on his 'Bolivarian' anti-colonial reform promises - some of which have materialised, and some of which have not.
Chavez's youthful, handsome opponent in the 2012 election, Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda state, defines himself as a follower of the more neoliberal, but socially conscious, Brazilian economic model of Lula. He has strong ties to Venezuela's economic elite, was the preferred candidate of the US, and was supported in the election campaign by a number of centre-right parties who have formed a unity coalition known as the Democratic Unity Roundtable.
Capriles drew 44 per cent of the national vote, which is a much closer finish than for previous opposition challengers who have typically trailed Chavez by 25 to 30 points.
FREE AND FAIR
Because of his strident anti-American postures in foreign policy, the mainstream media coverage of Chavez is often prejudicial, portraying him as if he were a ruthless dictator, and as if Venezuela were a modern-day authoritarian Soviet Union. So it's important to correct a few misconceptions and point out that the elections since Chavez ascended to the presidency in 1998 have been thoroughly democratic, and do, in fact, appear to reflect the will of the majority of Venezuelans to have him continue as an extraordinarily popular leader. He has been re-elected four times (including a popular referendum) since then, by hefty margins, much to the chagrin of the United States.
Nelson Mandela once pointed out: "If the United States of America or Britain is having elections, they don't ask for observers from Africa or from Asia. But when we have elections, they want observers." International monitors such as the European Union and the Organisation of American States, in overseeing Venezuelan elections since 1998, have repeatedly certified these as being free and fair. After monitoring the elections, former US president Jimmy Carter even remarked that "the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world". More than 96 per cent of Venezuelans are registered to vote, and access to the polling stations is made convenient. The turnout in this most recent election was about 81 per cent.
Venezuela's electronic voting system is secure, transparent, and auditable - with multiple audits, involving all political parties, being carried out at each stage in the process. Unlike the controversial 'Diebold' machines used in recent US national elections, each vote yields a tangible paper receipt for verification or recount, and there is no 'electronic back door' to permit manipulation of the tallies.
Given the terrible things leaders can sometimes do to undermine their people's trust and well-being, one has to admit that the social and economic accomplishments of Hugo Chavez over the past 14 years have been rather impressive. Since being elected in 1998 to the first of four successive terms, he has wrested control of, and then applied, his country's indigenous oil wealth to reduce poverty levels by two-thirds (23.4 per cent in 1999 to 8.5 per cent in 2011), and has given millions of Venezuelans access to quality health care for the first time in their lives.
Unemployment levels have decreased from 14.5 per cent to 7.6 per cent, and infant mortality has gone from 20 to 13 per 1,000 births during the same period. The Chavez government has also implemented a comprehensive policy of widening access to education, including a doubling of university enrolments. And four times as many citizens are now eligible for public pension assistance in old age.
Overall, the country's gross domestic product has increased from US$4,100 per Venezuelan in 1999, to US$10,800 in 2011, in tandem with an increase in national oil exports from US$14 billion to US$60 billion over the same period. And note that these figures are from the United Nations, World Bank, and Centre for Economic and Policy Research studies, not from biased internal government sources.
Think about it. How often do politicians actually manage to accomplish such tangible improvements, for a majority of the people? To those outside Venezuela, it must seem that only a dictator could possibly be 're-elected' four times. Surely, the system is rigged, given the half life of most democratic politicians in office.
But to those inside Venezuela (at least the less-privileged classes, who remain a majority so far), it's clear that they keep asking him back because he delivers, or at least he tries. And now that he appears to be dying, they just want to say thank you.
Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and the former polling director for the Centre for Leadership and Governance at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.