The Left Foot Forward Debate: Hugo Chavez, tyrant or liberator?

Opinion on the Left has been divided since the news broke on Tuesday evening that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had died of cancer. We asked two of our writers to give their take on the legacy of Hugo Chavez, both for and against.

Opinion on the Left has been divided since the news broke on Tuesday evening that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had died of cancer.

As we reported yesterday, Hugo Chavez divided opinion. To some he was a tyrannical caudillo, yet for others he represented a push back against American capitalism.

We asked two of our writers to give their take on the legacy of Hugo Chavez, both for and against.

Liberator – Reclaiming socialism for the 21st Century

Grahame Morris is Labour MP for Easington and chair of Labour Friends of Venezuela

Those seeking to use the death of President Hugo Chavez to bring into question the progressive legacy of his government seem to be struggling to answer two key points.

Firstly, why did the people of Venezuela elect him and his coalition of supporters time and time again in free and fair elections?

And secondly, why did all elements of the left in Latin America from Lula’s PT in Brazil through to Evo Morales of Bolivia hail Hugo Chavez and Venezuela as an inspiration?

The answer is simple. Against those who claimed “history was dead”, Hugo Chavez emerged at the turn of the century as the first elected President to challenge austerity which had devastated Latin America.

The current crisis in Europe pales by comparison with the devastation wrought in Venezuela.

From 1980 there were more than 20 years of falling incomes. GDP per head fell one third. By the mid 1990’s, the crisis meant poverty hit 70 per cent of the population were in poverty, and one in three Venezuelans lived on less than $2 per day.

By the time, Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998 the majority of Venezuelan’s were poorer than they had been in 1960!

A great achievement of Chavez’s presidency was to reverse this decline and dramatically improve the lives of the overwhelming majority.

From the five million people lifted out of poverty, to the children receiving free school meals, to the 250,000 social houses built last year, the Venezuelan people’s living standards increased immeasurably.

Of course, there is no need to fear democracy when you are delivering for the overwhelming majority. That’s why last October’s presidential election was Venezuela’s 15th set of national elections since Hugo Chavez became President.

That is more elections than took place in the 40 years prior to Hugo Chávez being elected.

To those who imply – but never quite dare say – that Hugo Chavez only won because of fraud or even threats to the opposition, the rebuttal of former US President Jimmy Carter is the most powerful.

He said “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world” and that Hugo Chavez has always won “fairly and squarely”.

Contrast this with the two decades before Hugo Chavez when thousands of people who protested against austerity were assassinated and disappeared. In 1989 a bloody massacre by state forces led to an estimated 3,000 dead. No such cases occurred in Chavez’s Venezuela.

This rejection of neo-liberalism is in contrast with the failed model of austerity that has sparked the labour movement’s increased interest in the progressive changes underway in Latin America. Venezuela is at the forefront of these changes and this is recognised in Latin America itself.

Lula, the former Brazilian President, best summed this up last year explaining that:

“Progressive governments are changing the face of Latin America. Thanks to them, our continent is developing rapidly, with economic growth, job creation, redistribution of wealth and social inclusion. Today, we are an international reference point for a successful alternative to neoliberalism.”

He added, specifically on Venezuela. “With Chavez’s leadership, the Venezuelan people has made extraordinary gains. The popular classes have never ever been treated with such respect, love and dignity. Those conquests must be preserved and strengthened.”

In short, support for Venezuela and for the wider progressive changes in Latin America are one and the same. All progressives around the world should echo Lula’s words and celebrate the progressive legacy of Hugo Chavez.

He put the idea of 21st Century Socialism – based on democracy and social progress – well and truly on the global political agenda.


Tyrant – Hugo Chavez: the case for the prosecution

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager

It is surprising just how flimsy the evidence for the defence is, so let’s do the cross-examination first.

There are a few things that tend to be said in support of Chávez, mostly disingenuous.

1. “He raised incomes for the poor”.

He did but, in the words of Nye Bevan, by “stuffing their mouths with gold”. Despite the claims of his supporters, Chávez was neither a clever Robin Hood redistributer via taxation, in the European style, nor an inspiring political genius.

Point is, gifted an endless supply of oil, you don’t need to be either. Franisco Toro explains the effect brilliantly in The New York Times.

He says: “Petrostates aren’t like normal countries, where governments depend on the people and the companies they tax to ensure a reasonable funding stream.

“Instead, they depend on the black goo they pump out of the ground, and in turn the people and the companies depend on them. The basic balance of power between the state and the individual is upended.

“To the average Venezuelan voter, access to the basics of a decent life means access to his or her little parcel of the petrostate pie.

“That this ends up giving the incumbent carte blanche to pursue policies that are wasteful, corrupt, authoritarian and sporadically downright criminal doesn’t necessarily register.”

Finally, as many have observed, Brazil and Chile have done better overall at lifting people out of poverty, and have experienced booming economies to boot.

2. “He won and maintained power through democracy”.

In fact, there were myriad doubts about the 2012 election, among others, which are discussed at length in this piece. Whatever the brilliance of his hi-tech voting system, elections are surprisingly easy to rig at simple polling station level (cf. Tower Hamlets, London).

If you don’t believe this kind of manipulation is possible, I suggest that you read point 9 of this piece, a chilling extract written by an EU observer at a Venezuela count who notes an irregularity. It makes things very, very clear indeed:

“There are 20 more votes in the machines than voters’ signatures…A little later, as I’m taking some time out in the corridor, my mobile phone rings and a voice I don’t recognise warns me to stop interfering in things that do not concern me.”

Oh, yes. Completely free. Undoubtedly fair.

3. “Venezuela has a robust free press”

It is robust, but it is certainly not free. Venezuela also has state TV propaganda stations, and has closed down some critical media outlets. Believers in free speech do neither of these things.

And now the prosecution: well, how long have you got?

Economic disaster: This oil-rich country is now an economic basket case, which has devalued its currency five times in nine years.

The scarcity of truth: From this classic “Chavez’ Three Lies” of three things which turned out to be exactly the opposite; to, even in death, the regime apparently pretending he was still conscious for nearly three months, right up until the point when this became untenable on Monday.

Curtailed freedom and human rights: The country is given five out of seven for Freedom House’ Freedom Index, the worst in South America. There are many examples of where it has been necessary to have a Chavista party card to access public services.

More 20th century USSR than “21st century socialism”.

Messing around with the constitution: The great democrat has regularly attempted to increase his constitutional power, and succeeded in 2009 in removing term limits. This tinkering is listed in point 8 of this piece.

Repression of trade unions: While encouraging Chavista unions, he has repressed members of non-Chavista unions. Many trade unionists have disappeared or been murdered.

Friend to monsters: Ahmadinejad, Assad, Lukashenko, Mugabe. The only man alive with a higher dictator-love index is surely his other friend, George Galloway.

Surge in violent crime: Tripling of murder rate under Chávez.

Why does the left persist in its insane, Stockholm-syndrome love for el Chavismo? Apart from the “my enemy’s enemy” maxim which we so often fall prey to, there is another: the insidious racism of low expectations.

These people deserve more. We do not know that much about Capriles but, with a little luck, perhaps he might just be the man to beat the twisted system and gain power. But doing so will be a supreme challenge, and the dice are well loaded against him.

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87 Responses to “The Left Foot Forward Debate: Hugo Chavez, tyrant or liberator?”

  1. Stephen Hildon

    They declined because they were asked too late. “The Carter Center believes the most important role in monitoring any electoral process belongs to the national citizens, including the political parties, national observer organizations, and the voters themselves.” As the opposition didn’t claim fraud you have no case here.

  2. Rob Marchant

    So, you presumably think the EU observer was just making it up? Or my contact who worked on the new IT system and noticed that results were being reported back to the central computer before people had actually voted? All made up, of course.

  3. Rob Marchant

    Spare me your terrible clichés, Stephen.

  4. Rob Marchant

    One other point, there is an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal which gives figures on exactly how brilliantly handled the economy has been under Chávez.

    Note that complete information is not even available, as they have stopped reporting to people such as the IMF. It seems likely that, when the auditors finally one day get to look at the real books in Venezuela, they will find that the figures (as happened in Greece) will be much worse than they have been reporting. Even so, those that have been reported are still pretty bad, when you consider they are sitting on the world’s largest oil deposits.

  5. Jiusito

    Surely, most petro-states channel the revenue from their oil to a corrupt elite and to foreign corporations? If Chávez did squander his country’s oil revenues, at least he squandered them on the poor. How has Nigeria’s oil wealth, for example, benefited the poor? It was actually a Venezuelan politician, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, one of the founders of Opec, who described oil as “the Devil’s excrement”!

  6. jiusito

    Not moral relativism, just drawing attention to your grotesque double standards.

  7. Rob Marchant

    Don’t worry, no-one is very worried about that. In fact, the only places remotely in danger of catching onto his “ideas” are those who are also already blessed with large deposits of oil. You couldn’t afford to be that incompetent, corrupt and illiberal without them.

  8. Rob Marchant

    Weisbrot? The man who co-wrote the screenplay to an Oliver Stone movie a serious economist? Don’t make me laugh.

  9. Rob Marchant

    So, your explanation of the list of constitutional changes, attempted and successful, linked in the piece, is…?

    Why exactly would you change the constitution in the direction of more power to yoursefl, if not because you had authoritarian tendencies?

    No, I didn’t think you had an answer.

  10. Rob Marchant

    Ah, NOW I remember you. I blocked you on Twitter for abuse some time ago. It seems not much has changed in your trolling habits.

  11. Stephen Hildon

    WSJ is hardly going to be an unbaised source.

    If you take growth post 2003 following the coup and general strike, both actions of the opposition, Venezuela’s growth has averaged 6.5%. Only Panama, Argentina and Peru in Latin America have bettered this.

    So you are relying on conspiracy theory again here with what the books might say.

  12. Stephen Hildon

    That was very brave of you Rob.

  13. Stephen Hildon

    As you say Rob the EU observer comments were an anecdote posted on your blog in 2011 so cannot have referred to the 2012 election. It is an essentially worthless piece of evidence that cannot be tested. I cannot see your IT system reporting point.

  14. Stephen Hildon

    So says the man who posted “right-wing bootlickers”. Your arguing style is somewhat puerile.

  15. Rob Marchant

    Of course, try and discredit the source. The last refuge of those bereft of arguments.

  16. Stephen Hildon

    You can laugh all you like. He has a PhD in Economics, works at an Economic Think Tank that has two Economic Nobel prize winners on its board.

  17. Stephen Hildon

    Just like you did with Weisbrot then.

  18. Rob Marchant

    Nice try, the EU observer comments were reproduced on my blog, because of the paywall. They were not posted on my blog as an original source, but from a piece in the Times. So they were not just “anecdote posted on my blog”.

    I fail to see why being before 2012 makes this evidence “worthless”, it is nothing of the sort. I defy you to accuse Tom de Castella of making it up.

    The issue seems to be that you are uncomfortable hearing evidence which shows that this is not the squeaky-clean process which you are trying to assert that it is.

  19. Stephen Hildon

    Here is an example of its bias: “GDP per capita rose to an estimated $11,131 last year, from $4,132 in 1999, according to the IMF, but there are no data available on income distribution, which by all accounts still displays high disparities among the population.”

    The WSJ only had to look up the Gini data to see that Venezuela has moved towards less income inequality in the past decade or so.

  20. Rob Marchant

    You put him up as a credible economist. I disagreed. That is not discrediting the source because you disagree with the arguments. The WSJ vs CEPR? I think most people would take the WSJ.

  21. Rob Marchant

    You have no answer whatsoever to criticism of Venezuela’s awful human rights record apart from to try and discredit HRW. Presumably you’d do the same with Amnesty and Freedom House. What have you to say about human rights – all these organisations are lying?

  22. Stephen Hildon

    No the issue is that I cannot make sense of the evidence. I had already read the EU observer comments on your blog and cannot see the details of the IT system.

    As Tom De Castella doesn’t tell us what the polling official said when asked about the discrepancy then it is hard to have an opinion on the matter.

    In any case the official report doesn’t mention this as being a widespread observation.

    It does include a paragraph on page 23 that might explain what TdC saw:

    The most frequent cause of discrepancy related to problems with blank votes. Some

    Polling Station Chairpersons, facing the protests of voters that had issued a blank vote by

    mistake, decided to consider these blank votes as invalid votes, and allowed the voters to

    vote again, and to discard the receipt of the previous blank vote. This led to a numeric

    discrepancy between the voter list, the polling protocol, and the box of voting receipts, as

    one single voter was registered in the voter list, whereas the same voter was registered twice

    in the protocol issued by the machine (one blank and one valid vote), and only one receipt

    was included in the receipt box.

  23. Stephen Hildon

    You disagreed without doing any in-depth research on him.

    To demonstrate the bias of the WSJ, its headline after the October 2012 election was “Chavismo wins, Venezuela loses”.

  24. Stephen Hildon

    Another example of bias in the article is “[…] massive increase in national external debt, which went from around $28 billion during his first year in power to around $90 billion currently.”

    But as a % of GNI the ratio of external debt has been reducing all the time as can be seen here:!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=dt_dod_dect_gn_zs&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:VEN&ifdim=region&tstart=889401600000&tend=1299628800000&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false

  25. Stephen Hildon

    “Awful human rights record”. Who has been killed by the government in Venezuela?

    There is a multitude of articles pointing out that the HRW are biased.

    Most of the cases they highlighted on the 5th March involve corrupt officials who have been caught doing something illegal and claim they are being persecuted.

    The worst human rights violators in Venezuela is not the government as this article sets out:

  26. Rob Marchant

    And the reason for them deciding not to give any data to the IMF for the last 7 years is…?

  27. Rob Marchant

    I am referring to the phone call. You think he made that up?

  28. Rob Marchant

    Hm. I think you’ll find practically all economists have a PhD. It’s a pre-requisite for being an a academic.

  29. Rob Marchant

    I see you are not familiar with journalistic practices.

    When you say its headline, it implies that its front page made a judgement about Chávez, but this is entirely disingenuous.

    There are broadly two types of piece: a NEWS piece and a COMMENT piece. The piece you mention was a comment piece, as exist in all newspapers. They do not indicate bias, simply an opinion. Normally comment pieces appear on the inside pages, and the main headline reserved for news.

    The WSJ wrote a comment piece which thought Chávez’ return a negative thing. So what? The piece I linked is also a comment piece, but which contains a number of hard facts. Grown-up debaters review the facts and refute them if they disagree, rather than simply trying to claim the source – a highly reputable one in this case – is “biased”. As you have also done, laughably, with Human Rights Watch.

    You seem quite unable to respond to the fact that a petro-state, in a time when oil prices have increased tenfold, has not developed accordingly.

  30. Mellie Agon

    Again, you are ignoring facts that you find inconvenient. The left is sweeping through Latin and Central America and Chavez was explicitly recognised even by more centre-left governments like Argentina and Brazil as one of the leaders of that movement.

    “Corruption” existed long before Chavez and fighting against it is part of the Chavista programme. “Incompetent”? For 25 years before Chavez came to power, GDP per head in Venezuela fell every year under useless right-wingers – now the economy is growing at 6%. As for “illiberal”, women’s and gay rights are protected by the constitution, which protects equalities and human rights for all in law. Women are engaged en masse at every level of the revolution. If we achieved something comparable in Britain we’d have the proudest labour movement in Europe.

    So again, you are just making unfounded and aggressive statements, ignoring facts that don’t suit your perverse interpretation. In fact, your refusal to accept simple facts about Venezuela is rather extraordinary.

  31. Mellie Agon

    So you ask for a respectable economist, you get one, so you panic and try to rubbish him with snide comments. The weakness of your position is obvious to anyone reading this.

  32. Mellie Agon

    “I see that members of the Venezuela Solidarity campaign are out in force.”

    Translation: “I thought I could say any old hostile rubbish about Venezuela on Left Foot Forward, but visitors are exposing the shabbiness of my arguments and I don’t like it.”

  33. Mellie Agon

    Jimmy Carter in September 2012: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

    Discussion concludes.

  34. Mellie Agon

    You are getting ahead of yourself. I do have an answer.

    Removing term limits is not authoritarian. Britain also does not have term limits. It just means that Venezuelans can elect their president, in free and fair elections, beyond two terms, if they so choose. That’s all it means. Judging by their electoral choices they were happy to return Chavez to office. Who are you to say they mustn’t be allowed to?

  35. Mellie Agon

    You’ve got no answer then for the points: 2 million homes for the poor or the reduction in poverty or the free healthcare or free education? Does Rob Marchant think these are fine achievements or doesn’t he?

    If this is the intellectual case for the anti-Venezuela lobby, I think Chavismo is safe for the moment.

  36. Martin McGowan

    Rob Marchant is typical new labour: ignorant, pushy and arrogant. Has he ever been to Latin America; ever educated himself about the economic devastation wrought on the continent by the US? What is perhaps more important than what Chavez has or has not done is what he represented to millions of Latin Americans, including political leaders from Argentina to Mexico. He showed that there was an alternative to neoliberalism and the IMF. He stood up to the US and he was vilified in the Western media for doing so.

  37. Paul Taylor

    Only in the sense that Tony Blair is a socialist. Ie. not. You’re a neoliberal at heart Rob, it rings loud and clear in everything you write.

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