The Big Question: Is Hugo Chavez guilty of wielding excessive power in Venezuela?

Author: By Paul Vallely

Why are we asking this now?

A group of radical supporters of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have
attacked an opposition TV channel, Globovision, including by firing tear
gas. It comes just as the Chávez government has adopted a series of measures
to control the media. Some 34 radio stations have been closed for “irregularities”
and 200 more are “under investigation”. Critics say it is an
assault on free speech by the man who the leftist New Statesman once placed
near the top of its list of “Heroes of Our Time”. Yesterday the
former Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane suggested that it was now time
for the Hooray Hugos to give up their uncritical admiration for Chávez after
the South American proletarian hero announced a law that could jail
journalists for up to four years if they divulged information against “the
stability of the institutions of the state”.

How authoritarian is he?

In 2006 he withdrew the terrestrial licence for Venezuela’s second largest TV
channel and replaced it with a state network. But then the station had,
along with all the other privately-owned channels, backed a United
States-inspired coup against him. Then, earlier this year, he persuaded
voters to lift the two-term limit on the presidency ? enabling him to keep
standing indefinitely for the job. Opponents criticised him for having a
second referendum on the subject after the first one failed. (A trick he
perhaps learned from the EU’s second plebiscite in Ireland over the Lisbon
treaty). But an impressive 70 per cent of voters turned out, and 54 per cent
said “Yes”. Chávez announced: “In 2012, there will be
presidential elections, and unless God decides otherwise, unless the people
decide otherwise, this soldier is already a candidate,” he told his
supporters. “I am ready!” Critics say Chávez is hollowing-out
Venezuelan democracy, though his supporters point to Germany, which allows
for re-election indefinitely (Chancellor Helmut Kohl was in power for 16
years before losing his fourth election) without any major threat to German
democracy.

What about human rights?

The lobby group Human Rights Watch has been critical of Chávez’s expansion and
toughening of penalties for speech and broadcasting offences. It has accused
him of a disregard for the separation of powers, with attacks on the
independent judiciary and on workers’ rights to associate freely. The
Venezuelan police have never sunk to the levels of barbarity of places like
Brazil and Argentina at their worst, but it is said that those who don’t tow
the chavista line can be excluded from state jobs or benefits.

So why do Venezuelans keep voting for him?

Because, for all his faults, Chávez is a lot straighter and more honourable
than the corrupt and kleptocractic regimes that preceded him. They also like
his flamboyant and ribald style, which is on show not just in big set
speeches but in his own live TV talk show Aló Presidente. Over the last 10
years there have been 14 referenda and elections and he, or his party, have
won 12 of them. Chávez is generally viewed as speaking and acting in the
best interests of the poor. Though his opponents dub him a dictator, Chávez
keeps getting re-elected ? and with very high turnouts in elections praised
as free and fair by international observers such as the EU.

Have the poor benefited?

Undoubtedly. Chávez has channelled billions of dollars into social programmes
in the form of health and literacy programmes aimed at the poorest. There is
free dental care, free health, access to education and vocational training,
social housing and cheap food subsidised by the state. There are elected
neighbourhood community councils, which decide how government money will be
spent locally. There are 3,500 local communal banks for micro-financing. The
incomes of the poorest have risen by 130 per cent. Social indicators, on
child mortality, disease, illiteracy, malnutrition and poverty, show huge
improvement.

Things are far from perfect ? state control of food prices has led to sporadic
shortages. But the net improvements are clear. Official UN figures show that
poverty has dropped from 51 per cent to 25 per cent since 2003. Extreme
poverty is down from 25 per cent to just 7 per cent. Venezuela is well on
the way to reaching its first Millennium Development Goal years ahead of
schedule ? in stark contrast to those Third World countries relying on the
affluent West for aid.

So who exactly is against him?

The vested interests who depended on the old corrupt economic model for
handling the country’s oil economy, which is the fifth largest in the world.
Also the professional and middle classes who relied on the working of the
old elitist model. Prominent among these are the owners, managers, and
commentators workings on the five major private television networks and
largest newspapers who have opposed Chávez for a decade. Their airwaves and
pages are full of day-to-day issues like muggings (crime is high in
Venezuela) and the price of milk. But their real concern is the shift from
alignment with the US-dominated globalised economy to the bilateral trade
and reciprocal aid agreements which Chávez has called his “oil
diplomacy” ? bartering oil for arms with Brazil, for doctors and other
expertise with Cuba, and for strapped meat and dairy products from
Argentina.

They were also alarmed by Chávez’s wider proposals as part of a constitutional
reform including limiting central bank autonomy, strengthening state
expropriation powers and providing for public control over Venezuela’s
international reserves. It is measures like that which have caused
Washington to massively subsidise Venezuela’s opposition parties.

How has the arrival of Obama changed things?

The United States has long seen Chávez as a threat. In the Bush era it backed
a botched military coup against him and, at the same time, criticised him
for “undermining democracy”. Chávez was applauded in 2006 when he
referred to President George W Bush in the UN General Assembly as “the
devil”. But the arrival of Barack Obama has robbed Chávez of his
anti-American card. He is now talking of re-establishing diplomatic ties
with the US.

What impact is the recession likely to have?

Chávez’s critics say he is buying his popularity by squandering the nation’s
oil wealth on social programmes which are transitory and will bring no
lasting change to underlying structural problems. With the fall in oil
prices they predicted doom would follow.

But that was when oil was $40 a barrel, and they knew that Chávez’s budgeting
was predicated on a world oil price of $60 a barrel. Yesterday the price was
$71 and even the cheaper Venezuelan crude oil was $63. There may also be
something of a longer-term structural problem. The private sector is
shrinking relative to the overall economy. Millions more Venezuelans depend
on the state for jobs and handouts than a decade ago. But the oil will not
run out before Chávez’s time in power is well over, however long he might
extend it.

Is it time to give up faith in the President of Venezuela?

Yes…

* His violations of human rights are becoming more authoritarian as the years
pass.

* He is squandering vast amounts of oil wealth on social security programmes
that are only a sticking plaster on deep structural woes.

* Constitutional changes allowing him to rule indefinitely are dangerous.

No…

* He has massively improved the lives of his country’s poorest people.

* His foreign policy remains an important challenge to the power of the US in
the region.

* Venezuelans still support him far more than voters in democracies like the
UK or US support their leaders.

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