Talk about Venezuela these days and people assume the argument splits neatly between two camps: nutty Pat Robertson-style Chavez-hating right-wingers who couldn't care less about the poor at home, let alone in South America; and sane, progressive folks with the sense to balance off concerns about Hugo Chavez's autocratic streak with admiration for his government's remarkable achievements in improving the lives of poor Venezuelans.
Personally, I'm in neither camp: I'm a radical anti-Chavez progressive. (We do exist, dammit, we do!!) Fighting poverty sustainably is right at the top of my agenda. In fact, it's one of the biggest reasons I oppose the guy.
"But what sense does that even make?" my friends back in the US will say, " Chavez has cut the poverty rate in half since 2003...what kind of progressive is radically against that?"
"A progressive," I'm tempted to answer, "who's concerned with the sustainability of poverty reduction." Because in Venezuela, we have a long, sad history of big advances in the fight against poverty that turn out to have been mirages when the economy tanks.
Chavez's claims to have halved the poverty rate aren't wrong, but they're incredibly misleading. If you'll allow a little parable, Chavez right now is like a mayor who, ten months into his term of office, calls a press conference to say:
"My fellow citizens, today we come together to celebrate our victory over the leaves. Think back on what this city was like back before my administration was elected last October. Our neighborhoods were blighted with dead leaves. They were everywhere: clogging up our gutters, making our streets and sidewalks dangerously slippery, sapping the life from our community. That was the city we inherited.It can surprise no one that poverty in Venezuela is lower now than it was five years ago, for the same reason that it can surprise no one that there are fewer dead leaves on the ground in August than in October. The reason is that Venezuela is a petrostate: 93% of what we sell to the world is oil, the government owns the only oil company, and oil prices rose every single year from the turn of the century through last year. Chavez has spent his decade in office swimming in cash!
"But this is a people's revolutionary government! We promised that we would get rid of the leaves...and we have. From the moment we took office, we never let up in our fight against the leaves. And the results are all around you. As we stand here in this brilliant August evening, our government has reduced the leaves-on-the-ground rate by more than 99%! The only way they're coming back is if the evil old regime ever manages to get their hands on power again somehow! No volveran!"