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Defending Hugo Chávez

Throughout his essay on controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (“The Talented Mr. Chávez,” May Atlantic), Franklin Foer adopts the rhetoric and misrepresentations of Chávez’s more dishonest opponents. For example, he writes that the failed 2002 coup attempt against Chávez was led by high military officials “nervous about the president’s feints toward a fully nationalized economy.” This ignores the role of politicians, the business sector, and the corporate media in the destabilization campaign leading to the coup, and it misconstrues Chávez’s economic program. At his most radical, and despite his rhetoric, Chávez calls for a mixed economy—and the private sector has expanded faster than the public sector since he took office seven years ago.

Foer distorts regional politics. The Venezuelan military cannot patrol every inch of its country’s 1,379-mile border with Colombia, yet Chávez does not, as Foer implies, have a policy allowing the FARC guerrillas to freely cross into Venezuela’s territory. In fact, Chávez, concerned with preventing incursions of right-wing paramilitaries from Colombia, has established good working relations with his ideological opposite, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, much to the chagrin of leftist supporters. Foer recycles the claims of Chávez’s opponents, including those in the Pentagon, and so is blind to the fact that the real threat to regional stability comes from right-wing paramilitaries.

Foer writes that the poverty rate has risen from 43 percent to 53 percent during Chávez’s presidency. But the 53 percent figure is from the first quarter of 2004, and the Venezuelan economy has grown by more than 28 percent (in real, inflation-adjusted terms) since then, with poverty falling to 37 percent. The earlier jump in poverty was, to a large extent, a direct result of the 2002–2003 opposition-led oil strike, which crippled the economy and sent unemployment soaring. Yet even the current decline in the official poverty rate does not capture the enormous gains from increased social spending—$17 billion this year—on health care, education, and subsidized food. Foer ridicules these programs, but there is broad agreement among scholars of Latin America, many sharply critical of Chavismo, that these misiones are an innovative experiment in a region where nearly half the population lives in extreme poverty.

Foer suggests that Venezuelan public opinion is deeply divided over Chávez, but it is not an equal division. Chávez’s approval rating consistently hovers between 60 and 70 percent, and he leads all potential presidential contenders in the polls. Also, a survey by the respected Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro found that when asked to rank how democratic their country is on a scale of 1 (not democratic) to 10 (totally democratic), Venezuelans scored their country at 7.6, considerably better than the regional average of 5.5.

At one point Foer acknowledges that Latin America’s “leftward swing” was a reaction against the free-market policies that “failed to deliver on their much-hyped promise of prosperity.” But then he states that Chávez threatens to disrupt an “embrace of market capitalism [that] seemed to bring relative prosperity and genuine stability within grasp.” Here Foer misses the crucial development driving the turn left in Latin America: the disastrous economic failures of the last twenty-five years. Per capita income (or gross domestic product) has grown by only 10 percent over the last quarter century, the worst such performance in more than 100 years. Today, 213 million Latin Americans, or 40 percent of the population, are destitute.

Finally, Foer’s presentation of Latin American politics as a contest between two lefts, one acceptable and one not, is overly simplistic. Latin American leaders themselves don’t buy it. Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, has been one of Chávez’s biggest defenders—not, as Foer deduces, because he is scared of his base, but because the two share many goals, including diversifying sources of investment and furthering regional economic integration. Even Chile’s former President Ricardo Lagos, the kind of responsible, left-of-center politician extolled by Foer, recently told the United States to back off its criticisms of Venezuela. It would be a “mistake,” he said, to “demonize Hugo Chávez.” Foer should heed the advice of the Latin American leaders that he respects.

Greg Grandin, New York University; John Womack, Harvard University; Deborah Levenson, Boston College; Charles Hale, University of Texas at Austin; Fernando Coronil, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Jocelyn Olcott, Duke University; Gilbert Joseph, Yale University; Julie Skurski, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Cindy Forster, Scripps College; Mark Healey, University of California at Berkeley; Daniel Hellinger, Webster University; Miguel Tinker-Salas, Pomona College; Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic and Policy Research

Franklin Foer replies:

Hugo Chávez has been skilled in winning a following on the American Left, especially within the academy. It’s striking, however, that his defenders take so little time to rebut the most damning criticism of the man: his anti-democratic impulse. Chávez has gutted many of the governmental institutions that stood in his way and does little to hide his desire to remain in office for decades.

To respond point by point: I don’t disagree with the letter writers’ characterization of the 2002 coup. Chávez had alienated many sectors of the Venezuelan elite, as well as the country’s middle class. The military was merely the actor that enabled the coup to temporarily succeed. Furthermore, I never asserted that Chávez wants to impose a Cuban-style economy on the country, and I don’t think that is his intention. But he occasionally feints in that direction, and in the months before the coup, his rhetoric was clearly on the radical side.

The letter writers spend considerable time discussing the FARC, which made only a cameo appearance in my piece. I agree that the Venezuelan border is porous, and that Chávez’s relationship to the guerillas is mixed. Has he willfully ignored their presence at times? I’m not sure. But the intelligence officials I cited say he has. And my point was hardly an ideological one. The United States has vital interests in Latin America. It can’t afford hostile governments that fail to cooperate in its counter-narcotics operations. Chávez, who prohibits American surveillance planes from entering his country’s airspace, has stymied those efforts.

On the question of poverty, I used data published in the middle of last year, just as I began reporting my essay. There was no willful twisting of evidence. Once again, I don’t disagree with the letter writers’ points. The misiones are innovative and do help the Venezuelan people, especially in reversing feelings of exclusion. But they are designed as short-term infusions of cash, not long-term solutions to deep social problems. Because they are so scattershot—because they do little to build new health-care or educational systems, for instance—they will never provide the engine for genuine progress. Why, for instance, has infant mortality increased under Chávez’s watch?

Is Venezuelan society deeply divided? I don’t see how anyone could deny this claim. The Chavistas and the opposition despise one another and are locked in mortal political combat. Street protests are part of the fabric of Venezuelan life. Labor unions, the middle class, and most of the big newspapers are virulently anti-Chávez. Instead of reconciling with opponents—or even debating them—Chávez has defined them as American stooges, as un-Venezuelan.

The writers cite Ricardo Lagos’s praise of Chávez. This, sadly, proves a point that I make in the article: that pragmatic Latin American leaders are afraid to challenge Chávez, because the Latin American center-left adores him.

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