Foreign Affairs: Venezuela: “A Benign Revolution”


Richard Moore

How intriguing that we find this pro-Chavez article in the pages of Foreign 
Affairs, the mouthpiece of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Original source URL:

A Benign Revolution
By Bernardo Alvarez Herrera
From Foreign Affairs, July/August 2006

In Defense of Hugo Chávez
Bernardo Alvarez Herrera

In her recently released book, Friendly fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies 
in the Anti-American Century, Latin America scholar Julia Sweig writes, "When 
U.S. elites -- in government, media, and the private sector -- get their 
information mainly from their counterparts in other societies, the United States
becomes disconnected from the conditions, feelings, preferences, and experiences
of those living on the margins of what Americans have incorrectly assumed to be 
a universal phenomenon of political, social, and economic progress promised by 
democracy and globalization."

As Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, I have spent a large part of my 
tenure attempting to encourage Washington's policy and government establishments
to look beyond the information they receive about Venezuela from Venezuelan 
elites. Given the generally hostile attitudes toward Venezuela and its 
president, Hugo Chávez, in Washington today, it seems that there is much work 
left to be done.

In recent months, there has been a lot of discussion of Venezuela in the pages 
of Foreign Affairs. Peter Hakim ("Is Washington Losing Latin America?" 
January/February 2006) sharply criticized President Chávez in an article on U.S.
relations with Latin America; former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda 
attacked his "populism" ("Latin America's Left Turn," May/June 2006); and 
Michael Shifter negatively assessed his domestic and foreign policies ("In 
Search of Hugo Chávez," May/June 2006). Unfortunately, their analyses 
misunderstand the dramatic processes of change that are occurring in Venezuela. 
If anything, their opinions reflect a rightward shift in Washington's 
perspective on Latin America, a region that is slowly escaping the binds of an 
economic and social model imposed on it by the United States and international 
financial institutions in the 1980s and 1990s. People across the region are 
electing leaders who promise to lead their countries down an independent path, 
one that expands the means for democratic participation while narrowing the 
large gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in the region. This trend is 
not a threat to the United States, nor should it be perceived as such.

President Chávez is often accused of many things: undermining democracy, 
mishandling the country's economy, and promoting regional instability are but a 
few of the claims I have heard recently, many times from officials in the Bush 
administration. Others repeat those charges. Hakim calls him a "vexing and 
potentially dangerous adversary," and Castañeda claims, in reference to 
President Chávez and heads of state like him, "For all of these leaders, 
economic performance, democratic values, programmatic achievements, and good 
relations with the United States are not imperatives but bothersome 
constraints." Similarly, Shifter refers to President Chávez's regime as 
"illiberal" and his policy ideas as "mostly dubious." These opinions do not 
reflect an understanding of what is an inevitable process of change in Venezuela
-- one that seeks to correct long-standing social ills and allow Venezuelans to 
direct the future of their country.

A recent survey on democracy in Latin America sheds some light on contemporary 
Venezuela. Conducted by Latinobarómetro, a well-respected independent Chilean 
polling firm, the survey found that of the populations of the 18 Latin American 
countries studied, Venezuelans were the most likely to describe their government
as "totally democratic." Similarly, Venezuela came in second in terms of 
citizens' satisfaction with their system of democracy, ranking behind only 
Uruguay. In fact, satisfaction with the government in Venezuela has been higher 
during President Chávez's tenure than ever before, and it remained so even 
during 2003, when an opposition-led oil sabotage heightened a sense of political
crisis. None of this should be surprising: the 1999 constitution broadened the 
definition of rights and responsibilities, expanded political participation, and
encouraged Venezuelans to become more active stakeholders in the country's 
political, economic, and social development. Venezuelans have participated in 
numerous elections since President Chávez took office, including one 
specifically designed to allow citizens to cut short the tenure of an elected 
official -- in this case, the president himself.

President Chávez has remained a responsible steward of the Venezuelan economy, 
implementing policies that have promoted growth while lowering inflation and 
unemployment. His responsible management of the economy became obvious during 
his first years in office, when he twice trimmed the budget and implemented 
measures to control inflation. Except for the negative impact of the 2002 
opposition-led coup (which the United States tacitly endorsed) and the 2003 oil 
sabotage, the economy has remained strong since he took office. It grew by 17.9 
percent in 2004 and by 9.3 percent last year, and it looks like it will continue
such growth this year. More important is the fact that the non-oil sector has 
been growing faster than the oil sector -- by 10.6 percent in 2005 -- indicating
an important diversification of the country's economy. Inflation, interest 
rates, and unemployment have fallen, while gross fixed investment, microcredit, 
construction, purchases of cars, and consumer confidence have all risen. Tax 
collection has increased, and Venezuela's tax revenues as a percentage of GDP 
now stand at close to 25 percent, higher than in any other country in the region
and approaching the percentage in the United States. Venezuela also recently 
paid off some $4.7 billion of its international debt ahead of schedule, leading 
to a 15.2 percent decrease in annual payments for foreign debt. Venezuela has 
become the United States' second-largest trading partner in the region, second 
only to Mexico, and the United States' thirteenth-largest trading partner 
globally, doing over $39 billion in commerce in 2005. It's no surprise that 
Venezuela's country risk rating has fallen continually since 2003, when 
President Chávez began a concerted effort at economic recovery.

More important than simply promoting economic growth, though, is paying down the
social debt that the government built up over four decades of neglect of 
Venezuela's most pressing problems. President Chávez is overseeing an ambitious 
program of social missions meant to correct some of Venezuela's most outstanding
inequalities in education, housing, health care, food security, and job 
training. Government spending on social programs has risen dramatically since 
President Chávez took office, and it now stands at roughly 15 percent of GDP. 
Fifteen million Venezuelans -- roughly half the population -- have received free
health care from 20,000 doctors located in Venezuela's poorest areas through 
Mission Barrio Adentro, and some nine million have benefited from subsidized 
prices on basic foodstuffs through Mission Mercal. The various educational 
missions -- for basic, secondary, and university education -- have benefited 
millions more, allowing the country to declare itself free from illiteracy last 
year. In fact, Venezuela's social programs will allow the country to meet the UN
Millennium Development Goals in 2012, three years ahead of schedule, and the 
country's ranking on the UN's Human Development Index (a broad measure of 
economic and social welfare) continues to rise. Although some critics have 
called these programs clientelistic, they are simply responding to long-ignored 
needs and building much-needed human capital in Venezuela. The Venezuelan people
are being provided with the basic tools to become productive and competitive, so
much so that even members of the opposition have recognized the inherent value 
of the social missions.

It is no secret that relations between the United States and Venezuela remain 
tense. But Venezuela is simply not a threat to the United States, much less an 
enemy. Many in the Bush administration -- still convinced that the Cold War has 
not ended in Latin America -- see it as such, going so far as to try and have 
Venezuela listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, despite lacking evidence to 
prove such a claim and even while cynically refusing to extradite Luis Posada 
Carriles, a well-known Cuban terrorist, to Venezuela to stand trial for the 1976
killing of 73 innocent civilians. Internally, Venezuela seeks to implement the 
measures needed to promote growth and secure social development; externally, it 
seeks regional political integration with which to ensure that Latin America can
spur the growth of internal markets and more fairly negotiate with other global 
powers, the United States included.The Bush administration continues to view 
changes in Venezuela as a threat and has sought to use every political means at 
its disposal to isolate President Chávez. The people of Venezuela and the region
know better.

The changes occurring in Venezuela reflect the true spirit of the country's 
people, and if these changes did not happen now, they would happen eventually. 
President Chávez's emergence is not an accident, nor should it be taken as a 
surprise. The model of economic development and democratic governance imposed by
the United States for decades failed to secure social progress, and the results 
were obvious: increased poverty, instability, and disillusionment with 
democratic governments. In the wake of the structural reforms instituted in 
1989, the percentage of Venezuelans living in extreme poverty jumped from 43.9 
percent to 66.5 percent in a single year. Consequently, the percentage of 
Venezuelans who demanded radical changes increased steadily from 51 percent in 
1995 to 63 percent in 1998, according to Consultores 21, an independent polling 
firm. Because the country's two dominant political parties had become an 
extension of business interests and had a dismal record on promoting growth and 
social justice, they were peacefully and democratically replaced.

Thankfully, Venezuela's changes are occurring with the approval of its people 
and are having an impact on their daily lives. I wish some of Washington's 
policymakers and thinkers would finally realize this.

Bernardo Alvarez Herrera is Venezuela's Ambassador to the United States. is copyright 2002--2006 by the Council on Foreign 
Relations. All rights reserved.

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