Hugo Chávez was one of the most polarising leaders of modern times, both nationally and internationally. He was a man of apparent contradictions: a democratically elected caudillo and a militaristic, patriotic socialist. The truth about who Chávez was and what he did lies in the grey area.
One of the most widely heard myths about Chávez is that he was a dictator. He had a popular mandate throughout his regime, winning all four of his presidential elections with over 55% of the vote. However, this did not stop him showing authoritarian tendencies, overlooked by sympathisers in the West. In particular:
- He replaced the bicameral system of government with a single body, the National Assembly, allowing him to have more control over the state. This Assembly gave Chávez power by decree for extended periods. One of these occasions, in December 2010, was just after elections where he got one seat short of the two-thirds needed to pass laws.
- The judiciary was politicised and to a large extent controlled by Chávez. In 2004 Chávez and the National Assembly filled the Supreme Court with government supporters and created new measures to make it possible to get rid of justices. According to Human Rights Watch “Since then the court has largely abdicated its role as a check on executive power, failing to uphold fundamental rights enshrined in Venezuela’s constitution in key cases involving government efforts to limit freedom of expression and association. The government shows scant respect for democratic checks and balances.”
- Freedom of political thought was sometimes in doubt. It is alleged Manuel Rosales, an opposition politician, and Raúl Baduel, a Chávez defector, faced political persecution; and the 2005 reform of the Penal Code banned disrespectfulness towards government officials.
Although he had a democratic mandate to govern, Chávez removed horizontal accountability, which is essential in a democracy and ultimately to ensure Venezuelans’ liberty.
Social and economic policy
In despite of this, Hugo Chávez’s social policies were much-needed in Venezuela, where the poor had long been neglected. Chávez reduced social exclusion and inequality, and in a sense this made the country more democratic because the poor could become full citizens and better engage in the running of the country. The following are some of the more notable successes, from a 2011 report by López Maya and Lander*:
- In the decades before Chávez, many people lacked official identity documents. Under the Chávez government there was a big effort to increase registration and units were created to make sure all babies born in public hospitals immediately got citizenship. According to the Ministry of Planning and Development, 8.2 million identity cards were issued by October 2004 to people who needed new documents or had never been registered documents (p.69). Citizenship is what allows people to access basic services like education and social security.
- The government increased ‘participatory democracy’. There were assemblies of citizens, legislative initiates, local public planning councils and parish councils which came together in consejos comunales. In 2006 $1 billion was used to finance the projects they came up with (p.74). Urban Land Committees (CTUs) and Rural Land Committees (CTRs) were created by citizens to obtain land. These had no fixed organisation and a role defined by the community, meaning they could adapt to its needs. 6,000 CTUs were in the system by mid-2005, present in the majority of the barrios in the largest cities and covering an estimated quarter of the poor urban population (p.66).
- The government used missions – emergency or temporary social programs – to prevent social exclusion. Misión Robinson dealt with education and illiteracy. There were 1.25m illiterates when using figures collected by facilitators of the mission, yet in October 2005 UNESCO declared the country free from illiteracy (p.71). Another mission, Misión Mercal, established a network to distribute and sell food and other basic necessities to combat malnutrition, with a 40% discount compared to the private sector. In 2006 it reached an estimated half of the population (p.73).
However, such social policies must be seen in the context of the country’s massive oil boom (under Chávez, oil prices went from $9 a barrel to over $100 and the state-owned oil company earned about $980 billion) and the government’s questionable financial competence. A lot of money simply disappeared. A complicated web of economic controls allowed those in government to take billions of public cash, whilst a 2011 Reuters investigation found that over half of public investment went into secret funds controlled by Chávez with no supervision from auditors or congress. In light of this, the social policies of the Chávez government do not seem so impressive. The government, state prosecutors and the media ignored this. As for the wider economy, the industrial and agricultural sectors have declined, leading to an increased dependence on oil: in 2011 it accounted for 96% of export earnings compared to 80% a decade earlier.
Although it is true the Chávez government’s social and economic policy could have been much less corrupt and much more accountable, and therefore more cost-effective, the fact it did strive to help the poor more than previous regimes who also had access to considerable wealth means it deserves credit. However, for those who believe in liberal democracy Chávez must, on balance, be regarded as a failure. Although he had a popular mandate to govern, he undermined the bodies that hold government to account and so has made future democracy and liberty in the country more precarious.
*López Maya, Magarita and Lander, Luis (2011), ‘Participatory Democracy in Venezuela: Origins, Ideas, and Implementation’, in David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger (eds.), Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics and Culture under Chávez, Durham and London: Duke, pp.58-79.