Waylaid Dialectic

March 9, 2013

What are we to make of Hugo Chavez?

Filed under: Governance — terence @ 12:28 pm
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I guess the fact that the stakes were so high — revolutionary socialism brought back from the dead! — explains why so few people ever seemed able to do anything other than take sides on the phenomenon that was Hugo Chavez. Beyond a point somewhere to the left of mainstream US liberalism Chavez was a saint. If you sat anywhere to the right of the point he became something you scared you children citizens with when they wouldn’t eat their greens.

Here’s Greg Grandin doing the Chavez as saint thing. And here’s a pretty good piss-take of how Chavez gets portrayed in the mainstream media.

Me, being the good dithering left-liberal that I am, always wondered whether it wasn’t a bit more complicated than all that, and wanted for some sort of split the difference type analysis.

Here, free for a short time only, is what I thought to be a reasonable academic analysis, albeit one that I read as containing something of a anti-Chavez bias in owing to the fact that it made little mention of the anti-democratic impulse amongst Chavez’s opponents in the Venezuelan elite. And here if you scroll down, is some quite good critique of the same article.

Here, is Human Rights Watch taking Chavez to task.

And here is CEPR doing a very good job of showing Chavez’s positive socio-economic legacy.

Here’s Lula. And here, while still on the subject of people who I respect, is Rory Carroll offering a nuanced but fairly critical take in Mother Jones.

Here (via comment’s at CT) is an interesting looking (haven’t finished reading it) left wing political economy type analysis of what Chavez meant. And here’s my old, blog sized, investigation of Chavez’s achievements (or not) on inequality.

One charge levelled at Chavez is that he has presided over a dramatic rise in crime in Venezuela. I’ve just done some data digging on this too. With the chart below coming from this UNODC database. Data used are homicide rates (generally good for cross-country comparison of crime because there are fewer reporting issues.)

Chavez and Crime

Three things stand out:

1. Crime has gotten *a lot* worse. There is no denying this.2. Chavez was elected in early 1999 so the upward trend was born before his time. And therefore unlikely his fault. At the same time he has done very little to get on top of crime, except…
3. Things have started trending for the better since 2009.

So, what are we to say about Chavez?

My best guess as a conclusion is that:

1. There is some radical democracy in his participatory schemes but there is also patronage too.
2. His achievements in tackling poverty and under-development were impressive, although they arguably could have been better still given his oil revenues.
3. Some aspects of the state, such as policing, remained terrible under Chavez.
4. Even as he strengthened new democratic mechanisms he weakened the classic checks and balances. Even so, his regime was still a democracy, albeit an imperfect one.

Or, in other words, he was a net force for good, but also a deeply flawed one. And yet, in a country such as Venezuela with such high political inequality, and a state apparatus that was already corrupted by clientelism, what did we expect? Perfection certainly wasn’t happening. So least worst alternative doesn’t seem that bad.

And, ultimately, more important still is not assessing Chavez as a man, but rather figuring out those aspects of his political programme that we can learn from while at the same time abandoning the autocratic bits along with the bundle that didn’t work.

[Update: Acemoglu and Robinson discuss Chavez here, doing a nice job of making clear something that Mainwaring basically missed, that Venezuela was a very politically unequal society pre-Chavez. Formally a democracy but with a vast gulf existing between the ability of elites to influence policy and the ability of the masses to do so. At the same time I think A&R would be more use still if they didn’t just focus on Chavez’s formal democracy restricting reforms at the national level, and had a close look at what his supporters claim are successful participatory political initiatives at other levels. Also, the mere fact that his movement has mobilised the Venezuelan poor as never before, seems with noting. If they become an ongoing political countervailing force, and if they are freed from the shackles of patronage politics, then everything changes in Venezuela — but it’s a big if though.]

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