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Hugo Chávez and his party won 13 of 14 elections mainly because they greatly improved the living standards of the majority of voters in Venezuela. Since 2004, after the economy recovered from the devastating opposition oil strike, poverty has been cut by half and extreme poverty by more than 70 percent.
And this measures only cash income: Millions of people also got access to health care for the first time, and access to education also increased sharply, with college enrollment doubling and free tuition for many. Eligibility for public pensions tripled; and in the past two years the government has built hundreds of thousands of houses. Most of the poverty reduction came from increased employment, not “government handouts,” and during most of Chávez’s tenure the private sector has grown faster than the public sector. These numbers are not really in dispute among economists or international statistical agencies. If you follow Venezuela and haven’t heard any of this, it’s because the media is giving you the equivalent of a “tea party” view of the country.
Also, the 20 years prior to Chávez were an economic disaster, with per capita income actually falling between 1980 and 1998. So naturally most people have noticed the difference. Is this progress sustainable? The press focuses on Venezuela’s inflation, which, at just under 18 percent is about the highest in the region. However it has come down from 28.2 percent in 2010, even as the economy has recovered and growth has accelerated. This shows that the government can bring inflation down with the right policies. Chávez’s party won in 20 of 23 states during a regional election on Dec. 16, even with Chávez himself absent from the campaign trail. This indicates that his successor will likely win if he should step down.
This should not be surprising. All of the left-leaning governments in South America–Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Uruguay–have been re-elected, some repeatedly, for similar reasons: They have brought real economic and social change and significant improvements in living standards for the majority.
Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.
This essay originally appeared in Room for Debate.