Venezuelan voters have approved a referendum that ends term limits for the president and all other elected officials. Fifty-four percent of those who took part voted in favor of the measure Sunday.
The Washington Post, in its colorful fashion, stated the matter like this: “President Hugo Chávez persuaded Venezuelans today to end term limits through a referendum that allows him to rule far into the 21st century to complete his socialist transformation of this oil-rich country.”
Chávez is already 54 years old. If he rules for another 20 or 30 years, “far into the 21st century,” he’ll be older than John McCain and won’t remember how many houses he owns.
The Post went on to say that “Chávez took office in 1999 and has since amassed overwhelming control over virtually every government institution.” This statement is a gross exaggeration, but reporter Juan Forero probably had to skip lightly over the truth to meet a deadline. He also failed to state that the referendum ended term limits for all elected officials and is likely to turn the National Assembly into a geriatric ward.
With only one exception, the major newspapers in Caracas always go well beyond the timid Post when expressing their contempt for President Chávez. El Universal stated that 54.36 percent of the voters “endorsed President Hugo Chávez’s proposal to amend the Constitution in order to establish endless reelection of all elected officials.”
In other words, from now on it’s automatic. According to the Constitution, once you’re in, you’re in forever. That’s how it works in the U.S. Senate. Why not do the same in Venezuela?
At El Universal, the Cold War never ended and never will. Consider the first sentence from an editorial called “Communism,” dated September 09, 2008: “Venezuela is sliding down the steady slope toward the dictatorial communist life of Cuba.”
Moreover, “The authorities insist that its iron-fisted rule reflects the will of the people. True, millions of Venezuelans appear to be going along with whatever the government demands out of fear, complacency or neglectfulness.”
At this point, I feel the need to suggest that millions of Venezuelans may not really be fearful, complacent, or neglectful. I think that millions of people favor the policies of Hugo Chávez and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) because socialism has improved their lives.
In February of this year, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) released a study of the first 10 years of the Chávez administration. Mark Weisbrot, Rebecca Ray, and Luis Sandoval wrote this report, which is called “The Chávez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators.” I’ll list only a few of the details from this study.
“During the current economic expansion, the poverty rate has been cut by more than half, from 54 percent of households in the first half of 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008. Extreme poverty has fallen even more, by 72 percent.”
“From 1998-2006, infant mortality has fallen by more than one-third. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12-fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access.”
“There have been substantial gains in education, especially higher education, where gross enrollment rates more than doubled from 1999-2000 to 2007-2008.”
“The labor market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3 percent to 7.8 percent. During the current expansion it has fallen by more than half. Other labor market indicators also show substantial gains.”
I’ll stop there. I realize that many readers have an aversion to statistics. But the point of these and many other statistics is that the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is working. It has decreased poverty while improving health care, education, employment, and other opportunities for the common people. That’s why 54 percent of the population voted in favor of abolishing term limits.
The evidence in this report is not part of a conspiracy launched by Hugo Chávez and the PSUV. The CEPR is a nonpartisan think tank located in Washington, D.C. Its advisory board includes Nobel Laureate economists Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz; plus Janet Gornick, Professor at the CUNY Graduate School and Director of the Luxembourg Income Study; Richard Freeman, Professor of Economics at Harvard University; and Eileen Appelbaum, Professor and Director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University.
Venezuela is blessed with large reserves of oil, and Chávez has increased the country’s revenues by raising the amount foreign oil companies must pay to extract that oil. Critics of Chávez and the PSUV say that the current recession in North America and elsewhere has caused a decline in the price of oil and will put an end to the successes of the last 10 years.
But Venezuela has $82 billion in reserves and can survive an occasional decline in the price of oil. Oil prices have gone up and down in the past and will continue to do so in the future. In addition, the Venezuelan economy is not entirely dependent on oil. Mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and other enterprises also contribute to economic growth.
Critics also blame the country’s inflation on Chávez. Inflation presently hovers at around 30 percent per year. But the CEPR study points out that this figure is about the same as it was 10 years ago when Chávez was first elected.
Like any other country, Venezuela has many problems. The present government is doing more than any other in recent memory to improve the lives of the poor majority while defending the rights of the wealthy minority. It helps no one to pretend that the Bolivarian Revolution will follow the same path as the Cuban Revolution. History is far more complicated than that.
And it verges on criminality when the Washington Post claims that Hugo Chávez is an authoritarian leader. Where was the Post when the Bush-Cheney autocrats attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, kidnapped and tortured both soldiers and civilians, denied American citizens their constitutional rights, and applauded loudly when Pedro Carmona and a squad of Venezuelan generals launched a coup against Hugo Chávez, the democratically elected president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela?
Fortunately, other Venezuelan military officers did not approve of treason. And patriotic citizens of Venezuela came down from the barrios and demanded to have their president returned to office. Those heroes saved their democracy from the kind of fascism that devastated Chile, and Pedro Carmona—who held the office of president for only 48 hours—will be forever remembered as “Pedro the Brief.”
PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.