A famous quotation — often dubiously attributed to Winston Churchill — claims that “history is written by the victors.” More accurately, history is written by the powerful. This underscores the need for dissident voices to counter any lies present in mainstream historiography.
One such lie is that the economic successes of leftist governments in Brazil, Venezuela, and elsewhere are mostly attributable to commodities. In reality, they have far more to do with progressive social programs. But liberals and reactionaries argue the reverse. Common are allegations that Venezuela is merely a “petro state.” And mainstream sources often insist that Lula’s successes in Brazil were the inevitable byproduct of a commodities boom.
An abundance of counterfactuals show just how wrong this is. While Brazil certainly benefited from rising commodity prices in the early 2010s, so did lots of countries. But few if any of them raised more than 20% of their population from poverty. In fact, India and Russia — Brazil’s BRICS peers — both have significant resource endowments yet saw inequality rise during the period.
The ultimate cause of the Brazilian economic miracle was a series of progressive policy choices implemented by Lula’s administration. Perhaps the most famous program they introduced was called “Bolsa Familia.” It gave cash transfers to poor families so long as they inoculated their kids and kept them in school.
With its own slate of progressive measures, Venezuela under Hugo Chávez also drastically reduced poverty and inequality. It not only became Latin America’s most equal country but eliminated illiteracy and provided free education from preschool through university. A relatively equitable society that guaranteed wide access to education created a satisfied citizenry. In 2010, Venezuela was home to the fifth happiest population on Earth according to Gallup. Mainstream sources are quick to dismiss these achievements. Rising living standards for the poor, they say, were simply a trickle-down effect of the country’s massive oil reserves.
Venezuela, however, isn’t nearly the petro state corporate media would have you believe. On a per capita basis, it ranks only 27th globally in oil production. That places Venezuela well below the likes of Turkmenistan, Libya, and even the United States. Yet none of those countries ever cut extreme poverty by 70% in just four years as Venezuela did from 2003–2007.
Expert analyses credit this immense reduction to expansions in government spending that increased access to food, healthcare, and education. Like Brazil, Venezuela’s economic boom is a tale of leftist policymaking. Liberals and reactionaries refuse to admit this, however, lest they credit the guiding ideology.
Of course, Venezuela in particular has its problems. Economic warfare waged by the imperial core has led to rampant inflation and shortages of staple goods. Oftentimes, aggressor nations justify sanctions under the guise of preserving so-called national security. The results are predictably catastrophic.
Sanctions on Venezuela killed an estimated 40,000 people in 2017 alone. This is largely attributable to disrupted procurement of medications including insulin, HIV treatments, and antibiotics. Without exaggeration, the State Department and its allies sacrifice innocent human lives at the altar of capital daily. They will spare no effort, and commit any crime, to convince the global masses that durable socialist development is impossible. For imperialists, this loss of life is a small price to pay in order to ensure their greed can flourish.
People often depict such tragedies in Venezuela and elsewhere as failures of socialist leadership. This is done out of fear, as successful socialist development provides a beacon of light to the masses languishing in the darkness and destitution of late-stage capitalism. In their project to rewrite history, our class rulers promulgate a foundational lie: that socialism can never sustainably raise the living standards of working people.
But history tells an unambiguous story. Brazil and Venezuela prove that leftist governance works. This is good news for the Global South. For centuries, elites have told poor nations that the path to development lies in being sweatshops for the developed world. Brazil, Venezuela, and others show that there is another way. Developing countries can become prosperous by pursuing tried and true policies that prioritize self-sufficiency and the provision of public goods.
Following this approach may open them to attacks from global powers, who will undoubtedly want to destroy successful examples. But not following it and instead adhering to traditional capitalist development pathways is sure to leave them dependent and under-resourced. While neither option is perfect, the choice is nonetheless clear.