BUENOS AIRES — Hugo Chavez’s nearly eight years in power in Venezuela — which he will seek to extend in presidential elections next month — seem to defy economic analysis. Indeed, any and all economic examination of Chavez’s Venezuela confirms Edgar R. Fiedler’s quip that if you “ask five economists something, you will get five answers . . . or six if one of them is a Harvard graduate.”
Some people see in Chavez an innovative statesman who has seized an almost magical moment — the windfall Venezuela has received from today’s sky-high oil prices — to change the rules of the game in his country. A few key indicators appear to support this. Foreign investment has grown recently from $1.5 billion (2004) to $2.5 billion (2005).
In that two-year period, Chavez stepped on the gas with regard to social reforms — education, health care, etc. — and moved to break down the country’s excessive concentrations of wealth. Although more than 70 percent of national income remains in the hands of just 20 percent of the population, Chavez has forced big foreign oil companies to pay much higher royalties and has started expropriating unproductive land and industrial facilities.
With oil prices now six times higher than they were when he came to power, Chavez presided over economic growth of 9 percent in 2005 and as much again in the first quarter of 2006.
Above all, however, he has achieved a 6.3 percent effective reduction of poverty, after taking over a country whose vast majority — 80 percent — was perched between poverty and squalor.
Seen in this angle, Chavez appears to have real achievements. But there is another, darker angle from which to view his presidency. It is possible to see in Chavez but another Latin American populist sorcerer’s apprentice, one whose political shelf life will expire whenever oil prices begin their inevitable shift backward. To those who think that this is the case, Chavez is not an innovator but someone who is merely squandering Venezuela’s oil wealth in the same way that governments did following the oil shocks of the 1970s.
The notion of specific “Chavist” growth can also be challenged. The highest growth achieved in the Chavez years is lower than Venezuela’s average during the second half of the 1990s, when oil was the exclusive domain of the private sector. Moreover, growth under Chavez seems to reflect an increase in domestic consumption resulting from the flow of petrodollars and nothing more fundamental, as oil remains the economy’s only real engine.
So nothing Chavez has done translates into a fundamental improvement in, or diversification of, Venezuela’s economy.
Private investors appear to understand this, as such investment in Venezuela grew by a mere 3 percent between 2000 and 2004. Suspiciously, the country’s central bank refuses to publish that figure for 2005.
Only one of every 10 Venezuelan companies polled states any intention of making middle- or long-term investments such as renovating existing industrial plants or building new ones. True, businessmen have tempered their criticisms of Chavez and seem eager to participate in the profit feast brought about by increased consumption. But they may also be waiting for the first external shock to puncture the Chavez balloon before they pounce.
These two versions of the Chavez years are both distorted — to a certain degree — by nostalgia. Those who see him as successful have the 1960s and 1970s as their dream fantasy. Their main arguments are reminiscent of the arguments put forward by those who backed the Cuban Revolution.
Those who revile Chavez often do so in the name of the “Washington Consensus,” that mix of capitalism and democracy that was almost hegemonic across the continent in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, Chavez is portrayed as a return to the Latin American populist heresy, a heresy that must be resisted because it affects not only the country with the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, but also because it may tempt the rest of Latin America down that road.
But history never truly repeats itself. The years of the biggest transformation demands in Latin America or those of its docility to economic orthodoxy will not come back because we can remember them. Especially, the view of the Washington Consensus seems irretrievable; its “grand tale” is now beyond the pale in the region’s societies after it did not deliver the promised prosperity.
Yet one thing is clear: Chavez was the first ruler of his generation to recognize the region’s fatigue and disillusion with neoliberalism, and to propose new rules of the game. In the end these may not be the rules he envisions today, but neither are they a spent force.
To believe that one can accurately foresee what will become of Chavez and Venezuela brings to mind another warning by Fiedler: “He who lives by the crystal ball must sooner or later learn to chew glass.”
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