Are Venezuelans better off under Chavez?

Hugo Chavez is running for a third term as President of Venezuela in an election to be held Oct. 7.   Last week Al Jazeera English held a panel discussion on whether the radical left-wing President has done a good job.  The verdict was generally favorable.  One panelist didn’t think Chavez is radical enough—a view I wouldn’t expect to hear on U.S. television.

The panelists concluded that poor Venezuelans have better access to jobs, schooling, health care and housing under the administration of President Hugo Chavez than they would otherwise have.  But they note that Venezuela is troubled by a high inflation rate, a high rate of violent crime and excessive dependence on its oil industry.  Moreover, they say, Chavez’s Bolivarian movement is organized around the cult of Chavez’s personality, and might collapse if Chavez, because of ill health or for other reasons, might leave the scene.

They did not discuss Chavez’s deplorable human rights record, including his attacks on freedom of the Venezuelan press, which he said is controlled by the wealthy oligarchy which seeks his overthrow.  That is a problem in many countries, for which I don’t have a good answer, although I come down on the side of freedom of the press.

The ideal would be to have newspapers and broadcasters with diverse ownership—some owned by corporations, some by labor unions and farmers’ cooperatives, some by political parties, some by universities and the church.  But I don’t see a practical path to that ideal, and I’m not sure how stable the situation would be once achieved.

I think of Chavez as a Latin American equivalent of Louisiana’s Huey Long—a brass knuckle populist and demagogue  who has done a lot to improve the lives of ordinary people, but with little regard for due process of law or democratic procedures.  Concentration of arbitrary power into the hands of a single individual is a bad idea, even when the person uses the power for good, because some other individual can and probably will use that power to wipe out the good the first person has done.  But, like Huey Long, Chavez probably is no worse than his opponents.

Click on World Report 2012: Venezuela for Human Rights Watch’s report on Hugo Chavez’s bad human rights record.

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