Speaking at the United Nations in 2006, Hugo Chávez excoriated ex-U.S. President George W. Bush as "the devil." Chávez waved a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, catapulting the book onto Amazon’s best-seller list.
For his part, Chomsky has repeatedly stated that Chávez ushered a revolutionary break with Venezuela’s political past, especially regarding the social policies of the state toward the poor, echoing the foundational Chavista discourse of "Bolivarian revolution."
In an interview with Spanish newspaper Diagonal in March 2006, Chomsky declared that "for the first time, the country is using… energy resources for its development… in construction, health." Likewise, in a 2005 op-ed for Mexico’s La Jornada, he wrote "it is only now with President Chávez… [that] medicine has become something real for a majority of the poor."
Last month, speaking to Venezuelan economist Miguel Ángel Santos, Chomsky repeated his point: "For many years Venezuela was dominated by elites that… harvested all the benefits from the oil bonanzas while marginalizing the poor… Chávez came up against that."
Regrettably, Chomsky ignores basic facts of Venezuelan contemporary history. There is nothing revolutionary about the Chavista welfare state.
In Revolution as Spectacle, Rafael Uzcátegui, co-editor of Venezuelan anarchist newspaper El Libertario, presents reams of data showing that up until the early 1980s, when oil prices started a sustained decline that drained the Venezuelan state’s capacity to sustain the massive subsidies that appeased the masses since 1958 and ultimately led to the Caracazo (a wave of riots in 1989 where thousands were killed by the military under the second administration of Carlos Andrés Pérez) welfare policies were as ubiquitous, and at times more effective, than those of Chávez’s reign.
Let’s limit our look to the two areas mentioned by Chomsky, housing and health care (Uzcátegui applies a similar analysis to a wide range of welfare policies).
According to national census data, the state’s housing projects reduced shanty-town dwellings as a percentage of total housing from 37.18 per cent in 1961 to 12.56 per cent in 1990. Penetration of the electricity grid was 58.16 per cent in 1961 and 76.59 per cent in 1981. Access to running water increased from 46.7 per cent in 1961 to 68.74 per cent in 1981.
The Chávez administration built an average of 26,000 households per year between 1999 and 2008. The average for the 90s decade was a much higher 64,000 per year.
The Popular Clinics and Hospitals of the People created by the famous Barrio Adentro Mission, a program widely publicized as having secured hitherto unparalleled access to basic health care for the poor, are today unable to provide treatment for any ailment more complex than a broken bone.
For critical treatments, the people must rely on the old hospital network built during the Fourth Republic, which in 1980 reached one of the widest coverages of the region with 2.7 beds per thousand habitants, but today is basically in shambles.
This translated, among other tragedies, into poor women in Venezuela giving birth under inhuman conditions during the period 1998-2008, and a 16 per cent rate of maternal deaths due to clandestine abortions for 2010.
The flip side of Chomsky’s argument, that Venezuela before Chávez was dominated by elites harvesting most of the oil bonanza, is true, but irrelevant: Today’s Venezuela is still dominated by brave new elites, the so called boliborgoise, wealthy and powerful thanks to their connections to, or direct participation in, the all-powerful Bolivarian state.
Actually, the Chavista elite is much more corrupt, authoritarian and inept than their Fourth Republic predecessors. If the monopoly on the use of force and administration of justice is the defining feature of the state, Venezuela today can easily be described as a failed one: The country’s epidemic of violence netted almost 25,000 murders in 2013, more than 90 per cent unsolved.
Hugo Chávez was no revolutionary. He simply took the petro-statist social democratic model prevailing in Venezuela since 1958 to a whole new level. As Uzcátegui argues in his book, he masterfully executed the art of the demagogic spectacle like no one before him — spectacle that utterly mesmerized Noam Chomsky, despite his analytical and intellectual prowess.
Alan Furth is an economist and freelance writer living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
—Center for a Stateless Society