The New York Times updates readers today (12/13/12) on the health status of left-wing Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, and the political implications for his country. But the paper starts out by suggesting that the people who keep electing him must have some kind of problem.
According to the Times' William Neuman, life in Venezuela is pretty dismal. Christmas tree shipments were fouled up, a government ice cream factory closed down, and "all of this happened while the economy was growing — before the slowdown many predict next year."
Such frustrations are typical in Venezuela, for rich and poor alike, and yet President Hugo Chávez has managed to stay in office for nearly 14 years, winning over a significant majority of the public with his outsize personality, his free-spending of state resources and his ability to convince Venezuelans that the Socialist revolution he envisions will make their lives better.
So people believe that, somewhere in the future, life will get better thanks to Chávez? But it's already happened for the majority of Venezuelans. As Mark Weisbrot wrote (Guardian, 10/3/12):
Since 2004, when the government gained control over the oil industry and the economy had recovered from the devastating, extra-legal attempts to overthrow it (including the 2002 US-backed military coup and oil strike of 2002-2003), poverty has been cut in half and extreme poverty by 70%. And this measures only cash income. Millions have access to healthcare for the first time, and college enrolment has doubled, with free tuition for many students. Inequality has also been considerably reduced. By contrast, the two decades that preceded Chávez amount to one of the worst economic failures in Latin America, with real income per person actually falling by 14% between 1980 and 1998.
It's not that Neuman is unaware of this. Deep in the piece– after saying that "Mr. Chávez’s own record is mixed"– he admits, in between all the hand-waving and caveats, that maybe there's something that explains Chávez's popularity:
He has used price controls to make food affordable for the poor, but that has contributed to shortages in basic goods. He created a popular program of neighborhood clinics often staffed by Cuban doctors, but hospitals frequently lack basic equipment.
There is no doubt that living conditions have improved for the poor under Mr. Chávez, and that is the greatest source of his popularity. But the improvements came at a time when high oil prices were pouring money into the country and fueling economic growth, which some analysts say would have led to similar improvements under many leaders, even some with more market-friendly policies.
So life is better for the vast majority of the country. That's a far cry from the point he stressed at the beginning, that Chávez has somehow sold people on the questionable idea that the outlook would someday improve. The Times has to downplay that reality so you'll take away the message: things are bad there. Or, if they're not, someone else with superior, "market-friendly policies" could have achieved the same results, if not better.