Rory Carroll responds to my criticism of his NPR interview on Venezuela by calling it a “daft polemic.” But I would like for him to explain why inflation and currency depreciation, which do not measure living standards, are more important than poverty, extreme poverty, income inequality, income per person (measured in real, inflation-adjusted terms), health care, and employment. That would truly be a “daft polemic” – but that is what he is implying in his interview.
There are other things wrong with his interview that I didn’t have room for in 800 words. For example, he says that Chávez “basically rained petrodollars over the country, certainly in his first seven years in power.”
In fact, Chávez didn’t have petrodollars to rain on anyone for his first four years, because he did not have control over the national oil company (PDVSA). That was controlled by his opponents, who during those years had “a strategy of military overthrow,” according to opposition leader and journalist Teodoro Petkoff. So they used PDVSA to try and overthrow the government, including the military coup of 2002 and the devastating oil strike of 2002-2003.
Carroll’s portrayal of Chávez as “playing the race card” is also somewhat misleading. He gives the impression that this was an important part of his politics. But in fact it was not. It was more like in the United States under President Obama, where part of the right-wing opposition plays on racist sentiment against the president (only this was much more open and explicit in Venezuela, with opposition calling Chávez a “monkey” and “gorilla” ), but President Obama does not make a point out of being African-American. Chávez was proud of his Afro-Venezuelan and indigenous heritage, but he did not talk about it all that much. And like Obama, he didn’t use the bully pulpit to talk about racial discrimination, or try to mobilize voters along these lines. In Venezuela, even more than in the U.S., most people are not aware of the extent of racial discrimination. Of course this is even more true of the upper income groups. I remember being on a television show with a prominent Venezuelan-American, and he declared that there was no racial discrimination in Venezuela; this is a typical belief of upper-income Venezuelans. But in Venezuela, as in much of Latin America, while it is obvious to even a casual observer that there is a huge difference in skin color between upper-income and lower-income groups, there is not anywhere near the sense of “racial” identity (or even awareness of racial discrimination) as there is in the United States. So even if Chávez had wanted to mobilize people along racial lines, it would not have been an effective political strategy.
In fact, Chávez’s appeal was based on class and not race. I have always thought that this is one reason why the Venezuelan opposition – even more than, for example, the Bolivian opposition – was for so many years unwilling to even participate in the political process, and so intent on getting rid of Chávez and Chavismo by any means necessary. (Of course it has also made a difference that the U.S. was on their side, and they knew that historically left governments that Washington wanted to get rid of didn’t survive very long.) But if we compare to Bolivia, where the majority of the country is indigenous, we find that there was a part of the opposition in Bolivia that immediately realized that as much as they hated Evo Morales, they were never going to go back to a society in which the majority of the country was effectively disenfranchised. They could see that it was like the end of apartheid. (This was by no means all of the opposition in Bolivia – there were also, and remain, violent racists and fascists with swastikas and roots in eastern European fascism, and everything in between.)
By contrast in Venezuela, because class was invisible to the opposition, they really thought that if they could only get rid of Chávez, they could go back to the old order. This increased their frustration and hatred, and also made them unwilling to participate in a democratic political process. Even after giving up on the strategy of “military overthrow,” they refused to believe the results of the 2004 recall referendum and boycotted the 2005 National Assembly elections. And it has taken them until last year, nearly 14 years after Chávez was elected, to see that Venezuela will not go back to the old order.
That can be seen in Capriles’ current presidential campaign, in which he is trying to convince voters that he wants to continue and even expand the social programs that Chávez implemented, and calling his campaign the “Simon Bolivar Command.” He is unlikely to succeed with this makeover since he comes from a right-wing party (Primero Justicia) and background. But it is interesting to see that after 14 years, the opposition’s main leader recognizes that there is no going back.
In that sense journalists like Rory Carroll may be a bit behind the opposition, since they still believe that Chávez was just an “illusionist” who managed to fool most of the people, all of the time, into thinking that they benefitted from his presidency.