Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Other Side of Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chávez played into American caricatures with his anti-Bush campaign at the UN, but it bothered me in the aftermath of the speech to hear certain US officials and commentators refer to him as some sort of tyrant or dictator. We would do well to recall the he is, in fact, wildly popular in Venezuela. Current polls have him beating his opponent in tomorrow's election by a 2-1 margin. Like most South American countries Venezuela suffers from an immensely unequal division of wealth (the article cites one claim that the poverty rate in Venezuela is 70%). Chávez has redirected oil wealth to provide education, health care, and basic sustenance for the nation's many impoverished citizens. It's far from clear whether Chávez's policies will accomplish much in the long term, but he has at least taken steps to address the problem, which itself represents a change from past leadership.

In posts past I've wondered what is the proper means to address the lingering impacts of colonialism in South America and other developing regions. Even a hardened libertarian like Nozick calls for redistributive policies where an allocation of resources was achieved through means not consonant with Lockean justice in acquisition. Until the recent wave of populist leaders was elected in South America redistribution of this sort was likely impossible as the wealthy by and large controlled the levers of power. Now that it is possible, the West and the international development institutions (the UN, IMF, World Bank) appear to have little interest in providing assistance, guidance, and advice in this process. This sort of pure redistribution is heretical to modern economic principles, but I think we need to recognize these situations as a special case, one where the general principles don't apply well (which is why all these populist leaders were elected in the first place). I don't know if what Chávez is doing is right, but if it's not I wish we could respond with constructive criticism rather than blanket condemnations...


Henry said...

I certainly have no sympathy for Chavez. His government took control of an admittedly weak economy, but since their arrival they have utterly destroyed what was there. Since Chavez was elected price levels in Venezuela have risen by 376%. Oil production is down even though prices for oil have more than quadrupled. Unemployment, inequality, and economic instability remain high. Allegations of corruption, censorship, political violence etc. abound. Chavez seem to me to be a corrupt, dictatorial, demagogue.

That being said, I agree that we ought to interact with other nations in a more open fashion. Chavez makes a difficult example in that he calls our president satan and takes every possible oppotunity to publicly cajole other leaders and power groups into doing everything possible to harm the U.S. I am not suggesting that there isn't some element of justifiable grievance underlying his anti-U.S. agenda, I'm just saying that it is politically difficult to be open and friendly with people like Chavez. I certainly would oppose actually giving him material support (since I percieve him as being anti-human rights, anti-democracy, corrupt, etc.).

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that we ought to interact openly with regimes around the world promoting greater political and economic freedom. We are unecessarily fearful of socialism. I sincerely believe that it is a system which results in declining standards of living for everyone who lives under it. So we might as well let people try it and just struggle to preserve such people's access to free information (so that if they change their minds they are still in a position to change their direction). Honestly, I think that our cloak and dagger approach to blocking the spread of socialism is counter productive. We have nothing to fear. The cold war was totally unecessary. All we had to do was offer our protection to any countries who feared communist hostillity and go about our business. The very act of becoming communist takes a nation out of the global power game (in the long run). We panick and violate our own principles everytime one of our enemies shoots themselves in the foot (by adopting ineffectual economic policies).It's nonsensical. The fight against totalitarianism is a battle for hearts and minds. All we have to do is present a consistently free and open alternative and I think that the people of the world will recignize which is supperior. We compromise the image of freedom every time we compromise the reality of freedom with our policies.

Joe said...

My point, I guess, is that Chávez may very well be incompetent (he's never struck me as a policy wonk, to be sure), but Chávez and others like him will continue to be elected if the alternatives are IMF-style market idealogues who are unwilling to address the absurdly unfair current allocation of resources (the colonial legacy). These guys are popular, and not without some reason. South America already tried to take the short and direct route to free and open markets and it didn't work out so well. Unless the Western nations and institutions are willing to embrace the need for an initial redistribution of some sort and a more gradual road to the desired market policies, we'll be stuck with Chávez (and Lula and Evo Morales and Daniel Ortega, etc.) and whatever schemes they cook up.