A Google alert popped up a few minutes ago in my work email with an article from Truth-Out entitled, “FiveThirtyEight Gets it Wrong on Venezuela.” It’s a bit of a slow day at the office, and my curiosity was piqued. “Oh yea?” I thought, “I was actually quite impressed with that FiveThirtyEight piece. Let’s see what this has to say.” As it turned out, it was a piece written by Mark Weisbrot of the CEPR, who has devoted significant ink to defending the Bolivarian Revolution’s increasingly indefensible economic policies over the years.
The main thrust of Weisbrot’s argument is that Dorothy Kronick’s comparisons are unfair (plus some indirect, guilt by association attacks on it by criticizing FiveThirtyEight’s quality). For instance, he argues that it is misleading to judge chavismo‘s economic performance with 1998 as a base year because Chavez did not control PdVSA for the first four years of his presidency and because, until 2004, the opposition was actively trying to destabilize the country and topple the government. The first point is highly dubious; he’s implicitly arguing that without the full control of the state oil company’s finances, chavismo was incapable of growing the economy. The second point is more plausible, but really is only salient in 2003 during the oil workers strike, which had a severely negative impact on the economy that year. In any case, Weisbrot compares Venezuela’s per capita growth from 2004 to 2013 to the rest of the region and finds that Venezuela is actually the 12th best performing economy out of the 20 in the region. He adds that “if we were to place a dollar value on the increases in access to health care, education, and housing, Venezuela’s rank would go up significantly.” He also criticizes Kronick’s comparisons of Venezuela and Bolivia, arguing that much of its better performance is because Bolivia’s exchange rate has been more stable and that it was able to engage in counter-cyclical spending during the Financial Crisis while Venezuela could not as though those were not themselves indicators of poor economic management.
What really stands out in the whole piece are the gymnastics necessary to just make Venezuela’s economic–and to a lesser extent–social achievements under chavismo look even average compared to other Latin American countries. The chavista project purports to be a world-changing ideology that will replace the current capitalist dogma so one would expect its results to be self-evident. Instead, its defenders are left to argue that everyone is wrong, things are great in Venezuela because it achieved the 12th best per capita GDP growth in the region since 2004. ¡Viva la revolución bolivariana!
This is not a small thing either, considering the concurrent decline in freedom and spike in violence in Venezuela during chavismo. People in much of Latin America saw their lives improve materially by the same amount or more during the first decade of the 21st Century and didn’t have to fundamentally reshape the relationship between the citizenry, the state and the governing political party in the process. Chavismo only makes sense as an alternative to the existing paradigms if it is demonstrably better–especially since most other countries don’t have the world’s largest oil reserves to help fund it–and right now, as the IMF projects Venezuela to be the only Latin American country not to grow this year, it requires a herculean task to even argue that it does as well as the average non-revolutionary country.