Monday, June 09, 2008

Chavez reconsidered, reconsidered

The suburb in south Melbourne where I visit the Naturopath and GP who treat my arthritis doesn't gel. Like a mismatched jigsaw puzzle the pieces fit together but not quite right.

Travel by train, or car along the gritty traffic-light strewn Nappean highway, and you'll be treated to all the ugliness of suburbia meeting main drag amongst the sprawl of a large city. And yet, if you park your car and walk two blocks you end up on the edge of Port Phillip bay. Which, every time I've been there, has been still and shimmering under a bright blue sky. I make it one of the treats of my travel to Melbourne to take my shoes off and wade among the clear and not too cold water and then dry my feet walking on the scrunching golden sand.

Back along the highway it's all alternating super-markets, takeaways and news agents, but even these have their secrets. Often-nice food (it is Melbourne after all) and the one newsagent I usually stop at, somehow manages to coax market forces into letting it sell political journals amongst the usual fare. There's Quad-rant, if that's your thing; the Australian version of Dissent; The Quarterly Review (name wrong?). And there's Foreign Affairs, which is where I started reading Francisco Rodríguez's 'An Empty Revolution: The Unfulfilled Promises of Hugo Chávez'. In it, Rodríguez claims that Chavez has badly mismanaged Venezuela's economy and that, contrary to conventional wisdom, has done next to nothing to help the poor.

The case seemed convincing enough but, as I read I couldn't help thinking, 'I wonder if Mark Weisbrot might have something to say about all this. And sure enough: he did. Enough even to elicit a response from Rodríguez, which itself led to Weisbrot responding again too.

Simon has carefully been keeping score throughout the rally, and I while pretty much agree with his tally I thought I'd add my own two cents. My reading of the duel thus far has Weisbrot well ahead: he's shown Rodriguez mixing data, muddling methods, and mis-representing his own claims.

He hasn't done enough to make me an avowed Chavezista though (which, to be fair is probably not his intent). Chavez has presided over a significant fall in poverty, a rise in social spending and a trend of falling inequality. And while, we don't really know how effective this social spending has been, Chavez's continuing popularity in the barrios is suggestive of something. And yet, as Rodriguez and Weisbrot agree, Chavez has also mismanaged the economy (deficit spending during a boom!) in a manner that may well harm long run performance. And his achievements have all been made during an economic growth spurt caused by oil prices, rebound from the business-strike recession, and expansionary (not to mention inflationary) fiscal policy. How well he, and his much touted economic model, would perform in tougher times is anyone's guess.

And, while Weisbrot shows that Chavez's achievements in the realm of pro-poor growth (growth which disproportionately benefits the poor) are not to be dismissed, at the same time, if his 21st century socialism was as transformative as some of his acolytes suggest would it have even been possible for Rodriguez to start a debate on this matter?

And at the end of the day this is what bugs, as well as fascinates, me about the whole Chavez phenomenon. Once you get close enough towards the Centre (and particularly the centre of the US foreign policy establishment) it's like some weird tractor beam operates which drains the pundit of any form of capacity for unraveling contradiction or displaying subtlety. Chavez is bad. Everything he does must be bad!

Meanwhile, if you travel away from the centre you don't have to get too far to the left before a competing tractor beam starts up and leaves you surrounded by a bunch of people to whom Chavez is a revolutionary hero who couldn't possibly do anything bad. Onwards the revolution etc.

You'd think that the first cold war would have removed everyone's enthusiasm for blind idealism. The whole Chavez debate suggests not - quite a few people out there are just itching for the sequel.

So where do I stand? I think that overall his policies are helping the poor in Venezuela. But, at the same time, I think that amongst the good work there are some real mistakes being made, and - look as I might - I just can't spot this wonderful alternative economic model he supposedly has on offer. Its better bits look like social democracy to me, coupled with macro economic giddiness. Now even social democracy would be no mean feet in a country as unequal as Venezuela, but when I hear Chavez's supporters argue that we should bring the Venezuelan model to New Zealand I'm just left wondering. Which bits? The Cuban doctors?

Politically, I don't think that Chavez is the dictator his foes claim him to be (and it must take some real chutzpah to make this claim given all the elections that keep taking place there). At the same time though I am seriously troubled by his autocratic tendencies and think that he could turn his back on democracy in the future. This doesn't mean I like the Venezuelan opposition, who seem considerably less democratic. And it certainly doesn't mean that I support the US government's appalling approach to dealing with him. But it does make me wonder why the movie on Chavez that I got to watch at the human rights film festival here recently couldn't find any time whatsoever amongst all the hagiography to at least mention some of his more draconian moves.


Simon Bidwell said...

Good post, Terence, and impressively prolific blogging.

I agree about the film at the festival: too one-sided.

Yet, as you says, I got more annoyed by the monolithic US mainstream media -- see my comment here on this article in Slate -- Anne Applebaum, dear oh dear.

Terence said...

oh Molly! (or in this case Anne). What nonsense she writes. Nice comment from you though.

The stupid thing is, it's not as if there isn't a kernel of truth in what she writes (that some western leftists are so beholden to ideology that they can only see the good in Chavez), but all her nonsense comparing him to Lenin etc.only ends up proving that there are some establishment liberals in the US who are so beholden to something or other that they can only see the bad in him...