Mar
08
2013

NYT Debates Hugo Chavez–Minus the Debate

nyt-ch"On Eve of His Funeral, Debating Chávez’s Legacy" is the headline over William Neuman's piece in the New York Times today (3/8/13). Funny headline, since there was no one in the Times' "debate" who argued that Chávez left much of anything.

Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo ticks off the countries that supposedly didn't follow the Chávez model. A former U.S. ambassador weighs in, talking about how unappealing Venezuela is to other countries. "The intention of Venezuela to be the shining light of the new left has not been realized," explains a Brazilian professor. He was "a very polarizing figure," says ubiquitous media source (and walking conflict of interest) Michael Shifter. 

Neuman almost seems puzzled, at one point writing:

Yet Mr. Chávez had many influential and enthusiastic allies, as evidenced by the international outpouring that followed his death on Tuesday.

This is the way he introduces former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who wrote a glowing op-ed for Neuman's own newspaper (3/7/13) about Chávez's legacy. It began:

History will affirm, justifiably, the role Hugo Chávez played in the integration of Latin America, and the significance of his 14-year presidency to the poor people of Venezuela.

But Neuman references Lula only to make the point that Brazil's economy is the real inspiration:

Brazil, in particular, has emerged as a model that some governments in the region are seeking to emulate, balancing a friendlier approach to private enterprise with innovative social programs that have lifted millions from poverty into the middle class.

The only people in Neuman's piece who speak up for Chávez are a retired military officer and his vice president, Nicolás Maduro. Is this because there's nothing good to say about Chávez's record? Of course not. But the Times wants you to think that's the case:

And while poverty went down significantly during Mr. Chávez’s years as president, other countries, like Brazil, Peru and Colombia, made progress in reducing poverty while following paths very different from that of Mr. Chávez.

latin-american-povertyWell, most countries made progress reducing poverty, and there are always going to be different ways to do this. But the Venezuela record is strong by regional standards, as the IMF chart at the right shows, Venezuela's reduction is among the strongest in the region. The Times cites Colombia, but this analysis would indicate the story there is hardly comparable.

Writing at the NACLA blog (10/8/12), Keane Bhatt observes that Brazil's record on reducing poverty, while certainly commendable, is less dramatic than the progress made by Venezuela under Chavez. (The Latin American country with the most remarkable record in poverty reduction is Argentina, but it goes unmentioned in Neuman's piece, presumably because he doesn't think its model should be followed either.)

It's possible to debate the Chavez legacy, of course. But in a region that saw a wave of democratic elections usher in leftist governments after Chavez came to power in Venezuela–where Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and the Dominican Republic all declared periods of national mourning to mark his death–it sure seems odd to suggest there's not much to be said for his legacy.

Over at the Washington Post (3/8/13), meanwhile, columnist Anne Applebaum compares Chávez to Stalin. Sure, he wasn't a mass murderer, but he still managed to fool a lot of people  into thinking he'd improve their lives. As she writes:

Chávez wasn't a mass murderer, after all, though he did an enormous amount of damage to his country's judiciary, to its press, to its public life and to its ever more oil-dependent economy. Like the Soviet dictator, he promised the poor of his country things that cannot be delivered–and still they are expected to turn out in vast numbers for his funeral Friday, while his henchmen begin the battle for succession.

Perhaps poor people in Venezuela have some ideas about the things that actually were delivered during Chávez's term.

Jake Johnston and Sara Kozameh of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (3/7/13) have collected some of the measures of economic and social life during the Chavez years, which were marked by substantial decreases in unemployment and poverty. I have no idea what makes Applebaum thinks she knows better; she offers no statistics on Chavez's supposed broken promises.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.