Fear of a Venezuelan Example
Don’t try this at home, voters
Over the past 30 years, the top 1 percent of the United States has experienced a 240 percent increase in its real annual income, while the median household income has barely budged (Economic Policy Institute, 6/18/12, 9/13/11). Imagine if this explosive, decades-long growth of inequality were somehow reversed—at an even faster rate than its original expansion.
This has actually happened in Venezuela, and it goes a long way toward explaining why President Hugo Chávez was re-elected in October, despite many U.S. media pundits’ predictions of a victory by opposition leader Henrique Capriles (CounterSpin, 10/12/12).
The likelihood of coming across an accurate assessment of Venezuela’s social and economic advances in U.S. elite media, however, is about as small as the odds of encountering honest portrayals of that country’s elections (NACLA, 10/8/12).
It’s difficult, for instance, to find any mention in the media of the Gini index for the United States or Venezuela. The standard measurement for income inequality, it ranges from 0 (perfect equality) to 100 (perfect inequality). The U.S.’s Gini index rose from 29.9 in 1979 to 37.3 in 2010 (Luxembourg Income Study, 2010).
Contrast this with Venezuela: In 1997, the year before Chávez was elected, the country’s Gini index stood at 50.7; in 13 short years, it had fallen more than 11 points to 39.4 (UN, 2010). Rising U.S. inequality has almost met Venezuela’s falling inequality, such that the two countries now have similar gaps between rich and poor.
This rapid reduction of inequality is largely a result of the Chávez administration’s policy of promoting broadly shared economic growth. Having cut both poverty and unemployment by half over roughly a decade, Venezuela is now the least unequal country in Latin America, according to the UN (BBC, 8/21/12).
The poverty and inequality statistics are based only on cash income. But Chávez also introduced a suite of oil-financed social programs that provide free healthcare, education, housing and subsidized food, among other benefits. Their effects include substantial reductions in infant mortality and the doubling of the country’s college enrollment (CEPR, 10/10/12).
Chávez’s social and economic agenda has also helped him to win 14 of 15 elections or referenda, despite the inevitable voter fatigue that develops toward any incumbent over 14 years in office. On October 7, Chávez won by an 11-point margin, in an electoral process described by Jimmy Carter as “the best in the world.” This suggests that the continued advancements in well-being have, for voters, outweighed ongoing problems like crime and inadequate infrastructure.
Chávez’s presidency threatens the dominant political discourse in the United States because it demonstrates that poverty and inequality, far from being implacable economic phenomena, are primarily political issues that can be successfully tackled through aggressive public policy. A governmental commitment to improving the general public’s living standards engenders a new kind of politics, distinct from the debate under a decades-old regime of ever-increasing economic polarization.
In the United States, both major parties’ presidential candidates suggested the need to institute cuts to an already-weak social safety net (Truthout, 10/8/12), while Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke laid most of the blame for inequality on “educational differences” (60 Minutes, 12/6/10). So-called “liberal” media outlets fall in line and portray austerity favorably (Extra!, 6/10, 12/10; FAIR Blog, 5/8/12).
While experts warn that illegal foreclosures in the United States, which exacerbate housing insecurity, are “rampant” (Reuters, 2/17/12), the U.S. media disparage Venezuela’s public housing initiatives as an unsavory political scheme. David Frum’s CNN op-ed (10/9/12; FAIR Blog, 10/10/12), “Chávez Clown Prince of a Decaying Society,” decried “massive government vote-buying” through “giveaway programs, including one that aims to build 200,000 housing units for Venezuela’s poor.” Wall Street Journal reporters (10/4/12) similarly criticized Venezuela’s housing construction, telling readers that “analysts wonder whether the spending spree will buy as many votes this time around as in past elections.”
USA Today’s coverage of Venezuela’s elections (10/7/12) included quotes by critics who condemned Chávez’s “patronage machine,” which “unleashed a spending orgy.” The paper (10/8/12) also dutifully noted that Capriles considered “new social spending” to be “vote-buying.”
Interestingly, USA Today’s post-election breakdown for Venezuela (10/8/12) failed to mention its historic, 81-percent participation rate. Such a turnout would be unimaginable in the United States, as one could infer from an earlier article (8/15/12) in that same newspaper, headlined “Why 90 Million Americans Won’t Vote in November.” To explain a projected turnout of 54 percent, USA Today quoted its own survey of eligible but unlikely voters, finding that six in 10 said they “don’t pay much attention” to politics because “nothing ever gets done: It’s a bunch of empty promises.”
The era that preceded Chávez’s 1998 election shared much in common with the current state of U.S. politics—two major parties with fairly similar agendas took turns managing the country’s governmental institutions, while elites controlled the country’s resources. Venezuela’s democracy, like much of Latin America’s, has meant a break with that past.
The U.S. press helps to enforce the status quo in this country, whose majority has faced declining living standards in recent years, largely as a result of policies furthered by both Democratic and Republican administrations (New York Times, 9/12/12, 10/18/12). So it’s not surprising to see the U.S. media’s hostile reactions to the politics of Venezuela, where citizens expect their votes to translate into genuine improvements in their daily lives—and some politicians actually deliver on those expectations.
Keane Bhatt is an activist for social justice and community development in Washington, D.C. His blog for NACLA, “Manufacturing Contempt,” takes a critical look at corporate media’s portrayal of the hemisphere.