Gabriela Vasquez’s opinion piece, (Shake off Chavismo,” 3/13/13), was a particularly crude example of the distortions that have characterized U.S. press coverage of Venezuela since Hugo Chávez was first elected president in 1998. Since then, U.S. politicians and the press have portrayed Chávez as a tyrant who destroyed his country’s democratic institutions and economy. As Vasquez argued, “Chávez had completely taken over Venezuela and turned it into a poverty-ridden, semi-military, semi-personalistic dictatorship, disguised as a democracy.”

Unfortunately, Vasquez’s column suffers from a complete lack of empirical evidence. Rather than citing any data, she relies entirely on impressions gleaned from her time visiting Venezuela as a child and the comments of her right-wing family members, who are evidently wealthy enough to finance many family trips to Venezuela each year (“We were always there for our birthdays, our relatives’ birthdays, holidays, etc.”).

Personal opinions and stories are important, but the views of a few affluent Venezuelans are a poor substitute for polls and economic data.

The evidence tells a very different story. Hugo Chávez was elected four times, beating the right-wing opposition candidate by a substantial margin each time. Annual opinion polls conducted by the Chilean organization Latinobarómetro have consistently found that Venezuelans are relatively satisfied with the state of their democracy. In the last poll in 2011, Venezuelans rated their country the third most democratic in all of Latin America, and only 25 percent said “citizen participation” in politics and government “is lacking” — the best rating in the entire region. Close U.S. allies such as Colombia, Mexico and Honduras have fared far worse in the Latinobarómetro polls.

Vasquez’s claim that “independent media virtually disappeared” under Chávez is often heard in the U.S. media but is simply false. According to a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, state TV channels account for about 6 percent of audience share. Most Venezuelan media sources are still owned and controlled by wealthy private interests. Most of these sources not only oppose Chávez’s party, but some even openly supported a 2002 military coup against him — a coup backed by the United States. Imagine what would happen to CNN or The New York Times if they advocated the military overthrow of the U.S. government.

The implication that Chávez has further militarized Venezuela is also disingenuous. In 2011, Venezuela spent $3.1 billion on its military, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. By comparison, the United States spent about $1.4 trillion — roughly as much as the rest of the world combined. Venezuelan cities do have a problem with violent crime, which may explain the armed guards that Vasquez saw in the streets, but in that respect, Venezuela isn’t dramatically different from many other Latin American countries. And that problem exists despite, not because of, the government’s policies.

Contrary to Vasquez’s imagery of vast slums created by the Chávez government’s failed economic policies, since 2003, Venezuela has maintained strong economic growth while cutting poverty in half and reducing extreme poverty by 70 percent. As economist Mark Weisbrot notes, “Millions of people also got access to health care for the first time, and access to education also increased sharply, with college enrollment doubling and free tuition for many. Eligibility for public pensions tripled.”

Vasquez expresses thinly veiled contempt for the millions of poor and working-class Venezuelans who support Chávez’s political project. The only explanation for his popularity, she implies, is “the ignorance of the population,” who “blindly accepted every word he spoke” while remaining oblivious to the reality around them. But the real problem — at least for the traditional Venezuelan elite and the U.S. government — is that most Venezuelans are acutely aware of reality. They understand, based on their own experiences, the problems caused by two centuries of oligarchic rule, particularly the neoliberal period of the 1980s and 1990s when public services were privatized, social spending slashed and foreign oil corporations made out like bandits while the majority of the population languished in dismal poverty.

Despite the conventional depiction in the U.S. media, the changes in Venezuela since 1998 haven’t simply been the result of Hugo Chávez imposing his personal will on the country. Millions of Venezuelans have played an active part in promoting — and radicalizing — the transformation associated with Chávez. Workers have occupied factories and have taken to the streets to defend against right-wing coup attempts and U.S. meddling. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have participated in community-run media outlets, democratic worker cooperatives, community governance structures called communal councils and other institutions of participatory democracy. Whatever his flaws — and he certainly did have some — Chávez opened a space for the poor majority to make themselves heard. Though Chávez is gone, it’s unlikely that Venezuelans will allow the clock to be turned back anytime soon.

Kevin Young is an academic affiliate with the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

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