By Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher
Hugo Chávez is gone, but he remains as controversial in death as he was in life. This is of no small import as Venezuelans head to the polls this weekend to choose who will succeed this larger-than-life figure.
The choice is between Nicolás Maduro, the Chávez heir apparent, former bus driver, and union leader, or elite scion Henrique Capriles Radonski. Any speculation on the future requires that we first grapple honestly with the past and present, which entails debunking some common myths.
1. Chávez was a dictator. There’s a famous moment in the film The Princess Bride when the character Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Dictators generally don’t have elections, or, once in power, they cancel them or rig them beyond recognition. Chávez did none of the above, winning more elections than any other democratic leader, elections judged to be “the best in the world” by the Carter Center. Moreover, recent years have seen a flourishing of directly democratic institutions like popular councils and assemblies that redefine democracy beyond the limits of the U.S.-style, two-party representative democracy that existed prior to 1998. In fact, given how corrupt, exclusionary, and repressive the old system of Venezuelan democracy was, Venezuela is far more democratic today than it was before Chávez came to power.
2. There is no freedom of speech or the press in Venezuela. Anyone who has spent even a week in Venezuela should be able to refute this commonly echoed refrain simply on the basis of the widespread proliferation of media and breadth of publicly expressed opinions. The numbers bear this out: Only 6 percent of television market share is claimed by state TV, and recent years have seen a multiplication of private and community media outlets and a democratization of access. The oft-criticized “closure” of RCTV in 2007 was nothing of the sort: RCTV’s concession to use public airwaves had expired and, due to its violation of a number of laws, was not renewed. RCTV continued to broadcast through private channels.
3. The Venezuelan economy is collapsing. Despite Chicken Little commentaries, the sky is not falling, and the Venezuelan economy, while not without problems, is stronger than it has been in decades, according to exhaustive analyses by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. In fact, the naysayers have been predicting imminent collapse for a decade, but the Venezuelan economy has weathered the global crisis better than most. Debt remains manageable, inflation, while high, is moderate by historical standards, and the Venezuelan government is adjusting monetary policy to encourage sustained growth.
4. Chávez hated Americans. The Venezuelan government has consistently distinguished between the U.S. government and the people. Under Chávez, Venezuela donated heating oil to hard-hit Americans and offered aid workers to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. While many hoped for improved relations following President Obama’s election, the U.S. administration continues to funnel tax dollars toward anti-Chávez political parties and organizations and has turned a blind eye to important regional events like the 2009 coup that overthrew democratically elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.
5. Venezuelans are enslaved victims of their government. While Michelle Malkin has deemed contemporary Venezuela a “socialist hellhole,” such arguments are not the exclusive terrain of the right. In a controversial New Yorker article, Jon Lee Anderson even suggested that Venezuelans are “victims of their affection” for Chávez. That’s certainly not what most Venezuelans think. Not only does the Venezuelan government enjoy widespread popular support, which Maduro seems on track to retain, but, according to the international Latinobarometer survey, Venezuelans rate their democracy more highly than most Latin Americans. Furthermore, according to a Gallup poll, Venezuelans are the fifth-happiest people on Earth. The two are not unrelated, as the Chávez years have seen many Venezuelans empowered to participate in their own democracy.
These myths all gesture toward the most powerful myth of all: that what is going on in Venezuela is about Chávez, and that his death will allow a return to normalcy. Venezuela is a fundamentally different place today than it was before Chávez, but this is because millions of everyday Venezuelans have struggled, and will continue to struggle, to transform it.
Dr. George Ciccariello Maher is an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and author of “We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution.”
This op-ed ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 14. Read it here.