On John Lee Anderson’s “slumlord” article on Venezuela

I finally read John Lee Anderson’s “slumlord” article about Venezuela in the New Yorker. Based on his observations of Caracas, Anderson makes a sweeping condemnation, not only of the Chavez government, but also of the majority of Venezuelans who have voted for Chavez since 1998:

They gave him power in one election after another: they are victims of their affection for a charismatic man, whom they allowed to become the central character on the Venezuelan stage, at the expense of everything else.

FAIR accurately sums up and effectively rebuts Anderson’s article.

I would add that reporters like Anderson often use descriptive language and local detail as a way to obscure shaky evidence for their conclusions.  A Chavista could visit exactly the same places that Anderson did, talk to all the same people and, through a different choice of adjectives and selection of details, arrive at an opposite but no better substantiated assessment than Anderson.

A government’s economic policy needs to be evaluated based on data.

Between 1975 to 1995 (again, recall that Chavez was first elected in 1998) Venezuela suffered a devastating economic collapse. Poverty rates went from about 33% to 70%.

Collapsing oil prices during much of this period were obviously a huge part of the problem, but that does not explain who was spared and who bore the brunt of that collapse. Poverty rates declined during the early years of the Chavez government but, by 2003, returned to their 1998 levels as the opposition's efforts to oust him through a coup and economic sabotage took a huge toll on the economy. After those efforts were defeated, and the Chavez government finally got control of PDVSA (the state oil company), poverty rates fell drastically – from 55% to 27%. Similarly, extreme poverty fell from 25% to 7%.  

Surging oil prices since the late 1990s obviously explains much of Chavez’s success reducing poverty, but so does the mass mobilization of the poor to defeat the elite opposition during the 2002-2003 years. 

Anderson’s very lengthy account offers none of this. It would take a very careful reader – basically one who already knows the facts – to read Anderson’s article and realize that there was a very prolonged and disastrous economic collapse BEFORE Chavez was elected.  Contrast the Chavez government’s record on poverty with his predecessors (in 1980-1998 years) and you have a vastly more credible explanation for his electoral success than Anderson’s condescending view that Venezuelans have simply fallen under the spell of a charismatic politician.

Anderson strongly insinuates that empowering poor people to challenge the property rights of the rich has led to skyrocketing homicide rates. This is deeply reactionary, the kind of class prejudice used to justify murderous repression, and it also just doesn’t stand up.

Homicide rates began their rapid increase a few years before the Chavez era began, though there is no denying that the trend has continued under Chavez. However, there are much more believable explanations for the Chavez government’s failure to reverse that trend than what Anderson insinuates.  One is that the government was overconfident that poverty alleviation alone would reverse the trend. Another is that – for reasons that include political expediency – the Chavez government has not been aggressive enough challenging entrenched corruption and impunity within the judiciary and police. The failure of the Chavez government to hold the murderers of hundreds of Chavista peasant activists accountable is quite striking and revealing. See the work of filmmaker Edward Ellis whom I interviewed here.

Finally, it is hard to take Anderson seriously about Venezuela when one of his sources, whom he depicts as a sober and rational analyst, is Boris Munoz.  In an article for Newsweek, Munoz peddled the kind of outlandish conspiracy theory that would get a left leaning writer banished from just about any outlet – corporate or independent.  Munoz wrote that

"Indeed, even some members of his inner circle suspect that Chávez’s long battle with cancer is really an elaborate charade masterfully orchestrated in complicity with the government of Havana— and one that might win him yet another term, perpetuating his presidency for another six years."

What kind of Chavez “inner circle” members would be telling opponents something as wacky as this – unless their intention was to get people like Boris Munoz to make fools of themselves?


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