Tag: Venezuela

All Eyes on Venezuela on Sunday

Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday for their most important presidential election in a generation. At stake is the end of the thuggish, corrupt, and autocratic 14 year-old regime of Hugo Chávez.

The opposition, led by Governor Henrique Capriles Radonsky, has a real chance of winning the vote—if it’s fairly done. The most credible polls show a very tight race with still a number of Venezuelans undecided. However, there are good reasons to believe that most of the undecided are actually “hidden” votes for Capriles, people who are intimidated or afraid to express their support for the opposition candidate.

As I’ve written before, it won’t be a fair election. Four out of the five seats in the National Electoral Council (CNE) are loyal chavistas. The CNE has resorted to increasingly dirty tricks. The latest has been to announce that people who mark one of Capriles’ pictures in the ballot won’t actually be voting for him, but for a lesser known third candidate (see the explanation here).

The electoral registry, which is controlled by Cuban operatives, has increased its size by 58 percent since 2001, even though Venezuela’s population has risen only 18 percent during that period. Fourteen of the country’s 24 states have more registered voters than total adult population. There is even the documented case of 2,272,706 voters that appear to live at the same address.

Thus, even though the opposition claims that it is well prepared to defend its votes at the polling stations, it is very likely that in the dawn hours of Monday, the CNE will announce Chávez as the winner. In my opinion, there is no real scenario under which Chávez would accept defeat by Capriles. The question then becomes: what happens next?

One thing to watch for is the reaction of the so-called Bolivarian militia, which consists of die-hard chavistas that have been well armed with Russian rifles and trained by the government to “defend the revolution.” Some estimates put their number at 25,000 people, enough to terrorize those opposition supporters who might consider going to the streets to protest against electoral fraud. It is still a mystery what the reaction of the army would be if chaos broke out in the streets of Caracas and elsewhere. Several generals have profited enormously from the regime, and they would loath to see Chávez go. But the extent to which they actually control the troops is unknown.

The Obama administration has been wise to avoid making statements about Venezuela’s election prior to the vote. Any comment by a U.S. official will play into Chávez’s hands as a gross interference by the “Empire” in Venezuela’s sovereignty. Nonetheless, Washington should keep an eye on the election and its aftermath. The outcome will likely have far-reaching consequences for the region.

The U.S. Takes a Dive in Economic Freedom of the World Index

Economic freedom in the United States has plummeted to an all-time low. According to the Economic Freedom of the World: 2012 Annual Report, co-published today with the Fraser Institute, the United States’ ranking has dropped to 18th place after having ranked 3rd for decades up to the year 2000. The loss of freedom is a decade-long trend—the United States ranked 8th in 2005—that has accelerated in recent years.

Virtually every U.S. indicator has seen a deterioration. Government spending and regulations have grown, the rule of law and protection of property rights have weakened, and foreign investment and non-tariff barriers have increased. Authors James Gwartney, Robert Lawson, and Josh Hall note some of the reasons for the decline, including the war on terror and the growth of crony capitalism.

As the graph below shows, the United States now has a lower economic freedom rating than it did in the 1970s.

The United States’ fall is alarming not only because it’s the most important economy in the world, long associated with market-liberal policies, but also because Economic freedom is strongly correlated with prosperity, higher growth, and improvements in the entire range of standard-of-living indicators, so a decline negatively affects those outcomes. The authors calculate, for example, that the loss of economic freedom will cut long-term U.S. growth by half to about 1.5 percent per year.

Another country that has seen a notable, steady drop in its economic freedom is Venezuela, now ranked last in the index. Other countries have been on an upward trend. Chile is now ranked 10th and China, while still largely unfree, continues to head in the right direction (see graph).

Below are the top ten countries in this year’s index. You can see a full listing here on page 10.

As my colleague Richard Rahn says in his column today, this year’s economic freedom report should be a wake up call to all Americans.

Paul Krugman’s Distorted Views on Inequality in Latin America

When it comes to discussing Latin America, Paul Krugman has a tortuous relationship with facts. Let’s take a look at a post he wrote last week on inequality in the region. Krugman claims that Latin America’s decline in inequality in the last decade is due to the region “partially turning its back on the Washington Consensus” (a term that has misleadingly become short hand for free market policies). Is that the case?

First, note how the graph in Krugman’s post actually shows inequality going up in Latin America during the 1980s, before the implementation of policies related to the Washington Consensus (which for most countries begins in the early 1990s), and then sharply declining before the arrival of what he calls the “new policy approach” of left-of-center governments. The rise of inequality in Latin America in the 1980s coincides with the periods of hyperinflation that crippled the economies of Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru, and Bolivia. Central banks in Latin America were all too busy in those years financing the acute fiscal imbalances of their central governments through the emission of money. And Latin American countries were deep in the red precisely because their bloated public sectors became unsustainable, leading to the serious debt crisis of 1982. Thus, it was an inflationary spree, caused by the crisis of big government, that exacerbated inequality in the region. Of course, Krugman fails to mention this.

Can we assign the recent decline in inequality in Latin America to any specific ideology? A recent study by Kenneth Roberts of Cornell University on the politics of inequality in Latin America looked at inequality trends from 2000 to 2010 and found that “countries that experienced net declines in inequality were governed by diverse administrations of the left, centre, and right, including non-leftist governments in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama.” According to Roberts, “there was no strict correspondence between declining inequality and either the ideological profile of national governments or any specific set of redistributive initiatives.”

Second, it’s quite a stretch to state that Latin America as a region moved away from the Washington Consensus. I’m not going to dwell here on the virtues of all the policy recommendations identified by John Williamson back in 1989 or discuss the extent to which they were actually implemented by the various Latin American governments. However, even though some countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina have turned their backs on responsible macroeconomic policies in the last few years, most governments in the region, including those called “left of center,” still implement macroeconomic policies related to the Washington Consensus such as freer trade, fiscal and monetary discipline, and attraction of foreign direct investment.

It is telling that despite the serious deterioration in economic freedom in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina economic liberty has actually increased—slightly—in Latin America as a region in the last decade. According to the Economic Freedom of the World , Latin America went from a regional average grade of 6.56 (out of 10) in 2000 to 6.62 in 2009. Implying that Latin America has somehow turned its back on market-friendly policies is misleading.

Third, Krugman looks at the economic performance of Latin American governments based on their ideological affiliation, suggesting that social democratic regimes have a better record than non-left-of-center governments. However, the study on which he bases his post relies too heavily on analyzing governments by their ideological labels, rather than looking at their actual economic policies. This can be very misleading. For example, during the period covered by the study (2000s), Chile is ranked as left of center, even though during that decade the country increased its level of economic freedom, moving up in the ranking of the Economic Freedom of the World index from 28th place in 2000 to 5th in 2009.

Finally, Krugman finished his post questioning Chile’s free market model and private pension system (even though the study he was referencing categorizes Chile as “left of center” and thus credited that ideological camp for Chile’s healthy economic indicators). Krugman doesn’t provide evidence to substantiate his criticism other than making a presumable reference to the recent student protests in Chile. If he looked at the facts, he would see a different picture. He would find that Chile is the country with the most impressive record in poverty reduction in Latin America (the poverty rate fell from 45 percent in the mid-1980s to just 15 percent in 2011), that it has tripled its income per capita since 1990 to $16,000 (the highest in Latin America), and that it is set to become the first developed nation in Latin America within a decade. What is it about this record that Krugman finds so annoying?

Chávez’s Electoral Fraud Cushion

The onslaught against Henrique Capriles Radonsky by Venezuelan state-run media has begun after his decisive victory in Sunday’s presidential primary. Capriles is now the nominee of the opposition coalition and he will face Hugo Chávez in October’s presidential election. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the vicious attacks against Capriles include, among other things, insinuations that he was a homosexual and that he is a Zionist agent.

This election will not be a fair one. Not only does Chávez control most of the Venezuelan media, but his government is also dramatically increasing spending on popular social programs. About 8.5 million Venezuelans already receive some kind of permanent income or assistance from the government (4 million of them are public employees). The Chávez regime threatens and intimidates those who receive government handouts and dare to support the opposition. Moreover, since voting is electronic in Venezuela, many people fear—perhaps with good reason—that their votes aren’t secret. The government tacitly encourages these perceptions.

But that’s not the end of the story. Chávez also controls Venezuela’s National Electoral Council. Due to the inability of the opposition to monitor every voting station in the country, the stated results of the vote may not be accurate. The Electoral Council usually takes longer than is necessary to tabulate voting results from electronic systems, which has raised concerns of fraudulent activity.

A main concern is the electoral registry, as documented by Gustavo Coronel in a Cato study back in 2006. Coronel wrote that an independent analysis of the electoral registry found many irregularities:

such as the existence of 39,000 voters over one hundred years old. This is a number equal to that of the same age group in the United States, where the population is 10 times greater. Of these 39,000 people, 17,000 were born in the 19th century, and one is 175 years old and still working! Nineteen thousand voters were born the same day and year in the state of Zulia. There are thousands of people sharing the same address.

So on top of the support of his followers (some enthusiastic, others intimidated), which fluctuates around 45 percent of the population, Chávez can also rely on a margin of error due to electoral fraud if he doesn’t get enough votes for his reelection. I’ve talked to some Venezuelans who say this margin can be as high as eight percentage points. That is, if the election is decided by less than that (very likely the case), Chávez can doctor the results in his favor.

The opposition promises to have people in every single voting station in the country watching the vote. The National Electoral Council will probably bar international observers from monitoring the election. This sets up the potential for conflicting results from the opposition and the National Electoral council. What would happen next is anyone’s guess.

María Corina Machado: A Breath of Fresh Air in Venezuela

Yesterday I wrote that the opposition in Venezuela seems determined to maintain the economic model installed by Hugo Chávez that fosters people’s dependency on government. I should’ve written “most of the opposition,” since there is a remarkable exception in the field of presidential candidates: Congresswoman María Corina Machado.

At a rally yesterday in a working class neighborhood of Caracas, and surrounded by unlicensed street vendors, female small business owners and young followers, Machado launched her political platform called “People’s Capitalism,” under which, she said, “Venezuela will leave behind the entitlement model in order to build true prosperity for its citizens.” This is a breath of fresh air from the usual Venezuelan political discourse that stresses the government’s central role in redistributing the country’s oil riches. In fact, just the use of the word “capitalism” is extremely daring in a nation where free market ideas have been consistently disparaged by President Chávez and his acolytes for over a decade.

In her speech, Machado attacked socialism as a model that perpetuates poverty by demeaning people and creating dependency. She explained that her platform is based on trust in the creative capacity of the individual. As for the role of government, Machado said that it must provide the legal framework that stimulates entrepreneurship and eliminates regulatory obstacles so that people in the informal economy—such as the vendors she was addressing—can join the formal economy. She also offered a strong defense of private property by saying that “if you can’t own the fruit of your labor, then you don’t own your labor and thus you aren’t free.”

Despite being elected to the National Assembly last year with the greatest number of votes in all Venezuela, Machado is a long shot to win the nomination for the Coalition for Democratic Unity. However, her commitment to free market ideas is a welcome departure from the other opposition candidates who seem interested in perpetuating Venezuela’s entitlement culture.

Machado spoke at a Cato Policy Forum two years ago on the failure of social policy in Venezuela. She also recorded a podcast for us on Hugo Chávez’s crackdown on political dissent.

The Opposition in Venezuela Doesn’t Get It

Venezuela is in full campaign mode as six candidates vie for the nomination of the Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD is its Spanish acronym), the opposition movement that will nominate a single candidate to face Hugo Chávez in the October 2012 presidential election. The MUD primary will take place on February 12.

After 13 years of socialist rule that has crippled Venezuela’s economy, and even created shortages of fuel in the oil-rich South American nation, one would expect the opposition candidates to signal a bold U-turn from the failed big-government policies of Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Let’s look, for example, at Primero Justicia (Justice First), the party whose candidate, Henrique Capriles Rodonsky, is leading in the polls. Capriles doesn’t say much about the economic model he favors. His statements are limited to generalities such as “the only thing I’m obsessed about is that Venezuela has progress.” As governor of the state of Miranda, Capriles likes to compare his approach to that of former Brazilian president Lula da Silva: decent macroeconomic stewardship complemented by generous social programs.

However, Primero Justicia’s platform seems to be a little more specific in its views on the role of government in society. It claims to support a “social-humanist state” that stands between the “social bureaucratic state that provides inefficient social services in a monopolist way and the minimalist neo-liberal state that gives up on its social responsibilities.” As for the economic model that Primero Justicia favors, the platform says that it “stands against the socialist planned economy and … the [classical] liberal tendencies that turn the market into a dogma.” In simple terms, Primero Justicia sees itself as a Third Way alternative between Hugo Chávez’s “Socialism of the 21st Century” and what it claims to be the “neo-liberal dogma.”

I believe that Venezuela needs a decisive rupture from the failed big-government policies of the past, and not just a lighter version of socialism. Nonetheless, a modern social democratic party is certainly a far better alternative for the country than Hugo Chávez. Unfortunately, on the campaign trail Primero Justicia’s officials seem eager to out-compete Chávez in promising more government handouts to Venezuelans. For example, the daily El Universal published a statement [in Spanish] yesterday from Primero Justicia’s chairman Julio Borges where he lambasted Chávez for not spending enough on social programs. He said that his party would use oil revenues to create a Social Security Fund that would give pensions “to all Venezuelans, regardless of whether they had formal employment or not, and even to housewives.”

Any observer of Venezuela’s modern history would say, “Here we go again.” For many decades, Venezuelan politicians, either in government or in the opposition, have seen the government (and particularly oil revenues) as an infinite source of wealth that simply needs to be distributed among all Venezuelans. As Borges previously stated, “every family would have 1.6 billion bolivares [approximately $375,000] if oil resources were distributed fairly.”

Henrique Capriles will formally launch his presidential candidacy tomorrow. Venezuelans have other pressing concerns besides the economy that will play a major role in next year’s election, such as the staggering rise in crime (Venezuela stands now as the most violent country in South America) and the steady erosion of civil and political freedoms. However, Capriles is ill-advised in thinking that he can beat Chávez by playing the populist card of offering yet more government handouts to Venezuelans.

Venezuelans deserve a real alternative to Chávez. They deserve not only a candidate that promises a return to democratic rule of law, but also someone who pledges to break their dependency on government. The election in October 2012 should be something more than choosing a distributor-in-chief at Miraflores Palace.

Après Chávez, le Déluge?

Rumors abounded this weekend about Hugo Chávez’s apparent critical health condition. The Nuevo Herald reported that the Venezuelan president could be suffering from prostate cancer. On June 9, while visiting Cuba, Chávez fell ill and was treated for a “pelvic abscess.” Since then, the loquacious caudillo, who for over a decade has flooded Venezuelan airwaves with endless TV addresses, has been conspicuously out of sight. All we have is a picture released to the media showing a frail Hugo Chávez holding onto Fidel Castro (aged 84) and his brother Raúl (aged 80).

Speculation increased on Saturday after Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s Foreign Relations Minister, said that Chávez was waging a “great battle for his health” while admitting that he wasn’t doing well. But perhaps the most ominous statement came from Chávez’s older brother, Adán, governor of the state of Barinas, who warned yesterday that supporters of the president should be ready to take up arms to defend his revolution. “It would be inexcusable to limit ourselves to only the electoral and not see other forms of struggle, including the armed struggle,” said the elder Chávez.

This is where things can get extremely ugly. Nobody knows what could happen to chavismo without Hugo Chávez. Many people expected Chávez to resort to violence next year in case he lost his reelection bid (a real possibility given popular discontent due to rising food prices, food and energy shortages, and increasing crime). This is why he created a socialist militia with tens of thousands armed civilians bent on “defending the revolution” no matter what. Also, Chávez promoted General Henry Rangel Silva as head of the Armed Forces after Rangel stated that the army would not allow the opposition to win the presidential election in 2012. However, in all these scenarios, Chávez was always the one calling the shots.

If Chávez passes away or is permanently incapacitated, the question becomes: Who will take over Venezuela and his political movement? The Constitution requires the Vice-president Elías Jaua to be sworn it as president. However, it is very likely that Chávez’s absence will open a fratricidal struggle within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government power. During his 12 years in office, Chávez has diligently made sure that no apparent successor takes the spotlight. Caudillos don’t have real VPs, a situation that could lead to chaos if the caudillo dies while in office.

A historical parallel can be drawn with the passing of Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina in 1974. His wife, Isabel, was his Vice-President and she took over the presidency after Perón’s death, as required by the Constitution. However, her tenure was marked by the increasing violence of the “Montoneros,” a radical left-wing terrorist group that claimed to uphold the leftist legacy of Juan Domingo Perón. The situation reached a critical point when the Armed Forces deposed Isabel Perón with a military coup in 1976 and led a “Dirty War” against left-wing elements of society that resulted in the killing and disappearance of approximately 30,000 people in 7 years. Perón’s death and lack of a viable successor led to chaos and slaughter.

The driving force behind the different forces within chavismo is graft, not ideology. As Gustavo Coronel documented in a paper published by Cato in 2006, corruption is rampant in Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, and it permeates all levels of government, including powerful elements of the military. It is unlikely that those who have been enriching themselves in the last 12 years would call it quits if their leader passes away. A violent struggle could therefore ensue within the ranks of chavismo for the control of government.

Venezuela’s democratic opposition movement should play its cards carefully. If Hugo Chávez dies or is incapacitated, the opposition should demand that the Constitution be respected and Vice-President Jaua take over until next year’s presidential election. The international community, and in particular the Organization of American States, should also be assertive in stating that Venezuela would face international diplomatic ostracism (e.g., expulsion from the OAS, travel ban for regime leaders, freezing of their bank accounts, etc.) if elements within the government stage a coup or try to stay in power through armed struggle.

We will know the gravity of Hugo Chávez’s health condition by July 5th. He had called for a big international summit that day to celebrate Venezuela’s bicentennial anniversary. If he calls off the jamboree, or if he is absent, it will signal that his health has very likely gravely deteriorated, and speculation about his succession will be overwhelming.