Upon hearing the news of the death of Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper had this to say:
Canada looks forward to working with his successor and other leaders in the region to build a hemisphere that is more prosperous, secure and democratic … At this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Prosperous? Democratic? Harper should take a better look not only at Chavez, but at himself, before he insensitively responds to the death of a man whom a majority of Venezuelans had just re-elected and lectures them on economics and democracy.
Prime Minister Harper prides himself on his economic prowess. But under his government, unemployment has increased from 6.8 per cent when he took office to the 7 per cent level it is at today. Harper has had seven years to improve unemployment, but his policies have done nothing. Chavez has cut unemployment amongst Venezuelans by more than half. In 1999, the year Chavez took office, unemployment was 18 per cent. By 2011 it had dropped to 8.2 per cent and by last year to about 6 per cent.
When it comes to cutting poverty, Harper has done somewhat better. But not as good as Chavez. When Harper took office in 2006, poverty levels stood at 15.9 per cent of Canadians. In 2012, it had improved to 9.4 per cent: an improvement of 40 per cent. However, in the last five years, since 2008, when the number had already improved to 10.8 per cent, Harper’s policies have done little to improve poverty in Canada.
In Venezuela, poverty has dropped from 42.8 per cent when Chavez took office to 26.7 per cent — a vast improvement of 37 per cent. However, according to economist Mark Weisbrot, Chavez did not really have control of the oil industry or the economy until 2003. When measured from that date, when Chavez’s policies began to have an effect on the economy, the improvement in poverty increases to 49.7 per cent. When extreme poverty is considered, the results are even more impressive. In 1999, 16.6 per cent of Venezuelans lived in extreme poverty; by 2011 that number had dropped to 7 per cent: an improvement of 57.8 per cent. And again, if you only look at the period that Chavez could realistically affect, the improvement was an incredible 70 per cent.
In terms of inequity in the economy, the score card for Harper is no better. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening in Canada. Under Harper, Canada’s rich-poor gap is one of the fastest growing in the world, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development says the gap between the top 10 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent is currently 10:1. In the early 1990s, it was only 8:1. The Gini index measures how much distribution of income deviates from being equal. Zero means everyone has the same income; one means one person has it all. So the lower the number, the better. Under Harper’s administration, Canada’s Gini index has been virtually unchanged. In Venezuela, under the Chavez administration, the Gini index has improved by about 17 per cent.
While Canada’s economic growth stalled in 2012, Venezuela’s continued to grow by 5.5 per cent. Though in the 20 years prior to Chavez’s presidency, Venezuela had the worst performing economy in South America, since 2003, when Chavez’s policies began to have an effect, Venezuela’s economy has grown by more than 94 per cent.
As Harper has no right to criticize Chavez on economics, so he has no right to lecture Venezuelans on democracy. Aside from the insensitivity of expressing joy that Venezuelans can “build for themselves a better, brighter future” now that the man they four times overwhelmingly elected to majority governments has died, Harper’s categorization of Chavez’s government as not based on the principles of democracy requires as much unwillingness to look at reality as his economic criticism of Chavez.
While Harper was busy twice proroguing government, Chavez was holding fourteen national elections and referendums, taking his policies to the people for approval an average of once a year. Harper, however, literally suspended parliament in order to avoid a nonconfidence vote and hold on to power. And he lectures Chavez on democracy. What’s worse is that Harper locked the doors on parliament to avoid discussion of diplomat Richard Colvin’s strong evidence that Harper’s government was handing Afghan detainees over to Afghan prisons known to torture. Good thing Harper also threw the bit about “rule of law” and “respect for human rights” into his eulogy for Chavez.
Harper’s remarks mirror much of the western media, who have tarred Chavez’s democratic credentials by consistently attaching the adjective dictator to his name with no evidence. But Chavez was no undemocratic dictator. Chavez won four consecutive elections and submitted many important decisions to national referendums. In every case, Chavez honoured the will of the people: even the one time that he lost, by the slimmest of margins, in the December 2007 referendum.
Though Harper says that Chavez’s death ushers in the hope that Venezuela can now build a future based on the principles of democracy, Jimmy Carter said in 2012 that “of the ninety-two elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” Venezuela has very high ratings of satisfaction with its democracy and of support for its government. Chavez’s government has been marked by its distribution of power to local organizations. It is participatory and grassroots: entirely different from the U.S. backed dictatorships initiated in Venezuela by Woodrow Wilson and finally ended by Hugo Chavez.
Chavez has consistently won a majority of the vote. In 2006, he was re-elected by 63 per cent of the people. Thirteen years into his presidency, he still attracted over 54 per cent of the vote: a popular majority never attained by Harper.
The people elected him and reelected him because of his participatory style of democracy and because of the economic improvements and his care for the poor. He increased Venezuelans’ access to education — college enrollment doubled since 2004, with many students qualifying for free tuition — and he increased access to health care for millions. These too are part of the better, brighter future that Chavez was delivering and Harper is dismissing.
So before Harper insensitively and arrogantly dyslogizes Chavez, he should take a closer look at Chavez, and at himself.
Ted Snider has his masters in philosophy and teaches high school English and politics in Toronto.