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Thursday, May 10

Bolivarian, Chavista, or Venezuela's version of 1950s USA?

Have you lost your marbles? I thought you were anti-communist and a big supporter of free market policies. I can understand your reservations about wholesale application of some neoliberal economic remedies to the poorest developing countries, but from your [post of yesterday] it looks to me as if you've gone gaga over Hugo Chavez's ideas. He's a communist, in case you hadn't noticed.
Chicago Dan"

Dear Chicago Dan:
First of all, some clarifications, which don't really speak to your observations. I hurried yesterday's post into publication without proofreading then went back and edited it. Mostly minor edits but for readers who saw the early edition, I mistakenly omitted the site of the seven Venezuelan refineries up for sale; they are in the United States.

Also, I highlighted why I think the Trickle Down theory has had such a hard time working in certain Latin American countries:

"He's saying to put your own country first, then hop around the world. I wouldn't exactly call that an anti-globalist position. I'd call it a refutation of the Trickle Down theory when applied to very poor countries with a very small middle class.

Although Chavez says his revolution aims to create a classless society, he's actually taking actions to rapidly create a large middle class."

And a reader suggested that I substitute "Bolivarian Strategy" for "Southern Strategy" on the arguments that Venezuela is still in the northern hemisphere even though it's in South America, and because "Chavez's strategy is actually called Bolivarian." The reader also disputed that Venezuela should be termed a "very poor" country, given its oil wealth.

Both criticisms are fair; although Chavez's political philosophy is just as often called "Chavismo."

Now for the communist label. Whatever his sympathies in that direction during his youth, I do not think the label sticks to Chavez as Venezuela's leader. Certainly there is a fear that he will bring in communist government, and that was also my initial fear. From all I've seen, I think he's trying whatever will work to correct the obscene economic inequalities in a nation swimming in oil wealth.

Have you seen some of the stats on Venezuela? About 85% of the population live in urban areas yet 32% of Venezuelans lack adequate sanitation. Only 3% of sewage is treated; most major cities in the country lack treatment facilities. Almost 20% of Venezuelans lack access to potable water, one of the highest rates in South America. All that leads to widespread diseases related to raw sewage and impure drinking water. Infant mortality in Venezuela is 19 deaths per 1,000 births, five times higher than that of Sweden. But why? In a country with oil wealth?

Those are unacceptable statistics. The problem with the Trickle Down theory of economics is that the trickles only get down to a certain level, then they get recycled within the ruling class. This situation won't stand, and it always leads to revolutions, which lead to a severe backwash, which leads to a police state, and so on.

I think what Chavez is trying for is roughly a Venezuelan version of the USA in the 1950s, which saw the rise of a large middle class. The middle class was raised on the back of a G.I. education bill, powerful unions, and state-controlled monopolies of key strategic industries. Is that recipe communist? Doesn't the Trickle Down economic remedy work best when applied in a nation with a large middle class?

Maybe you're right, Dan; maybe Chavez has hoodwinked me. But let's take a look at the Wikipedia article on Bolivarianism. The Wiki editors sniff that the article needs more citations but still it's a useful starting point.
Bolivarianism is a set of political doctrines that enjoys currency in parts of South America, especially Venezuela. Bolivarianism is eponymous with Simón Bolívar, the 19th century Venezuelan general and liberator who led the struggle for independence throughout much of South America. One of the main ideals of "Bolivarianism" is promoting the unification of Latin America. The most prominent exponent and architect of modern Bolivarianism is currently Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

In recent years, its most significant political manifestation is in the government of Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez, who since the beginning of his presidency has called himself a Bolivarian patriot and applied his interpretation of several of Bolívar's ideals to everyday affairs, as part of the Bolivarian Revolution. That included the 1999 Constitution, which changed Venezuela's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and other ideas such as the Bolivarian Schools, Bolivarian Circles, and the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

The central points of Bolivarianism, as extolled by Chávez, are:

> Venezuelan economic and political sovereignty (anti-imperialism).

> Grassroots political participation of the population via popular votes and referenda (participatory democracy).

> Economic self-sufficiency (in food, consumer durables, etc...).

> Instilling in people a national ethic of patriotic service.

> Equitable distribution of Venezuela's vast oil revenues.

> Eliminating corruption.

Chávez's version of Bolivarianism, although drawing heavily from Simón Bolívar's ideals, was also influenced by the writings of Marxist historian Federico Brito Figueroa and Argentinian political scientist Norberto Ceresole. Chávez was also thoroughly steeped in the South American tradition of socialism and communism early in his life, such as that practiced by Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Salvador Allende. Other key influences on Chávez's political philosophy include Ezequiel Zamora and Simón Rodríguez. This has been seen as seemingly contradictory, as Bolivar viewed himself as a supporter of free-markets and liberal rights, whilst current "Bolivarianism" includes neo-Marxist policies.

Although Chávez himself refers to his ideology as Bolivarianismo ("Bolivarianism"), Chávez's supporters and opponents in Venezuela refer to themselves as being either for or against "chavismo," indicating a public perception that Chávez's political philosophy does not originate from Bolívar so much as from his own views. Thus, Chávez supporters refer to themselves not as "Bolivarians" or "Bolivarianists," but rather as "chavistas."

Later in his life, Chávez would acknowledge the role that democratic socialism (a form of socialism that emphasizes grassroots democratic participation) plays in Bolivarianism. For example, on January 30, 2005 at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Chávez declared his support for democratic socialism as integral to Bolivarianism, proclaiming that humanity must embrace "a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans, and not machines or the state, ahead of everything."

He later reiterated this sentiment in a February 26 speech at the 4th Summit on Social Debt held in Caracas.
I think what has the US government so greatly worried is that Bolivarianism talks about unifying Latin America, and the nightmare is a communist version of the European Union. Brazil would never go along with any attempt to unify Latin America, and the same could be said for Mexico. But I don't see why setting up favorable trade networks and greater development cooperation among Latin America's poor countries is a bad idea.

The simple truth is that for whatever reasons, the poorest in Latin America have not benefited from the IMF way of doing things. So, try something else. Chavez is trying. Does not mean he'll succeed but he's got astute advisors who appreciate the value of capitalism.
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