Political Legacies

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1Broad Topic: Political LegaciesNarrowed Topic: The Impact of Hugo Chavez’s Political Legacy on Venezuela’s Societyand Economy“El Comandante”, a man made immortal, a paratrooper who became larger than life, anda riveting orator are apt descriptions of the indomitable former Venezuelan president, HugoChavez. This illustrious character, who was both renowned and notorious, led a remarkablepolitical career spanning 20 years, only ever losing one election. He has left an undeniablelegacy whose overarching influence in Venezuela can be plotted from his 1998 presidentialelection victory to the present day. Critics portend, however, that Chavez’s path is plagued withinaccuracies and inefficiencies that make it economically unsustainable. Equally pejoratively,Chavez’s legacy has been blamed for politicizing and polarizing civil society (Perez, 2013, para.5). Alternatively, Chavez has been lauded as a messiah to the impoverished, and his programshave been touted as truly helping the lower-class (Arsenault, 2014, para. 11; Perez, 2013, para.2). Given such sentiments, El Comandante’s legacy (Chavismo) has clearly had mixedconsequences for Venezuela’s economy and society. Essentially, Chavismo has shaped the stateof Venezuela’s economy by spawning marked improvements in the general standard of living yetpolarizing civil society, and by reducing economic inequalities but failing to realize certaincritical economic requirements.Firstly, Chavismo has resulted in significant advances in the standard of living of thegeneral Venezuelan population, especially for the impoverished masses. These advances havebeen achieved largely through the implementation of several fundamental social programs suchas the provision of communal lands and enterprises and free health care along with the expansionof access to education. Jones (2007) has acclaimed these social programs as unmatchedworldwide (p. 452). During Chavez’s tenure, poverty was halved and unemployment decreasedfrom 15% in 1999 to 7% in 2011 (Whitney, 2011, para. 20). With the provision of communalland and enterprises, jobs have been made more accessible to the common citizens who nolonger have to depend on the discretion of the managers of private enterprises for employment.With more employment available, income levels have increased allowing for the reduction inboth poverty and unemployment levels. In addition, the UN has published data which show thatVenezuela climbed seven places in the Human Development Index (HDI) rankings between2006 and 2011 (cited in Arsenault, 2014, para.12). The improvements in the country’s rankingswith regards to this index further trumpet the success of the social programs implemented byChavez’s regime, specifically free health care and increased access to education, especially sincethe HDI index includes standard measures of education and health. Even Perez (2013), a vocalmember of the Chavez-triggered exiled Venezuelan community, has admitted that Chavez madeundeniable strides in providing social programs that have benefitted Venezuela’s poor (para. 2).Still, Perez stated that “[t]he Venezuelan state is bloated, inefficient, and full of Chávez’s familyand friends” and has alleged that the social programs benefit only Chavez’s aficionados(para.10). This would mean that increases in standard of living are not as evenly distributed asthe blind statistics suggest. However, Perez’s contention is misguided since, as economicsteaches, government goods and services are largely non-excludable. Therefore, these socialprograms cannot only benefit a select few as Perez supposes. With this fundamental principle ofeconomics in mind, and coupled with the overwhelming statistical evidence illustrating the2success of the various social programs, one can see the eclectic and positive impact of Chavez’slegacy on the general standard of living in Venezuela.Admittedly, while these monumental achievements were celebrated by the masses, otheraspects of Chavez’s legacy perpetuated dissonance within the nation. Indeed, Chavez’s legacyhas led to the division of Venezuela’s civil society into two camps – Chavez supporters andChavez opponents. There is no denying that demonizing of political opponents was characteristicof Chavez’s political rhetoric. Political opponents were cast in the light of enemies of therevolution and ‘lackeys’ of imperialist powers from whom, Chavez promulgated, he wasdefending the Venezuelan people (Perez, 2013, para. 8). Such indictments have solicited similardenunciations from his opponents and such diatribes have come to characterize the politicalscene in Venezuela (“Hugo Chavez’s rotten legacy”, 2013, para.11). This has accentuateddivisions between Chavez’s backers and his political antagonists which have escalated to wantonaccusations being flung between supporters of either faction and a demonstrated willingness tocarry out acts of violence against the opposing group. Since these major divisions and theresultant social instability can be attributed to Chavismo, it is fair to surmise that Chavismo haseffectively polarized Venezuelan society.Nonetheless, despite this Chavez-inspired polarization of Venezuelan society, Chavez’swillingness to attempt economic reform to benefit all Venezuelans (supporters and opponentsalike) never faltered. Undoubtedly, Chavez’s heritage has occasioned a successful reduction ineconomic inequalities in Venezuela. This has been achieved largely through the redistribution ofresources in a variety of ways including semi-nationalization of major firms in critical industriessuch as oil. Such moves have resulted in a shift of significant proportions of capital from privateownership to government coffers. In fact, Chavez’s government, after nationalizing privatelyowned oilfields, gained uninhibited and direct access to the profits from its oil sector (Perez,2013, para. 3). Perez appended that it is this additional revenue that has been used to financeChavez’s ambitious and far reaching social programs (para. 6). Further, it is these socialprograms that have helped to reduce the previously high levels of inequality that obtained inVenezuela. This is a hallmark of Chavez’s policy and legacy. The advances made throughredistribution measures, therefore, confirm that Chavismo has succeeded in reducing inequalitiesin Venezuela.Conversely, while this stellar achievement is celebrated, other failures of Chavez’sregime have been identified. Failure of Chavez’s government to effectively eradicate fiscaldeficits, negate the impact of what is dubbed the “Dutch disease”, and stabilize the currency’svalue reveal Chavismo’s inability to fulfill several critical needs of the Venezuelan economy.The Chavez government accrued a significant fiscal deficit in 2012, and this was deemed theproduct of a ‘misguided’ Bolivarian revolution (“Hugo Chavez’s rotten legacy”, 2013, para. 6).The deficit, which stood at 8.5% of GDP, was partly due to increased spending before theOctober elections. Additionally, oil prices are no longer rising as quickly as they did in the firstyears of the millennium yet spending increases in Venezuela have not slowed. These reasons doimply extant misguided economic planning, with the Chavez government attracting criticism ofcronyism ( in terms of installing family and friends into positions of power) that oppositionmembers feel has facilitated inefficiencies, mismanagement and loss (Perez, 2013, para. 10;Arsenault, 2014, para. 30). Furthermore, despite attempts to diversify the economy, the Chavezinspired policies have failed to reduce the over-dependence of the Venezuelan economy on oil –the so-called “Dutch Disease” (Wilpert, 2007). Oil accounts for 90% of export, half ofgovernment revenues and a third of the country’s GDP (Perez, para. 5). With the unpredictability3of oil prices in the world market, the Venezuelan economy is, therefore, prone to collapsingshould oil prices fall. Moreover, according to Perez, the inflation rate at the end of 2012 was at ahigh of 20.1%. This in turn helped to fuel the burgeoning devaluation of the bolivar, Venezuela’scurrency (para. 6). No wonder, as she further highlighted, there is a thriving black market forcurrency exchange in which the bolivar is sold at three times its official value. Thus, despite anofficial fixing of the value of the currency, the Chavez regime has failed to stabilize currencyprices. These negative results have cumulatively weakened Venezuela’s economy by creatinguncertainty and unpredictability. With uncertainty and unpredictability, fewer businesstransactions and investments take place leading to a contraction of the economy which, at itsmost severe, causes an economic depression. Conclusively, therefore, Chavismo has failed tocure several of the economy’s major maladies leaving the economy brittle, ready to implode withthe slightest blow.In the final analysis, Chavez’s legacy has had both successes and failures that have inturn branded the Venezuelan society and economy positively and negatively respectively. Thesuccesses include improvements in the standard of living and reductions in economicinequalities. Equally, among the failures experienced, there is the polarization of civil societyand a failure to achieve critical economic goals. In light of these contradictory trends, it hasbecome necessary for the policies of Chavismo to be re-evaluated and amended to ensure that theVenezuelan economy and society are only bettered. The noxious policies of Chavismo must beextirpated and the productive ones advanced or Chavez’s policies and legacy may capitulate.Whatever path is taken, however, El Comandante – a God to some and the devil to others – hasincontestably produced a variegated legacy that has significantly impacted Venezuela and willcontinue to do so for some time into the future.4ReferencesArsenault, C. (2014, March 5). Chavez’s legacy still dominates Venezuela. Aljazeera. RetrievedOctober 10, 2014 from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/03/chavezlegacy-still-dominates-venezuela-20143574019173171.htmlHugo Chávez’s rotten legacy. (2013, March 9). The Economist, 406 (8826), 10.Jones, B. (2007). Hugo! The Hugo Chavez story from mud hut to perpetual revolution. Hanover,New Hampshire: Steerforth Press.Perez, V. (2013). The legacy of Hugo Chavez. Harvard University Institute of Politics. Retrievedfrom http://www.iop.harvard.edu/legacy-hugo-chavezWhitney, M. (2011, February 9). Can we swap Obama for Chavez? Global Research. Retrievedfrom http://www.globalresearch.ca/can-we-swap-obama-for-chavez/23155Wilpert, G. (2007). Economic policy: Macro-economic policies, social economy, and the oilindustry. In G. Wilpert, Changing Venezuela by taking power: The history and policies ofthe Chavez government (pp. 68-103). London, New York: Verso.M. Blake, 2014[Adapted]

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