Economic Growth, Expansion of Welfare State Likely to Continue for Many Years
Hugo Chávez’ re-election to another 6-year term shows that Venezuela, like the rest of South America, prefers governments of the left that have improved living standards and greatly reduced poverty and inequality, said Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C.
“Chávez is often portrayed as though he were from Mars, but really the similarities between what he has done and what his neighboring left governments have done are much greater than the differences,” said Weisbrot.
Contrary to many press reports, the vote was not close, as CEPR had predicted it would not be.
Chávez’ first election in 1998 was the first in a series of elections that would bring left governments to the vast majority of South America. Weisbrot noted that these left presidents and their parties have all been re-elected, some of them more than once: Rafael Correa, re-elected President of Ecuador by a wide margin in 2009; the enormously popular Lula da Silva of Brazil, re-elected in 2006, and successfully campaigned for his former Chief of Staff, now President Dilma Rousseff, in 2010; Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president in a majority indigenous country, re-elected in 2009; José Mujica succeeded his predecessor from the same political alliance – the Frente Amplio — in 2009; Cristina Fernández succeeded her husband, the late Néstor Kirchner, winning the 2011 Argentine presidential election by a solid margin.
Since the Chávez government got control of Venezuela’s national oil industry, poverty has declined by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. Access to health care and education have been increased substantially, with college enrollment doubling. Eligibility for public pensions has quadrupled, and in 2011 the government started a major housing program that has already seen 250,000 new homes built.
Other left governments, including Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia have also reduced poverty and inequality and at the same time taken more control over their energy resources. Weisbrot noted that all of these governments are closely aligned and have similar goals for regional economic integration – Venezuela was recently admitted to Mercosur at the first opportunity – and all have become much more independent of the United States.
“It’s really not surprising that all of these governments get re-elected, and generally despite most of the media and the wealth and income of the country being in the hands of the opposition,” said Weisbrot. “These governments have delivered on a number of their promises.”
Latin America suffered its worst long-term economic growth failure from 1980-2000, with income per person growing by less than 6 percent, as compared with 92 percent in the prior two decades.
Weisbrot noted that Henrique Capriles had done better than previous opposition candidates partly because he ran as a “center-left” candidate, pledging to preserve some of the major social gains of the Chávez era.
Looking ahead, Weisbrot said he expected that “growth will very likely continue and Venezuela will expand its welfare state.” He noted that the economy has been growing for two-and-a-half years, and inflation has been falling even as growth has accelerated. “With a sizeable trade surplus, relatively low levels of public debt and debt service, and hardly anyone projecting a long-term decline in oil prices, Venezuela’s economic growth can continue for years to come.” Weisbrot noted that Venezuela is sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves, about 500 billion barrels, and is currently using about one billion barrels per year.