This past fall, the Independent‘s Owen Jones wrote that Hugo Chavez’s towering feat was “proving it is possible to lead a popular, progressive government that breaks with neo-liberal dogma”:
Even opponents of Chavez told me that he is the first Venezuelan president to care about the poor. Since his landslide victory in 1998, extreme poverty has dropped from nearly a quarter to 8.6 per cent last year; unemployment has halved; and GDP per capita has more than doubled. Rather than ruining the economy – as his critics allege – oil exports have surged from $14.4bn to $60bn in 2011, providing revenue to spend on Chavez’s ambitious social programs, the so-called “missions”.
But when it comes to his relationship with his opposition, Chavez has arguably been pretty lenient. Many of them – including [recent presidential opponent] Capriles – were involved in a US-backed, Pinochet-style military coup in 2002, which failed only after Chavez’s supporters took to the streets. It was incited and supported by much of the private media: I wonder what would happen to Sky News and ITN if they had egged on a coup d’état against a democratically elected government in Britain.
Venezuela’s oligarchs froth at the mouth with their hatred of Chavez, but the truth is his government has barely touched them. The top rate of tax is just 34 per cent, and tax evasion is rampant. Why do they despise him? As Chavez’s vice-minister for Europe, Temir Porras, puts it to me, it’s because “the people who clean their houses are now politically more important than them”. Under Chavez, the poor have become a political power that cannot be ignored.