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Poverty figures undermine Chávez's success claims

The Oppenheimer Report | The Miami Herald

Mar. 31, 2005 | If the Bush administration is really serious about countering democratically elected Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez's claims that he is a champion of the poor and victim of a U.S. smear campaign, here's an idea -- broadcast the Venezuelan government's own poverty statistics.

Indeed, the latest poverty figures from Venezuela's official National Institute of Statistics -- buried in a mountain of figures deep in the bowels of its Internet site, -- contain the most damning condemnation of the Chávez government I have seen anywhere.

The figures, on Page 5 of the Institute's Social Report, show that poverty in Venezuela rose from 43 percent to 54 percent of the population during Chávez's first four years in office. And extreme poverty -- the percentage of the population that lives on less than $1 a day -- grew from 17 percent to 25 percent during the same period, the figures show.

These are stunning figures, not only because Chávez is going around Latin America proclaiming to be heading a ''Bolivarian revolution'' to help the poor, but also because the rise in poverty during his tenure has taken place at the very time when Venezuela has been benefiting from its greatest oil boom in recent history.


Oil prices, on which Venezuela depends for about 80 percent of its foreign income, have soared from $8 a barrel when Chávez took office to $55 dollars a barrel nowadays.

Venezuelan officials say the institute's poverty figures were influenced by the massive opposition strikes that nearly shut down the country in late 2002 and 2003, the last year for which poverty figures have been published.

Still, the Venezuelan economy has since bounced back vigorously, and National Statistics Institute President Elias Eljuri Abraham was quoted recently by the daily El Universal as saying that, by the end of December 2004, poverty stood at 53 percent, and extreme poverty at 25 percent.

What is Chávez doing with Venezuela's oil windfall? Regardless of how much of that vanished in corruption or financial aid to radical leftist groups in Latin America, much of it went to buy votes in the 2004 referendum in Venezuela, provide subsidized oil to Cuba and purchase weapons around the world, economists say.

Just in recent weeks, the Venezuelan government has announced negotiations to buy 30 MiG-29 warplanes, 40 military helicopters and 100,000 AK-47 rifles from Russia, as well as 50 Super Tucano light attack planes from Brazil and 12 military transport aircraft and eight warships from Spain.


That amounts to arms purchases worth several billion dollars, which critics say will not only siphon money away from the Venezuelan poor, but threaten to trigger an arms race with neighboring countries that will ultimately hurt the poor throughout the region.

Amazingly, Chávez's claims to be a champion of Latin America's poor have remained largely unchallenged, in part because few know about Venezuela's own official poverty figures.

Until I was made aware of them this week, I had only seen opposition estimates -- suspicious of political bias -- which claim the country's poverty rate stands at 73 percent.

One can only wonder for how long Venezuela's National Statistics Institute will keep publishing poverty figures, or to what extent the Venezuelan media will be able to report on them. Under Venezuela's stringent new press laws passed March 16, it may soon be considered a crime to say that Chávez has created record numbers of poor in Venezuela.

Under the new laws, ''whoever offends, either by words or in writing, or shows disrespect for the president -- will be punished with six to 30 months in prison.'' Such broad definitions of ''disrespect'' will lead to widespread self-censorship in journalists' reports about Chávez and other government officials, the French advocacy group Reporters Without Borders stated this week.


My conclusion: The Bush administration should stop responding to each of Chávez's daily tirades against ''U.S. imperialism,'' which most often do little but give him extra ammunition to claim that he's a victim of U.S. hostility.

Instead, U.S. officials should state a simple fact: Chávez is trying to pick a fight with Washington because he needs to divert attention from the fact that poverty in Venezuela is soaring, according to his own government figures.

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