Monday, December 13, 2010

Will the Real Tyrant Please Stand Up?

Chávez y Lukashenko develan placa inaugural de...

Image by ¡Que comunismo! via Flickr

Yesterday, I watched a rather biased documentary about the sentiment toward Hugo Chavez during the December 2006 elections called Now the People Have Awoken [Hulu]. Despite the naked support for Chavez and his policies, the film raised quite a few questions in my mind that I had to investigate to make the final conclusions.

I was interested in watching it because Chavez is one of the best friends of Belarusian dictator Lukashenka and the two countries have been compared numerous times. However, I have never had neither a stimulus to look into Venezuelan domestic policy. Now, that I have done it, I see stark differences between Belarus and Venezuela.

In theory, Venezuela seems more or less like an average Nordic social-democratic state less the location and high crime rate. Chavez has created an extensive system of welfare state institutions financed by oil exports by the nationalized PDVSA. Nationalization of large businesses was done through share buyouts and there are no reported state-led persecution of private business. Elections have been relatively free and fair even with opposition gaining sizable support. Venezuela has free press (including at least one private 100% anti-Chavez TV station) despite reports of government pressure on journalists. Other human rights abuses seem not to happen systematically or legally allowed.

The popular support of Chavez, as it is clearly articulated in the film, comes from the fact that he gave the people what had been kept away from them forever. His programs promoted literacy, gave people titles to land, and taught them to start businesses. He is yet to eradicate corruption and bureaucracy but the advances in other sectors of the society seem to make up for that.

There are only a few concerns visible to me right away in Venezuelan system. My personal issue is that Chavez’s platform is based on hatred of the USA albeit, fortunately, he is not calling for active military resistance. The others are the nearly absolute unchecked control of the executive branch, the lack of an independent judiciary branch, high crime rate, and high inflation (though it has been decreasing recently). Of these, Belarus has all and even more except for crime.

After 16 years of Lukashenka’s rule, Belarus has lost government transparency & accountability, inviolability of private property, and the free press. The economy is still primarily state controlled and is centrally planned, and profits from state enterprises go to a special Presidential Fund with its books closed to the public instead of the national budget. The foreign debt has been growing significantly because of the limited exports, and Lukashenka has been instituting a policy of import substitutions by imposing high tariffs on goods that have poor local equivalents. It has not been uncommon for small businesses to been seized under the pretenses of back taxes/improper permits/bribes and the owners to be imprisoned. Despite the proclaimed welfare state, most government subsidies were abolished in 2007 and pensions/minimal wages are raised around elections only to be followed by consumer prices inflation. Nonetheless, the standard of living and the GDP has been growing steadily compared to the turbulent early 1990’s providing Lukashenka with some popular support.

On the human rights front, Belarus is even more fun. The last free and fair elections were held in 1994 when Lukashenka came to power, and spending the day of elections in jail arrested for disorderly conduct has become a tradition for many activists. At least 3 journalists/media people died/disappeared/were murdered under unknown circumstances. The same fate has befallen several prominent opposition politicians & supporters. Minority rights come down to Lukashenka’s statement at the 4th All-Belarus People’s Congress where he claimed that there were no national or sexual minorities in the country.

So when the two countries are compared side-by-side, one must be blind not to see that Chavez is almost an exemplary leader against the Man of Minsk backdrop. Yet, US foreign policy is more concerned with him complying with OPEC quotas than with Lukashenka selling arms to Khartoum and Tehran.

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