Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Hugo Chávez and the 47%

Hugo Chávez won his fourth election as president of Venezuela on Sunday. The official margin of victory was 55%-44%, which sounds plausible, even if it would be nice to think his real total was more like 47%.
How did Mr. Chávez become his country's FDR? In the Weekend Journal, reporters David Luhnow and Ezequiel Minaya described what they called "the unusual benefits of incumbency" in Caracas. Among them: Laws that allow Mr. Chávez to commandeer the airwaves of every TV station at any hour—but limit the opposition to three minutes of advertising a day. The use of state buildings for partisan purposes. No debates. No independent electoral observers. Threats that public workers could lose their jobs if they voted against the incumbent.
And then this: "In the past decade, high oil prices have given [Mr. Chávez's] government hundreds of billions in extra revenue, much of which he has spent on social programs that are wildly popular."
President Obama meets Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in April 2009.
We'll never know exactly what part of Mr. Chávez's vote share was due to dirty tricks, and what part to genuine popularity. No doubt a fairer process would have yielded a different result.
But would it have been very different? Politicians who manufacture dependency typically benefit from it. That was the gist of Mitt Romney's 47% gaffe, and it says something about the state of things in America that it immediately vaulted past President Obama's "you didn't build that" as the most politically toxic comment of the season.
Since coming to power 14 years ago, Mr. Chávez has manufactured dependency on a scale unseen elsewhere in the post-Soviet world. He has nationalized farms, steel mills, cement factories, telecoms and the assets of foreign oil companies. His government subsidizes everything from oil to milk. Government spending, much of it on cheap housing, has risen at a blowout rate of 30% in the past year alone.
The result? Chronic shortages of everything from oil to milk. A 24% inflation rate. A homicide rate that in 2011 clocked in at 67 per 100,000 people—nearly five times the rate in Mexico. Latin America's lowest growth in GDP per capita over the past decade, despite record-high oil prices. Constant devaluations. The diversion of an estimated $100 billion in recent years to a slush fund controlled exclusively by Mr. Chávez. Rolling blackouts. A credit rating on a par with Ghana's and Bolivia's. The steady degradation of the country's once formidable oil company, PdVSA.
The only bright spot, according to the BBC, is that Venezuela "now boasts the fairest income distribution in Latin America." Isn't that wonderful?
It really must be, given that the man who engineered Venezuela's catastrophe should now be rewarded with a fresh electoral mandate. That doesn't happen merely through the corruption of a process, although there's been plenty of that. The real trick is the corruption of a people: indoctrination in the religion of class envy; a habituation to increasingly straitened circumstances; the openings that a system like Chávez's gives to ambitious mediocrities and thuggish upstarts.
"People vote for Chávez because even if they have no running water or electricity, they feel good about themselves because the president of the country is as flawed as they are," writes the brilliant Venezuelan blogger, Daniel Duquenal. "He is the one that will insure that you may remain a sinvergüenza"—a scoundrel.
That isn't to say that Mr. Chávez hasn't had his share of luck. It's easier to be a petrodemagogue than a run-of-the-mill dictator. It helps to survive cancer, at least for the time being. It also helps when your opponent presents himself as just a milder version of you. In Sunday's election, challenger Henrique Capriles offered himself as a man of the center-left. Venezuelans don't like mixing water with their wine.
Now the conventional wisdom is that the country's future depends mainly on Mr. Chávez's health and the price of oil. Yet Venezuelans will remain what they've become regardless of what happens on either count. Democracy means the right not to be pitied for the consequences of your political choices. And whatever else might be coming to them in the next phase of their Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela has made its choice.
So it goes with the rest of the democratic world, too. Egypt has chosen to put religious rectitude ahead of individual liberty. The French seem to want economic "justice" more than they do economic growth. Russia remains infatuated with its strongman, albeit with greater reservations than before. The Greeks are for anyone who will keep them living on credit.
And Americans? Next month's election is being presented as a choice of where we want to go. But the real question is what kind of people we want to be. No, Mr. Obama is not Mr. Chávez, we aren't yet a nation of moochers—and we have a 22nd Amendment to term-limit our presidents. But the salient point is that what happened Sunday in Venezuela was a statement of national character. What happens on Nov. 6 will be one as well.
Write to bstephens@wsj.com
A version of this article appeared October 9, 2012, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hugo Chávez and the 47%.