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Hugo Chávez deserves prize for economic bumbling

By Andres Oppenheimer | The Miami Herald

09.10.05 | Somebody should create a new international award for economic incompetence -- which could be called the Lebon Prize, or Nobel spelled backward -- and give it to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Whatever you think of his politics -- and he has some redeeming points, such as having given a voice to the large masses of poverty-ridden Venezuelans who were largely ignored by a corrupt political class -- Chávez can claim the dubious achievement of having increased Venezuela's poverty despite the country's biggest oil boom in recent decades.

Indeed, since I disclosed in this column in March that Venezuela's official National Institute of Statistics (INE) had reported that poverty rose by 10 percent during Chávez's first five years in office, several international institutions have reported equally negative figures.

The INE, you may recall, said that poverty in Venezuela rose from 43 percent to 53 percent between 1999 and December 2004. Subsequently, Chávez lashed out against the INE, saying that it reflected the international ''neoliberal'' standards of measuring poverty, which according to him were not suitable for a ''socialist'' country such as Venezuela.

OTHERS AGREE

But now, other international organizations -- including the United Nations and the World Bank -- are painting a similar picture of Venezuela's social involution.

As strange as it sounds, they say poverty is rising in Venezuela despite the fact that world oil prices have soared from $8 a barrel when Chávez took office in 1999 to about $62 a barrel today. That's no minor detail; 80 percent of Venezuela's foreign income comes from its oil exports.

Among the latest statistics:

• The United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report: 2005, a publication that ranks countries according to their life expectancy, literacy and per-capita income, downgraded Venezuela from 68th place last year to 75th place this year. U.N. economists say much of the decline was due to a drop in the country's per-capita income, which fell from $5,380 to $4,900 during the past two years, in part because of an opposition-led strike.

• The U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean said in its recent ''Millennium Development Goals'' report that extreme poverty in Venezuela -- the poorest of the poor -- soared from 15 percent of the population in 1992 to 23 percent in 2002. The percentage of the Venezuelan population that is undernourished rose from 11 percent to 17 percent in the same period, the report says.

• The World Bank's latest poverty figures, in turn, show that the percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty rose from 15 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 1999, and that it has remained largely stable at that level since, despite the increase in the country's oil exports.

So why is it then that Chávez is so popular in Venezuela, you may be asking . The latest polls show that the leftist president is likely to win, hands down, upcoming legislative election and the 2006 presidential election.

CHAVEZ WON REFERENDUM

Many opposition leaders say the polls are controlled by the government, or reflect widespread intimidation, and that Chávez won the 2004 referendum thanks to fraud.

But while it was definitely a fraudulent electoral process, in which the rules were bent to favor Chávez, there is no smoking gun yet to contradict Carter Center and Organization of American States election observers' assessment that Chávez won the actual vote.

Chávez may still be ahead in opinion polls because, with a nearly eight-fold increase in his country's oil income, he is giving out tons of money in monthly cash bonuses for the poor, and in subsidized food for the working class through the government's popular Mercal supermarkets.

Sure, his fiery anti-capitalist rhetoric has caused massive capital flight, the closing of more than 7,000 private companies, hundreds of thousands of layoffs and higher poverty rates.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that growing poverty will hurt Chávez politically. On the contrary, the more the poor depend on his financial largess, the more political control he has over them. As long as our potential ''Lebon Prize'' winner is awash in petrodollars, poverty may even play in his favor.



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