Wednesday, March 6, 2013
With the passing of Hugo Chavez, there is much discussion of his legacy. Leftists are defending him as a great champion of the poor, and more-or-less everyone else condemns him as a demagogue who mismanaged the country.
I prefer to form my views in light of the data, and to that end I present two graphs. Since Chavez was in power from 1999 to 2013, I make my graphs from 1990 to the most recent available data (either 2011 or 2012, depending on source). This allows us to see the prior context as well as the Chavez era. Then I compare Venezuela to four leading Latin American countries - Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, so we can compare how Venezuela was run to somewhat comparable economies. None are a perfect match of course.
First we can look at GDP/capita (from the IMF, here taken at purchasing power parity to facilitate international comparison, and with 1990=1):
On this measure, Venezuela's performance was mediocre, with something of a crisis occurring following Chavez's coming into power in 1999, and the lost ground never made up. Relative to its peers, Venezuela had the weakest performance. This is particularly notable in light of the fact that Venezuela is a significant oil exporter and should have benefited from high oil prices.
One might argue that, as a champion of the poor, it's unfair to compare Chavez on the basis of average GDP, since he was focussed on making the lot of the most vulnerable members of society better off, rather than on helping the enterprises of the rich (which might have contributed the most to GDP).
To that end, I looked at the life expectancy at birth of females (from the World Bank), which is a decent way to summarize the overall welfare of the entire society. If infant mortality is low and healthcare is good, and women are treated decently, this indicator could be high even in a society which doesn't pander to its wealthy elite. For example, European countries tend to have somewhat higher life expectancies than the US, even though their GDP/capita is generally lower.
Here are the data for the same sample of Latin American countries:
Again, Venezuela's performance under Chavez is mediocre. All the peer countries gained more ground during the 1999-2012 timeframe than Venezuela, and none experienced a setback comparable to what happened to Venezuela in the early years of Chavez's rule.
If one was to live in Latin America during this period, Chile was clearly the place to be - it did outstandingly better on both indicators than all other countries. Indeed Chile's life expectancy for women is better than that of the United States (80.7 in 2010), and comparable to that of European countries. Chile joined the OECD in 2010.
Thus criticism of Chavez as a demagogue who mismanaged the country appears to have some basis in fact.