When the world needs a rest from the shocking images of Kiev, it has stopped and stared in awe at the violence of Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela and the arrest of political prisoner Leopoldo López. But not everyone sees the obvious: Huffington Post contributor Dan Kovalik claims Venezuela is better than ever.
Kovalik, a self-proclaimed “human and labor rights lawyer,” makes three main points in the Huffington Post: that the Venezuelan economy is doing splendidly; that the anti-Chavista protests in Venezuela are “violent”; and that the United States is “openly encouraging violent regime change in Venezuela” against a legitimately elected administration. All three points are, as anyone with even a cursory understanding of Hugo Chávez’s legacy knows, laughably wrong.
Kovalik argues that the idea that Venezuela’s economy is collapsing is “not only irresponsible, but it is deeply misinformed.” The Venezuelan government is doing wonderfully, he argues, because the UN’s Human Development Index says that “since Chávez,” there has been a “steady growth in such human development indicators” as life expectancy, income, education, and equality.
Kovalik does not mention that the statistics used for these indicators come from government sources. While overtly by groups such as the World Health Organization, these larger NGOs use groups on the ground to estimate their numbers and then ask the government for their official estimates or for help with the NGO’s numbers. The WHO, for example, states on its website that estimates “are not always the same as official national estimates, although WHO whenever possible will provide Member States the opportunity [to] review and comment on data and estimates as part of country consultations.”
Compare these numbers, which sources admit are less than perfect, with the situation on the ground for the average Venezuelan. Despite being a member of OPEC, Maduro mismanaged Venezuela so badly last year that the country ran out of toilet paper. Maduro dramatically nationalized the toilet paper factories, decrying the free market. This accomplished nothing.
The toilet paper crisis is the most obvious failure of the Maduro regime. The upcoming crisis over oil prices will be a much more gradual–and much more devastating–indicator of how far Venezuela has fallen since the pre-Chávez days. According to Forbes, the price of gasoline in Venezuela for most of the Chávez era was frighteningly low: “a gallon of gas in Venezuela costs less than a penny.”
Venezuelans have become accustomed to these prices–as have Cubans, who rely on Venezuela for oil now that the Soviet Union is long gone–but the economy can no longer handle such prices, and Maduro is set to raise them. Argentine newspaper El Nacional reports that the current costs of gasoline production are 28 times that of the price of gasoline, making it a losing economic endeavor. Maduro has suggested raising prices, but it has only helped fuel revolt.
So yes, Maduro is devastating the Venezuelan economy. But the claim that Venezuela is doing just fine is the less objectionable of Kovalik’s three; he also argues that the protesters are violent while the government of Venezuela “has exercised great restraint” in confronting protesters. He argues “there is no comparison” between Venezuela and U.S. ally Colombia on their human rights records, the latter “having the dubious distinction of leading the world in forced disappearances at 50,000 and internally displaced peoples at over 5 million.”
Naturally, Kovalik does not specify that most of the disappearances and kidnappings were acts of Marxist terrorist guerrillas like the FARC or the fact that so many Colombians have been internally displaced. Kovalik also fails to mention that Colombia has a booming economy with peaceful tourist destinations and a vibrant media (who have been expelled piecemeal from the country).
But back to the point that the Venezuelan government has “exercised great restraint” against protesters. Rather than point out the individual dead protesters, many shot in the head by street gangs armed by the government, let’s let the videos of the National Guard tossing canisters of tear gas into residential buildings and shooting unarmed protesters in the streets speak for themselves:
Then there is the pesky issue of that Venezuelan election last year. Kovalik claims the fact that elections exist is enough to prove that Venezuela is a democracy, and the fact that people have been shot during protests (by the government) proves the protests are an attempt at a violent overthrow of a legitimate government. The opposition, Kovalik argues, contradicts itself because “while acknowledging these recent election results and the fact that the opposition has no electoral path to governing for two years, it nonetheless purports to be supporting democratic values by applauding the opposition’s efforts to obtain governance through violent, non-electoral means.”
First of all, not everyone in the opposition accepted these recent electoral results. Even Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition candidate who, to the irritation of many a protester, accepted his defeat during the first elections, called for a recount he never received. But more importantly, the fact that elections happen does not automatically make for a legitimate government. Opposition forces decried fraud in many voting stations, and those who tried to film the transport of ballots to counting facilities were harassed by armed state security. The Cuban government was heavily involved in counting votes, to the point that many in the opposition are concerned their country is a “colony” of the communist regime. But it was not just the opposition who cried foul; international observers concluded decisively that the election results were not legitimate.
Given the pressures that an international media and increasingly accessible technology put on a dictatorship to hide its atrocities, tyrannical leaders have resorted to this type of hybrid regime that concocts sham elections and allows the opposition at least some moments of free expression before arresting or killing them. Scholars Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way coined the term “competitive authoritarianism” for these regimes, which they define as regimes where “formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority.” They add, “Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy.”
That is a very ornate way of saying that elections are not enough to make a democracy: those elections must be free and fair. And Venezuela’s elections are the textbook definition of elections that are not.
Dismissing the struggles of the Venezuelan people as they challenge a deeply entrenched dictatorship in as glib a way as Kovalik does here is insulting to the memory of the young victims of Maduro’s tyranny–to the five official deaths attributed to Maduro this week and the higher, impossible-to-determine number of those who will give all for their country. Diminishing them as merely “white elites” (Maduro is lighter-skinned than opposition leader Leopoldo López) trying to keep the darker people of Venezuela down is disingenuous at best. At worst, it is dishonest in the service of a tyranny bordering on committing crimes against humanity.