The Oppenheimer Report

Andres Oppenheimer: Venezuela lags behind in social gains


Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s endorsement of Venezuela’s interim president Nicolás Maduro in Sunday’s elections has perpetuated one of the biggest myths in Latin American politics — that the Venezuelan government, despite its mistakes, has done more than others to help the poor.

Lula, who enjoys popularity despite recent reports of his involvement in a political scandal that has already landed his former chief of staff in prison, said on April 1 that Maduro has followed late President Hugo Chávez’s legacy of using Venezuela’s huge oil income “to defend the poorest.’’

But new data show that, despite having benefitted from the biggest oil bonanza in recent memory, Venezuela not only has the highest inflation rate in Latin America, record crime rates and growing food and electricity shortages, but has also done poorly in poverty reduction when compared with its neighbors.

While Venezuela’s poverty rate has fallen from 48 percent to 27 percent of the population since Chávez took office in 1999, Peru has reduced poverty from 49 percent to 27 percent of the population over the same period, and Chile from 21 to 11 percent, according to U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) figures.

Interestingly, Peru, Chile and other countries have cut poverty rates while attracting investments and diversifying their exports, while Venezuela’s free-spending populist fiesta has scared away investors and has left the country more oil-dependent than ever.

Venezuela’s Andres Bello Catholic University poverty expert Luis Pedro España projects that Venezuela’s poverty levels will rise by at least 5 percent this year, starting shortly after the elections, when several major currency devaluations in recent months translate into bigger price increases.

On the health front, the Chávez government’s record has been at best mixed when compared with other Latin American nations.

Venezuela’s infant mortality has dropped since 1999, but less than in Brazil, and about the same as in Peru, ECLAC figures show.

In some cases, such as mothers’ mortality at birth, or measles vaccinations, Venezuela is worse off than it was when Chávez took office.

Venezuela’s rate of mortality of mothers at birth has risen from 91 to 92 per 100,000 over the past decade, according to ECLAC figures. Over the same time, Peru reduced its rate of mothers’ mortality at birth from 120 to 67, and Chile from 29 to 5, the figures show.

Likewise, the percentage of Venezuelan children vaccinated against measles has decreased from 84 percent in 1999 to 79 percent today. Comparatively, other countries like Peru, Chile, Brazil and Colombia have increased their percentages of children vaccinated against measles, according to ECLAC’s data.

On education, despite Maduro’s claim that there has been an “education miracle,’’ the U.N. agency’s figures show that Venezuela has expanded its coverage, but other Latin American nations have done better.

While the percentage of youths aged 15-19 who have completed elementary school rose from 90 percent to 95 percent since 1999 in Venezuela, the percentage gains were even larger in Peru (from 89 percent to 96 percent) and Colombia (from 88 percent to 95 percent).

And a new study released last week by Venezuela’s Catholic Andres Bello University professor Luis Bravo Jauregui shows that despite Chávez’s 2005 bombastic proclamation that “Venezuela is 100 percent free of illiteracy,’’ nearly 5 percent of Venezuelans remain illiterate. The study cites Venezuela’s official 2011 census figures.

Ironically, Chávez’s self-described “socialist revolution” has resulted in a decline of Venezuela’s public school system and in a boom of private schools.

Since 2004, the number of children enrolled in public elementary schools has declined from 2.9 million to 2.8 million, while the number of children in private schools has risen from 480,000 to 613,000, the study shows.

My opinion: Forgive me if I have made you dizzy with so many figures, but it’s time to separate Venezuelan propaganda from facts. And it’s time to make it clear that if Chávez’s populist corruptocracy has won so many elections, it has been thanks to its petro-dollar cash subsidies that have left the country bankrupt.

The bottom line is that the Venezuelan government and its propagandists — like Lula da Silva — are right when they cite some of Venezuela’s social gains, but what they are not telling you is that several other Latin American countries have done much better in their fight against poverty. And they have done so without sacrificing their democratic institutions, without dividing families and friends, and without ending up with half-empty supermarket shelves.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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