Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lula sí, Chávez no

On November 2, Venezuela’s National Assembly approved a number of changes to the country’s constitution, proposed by President Hugo Chávez. The amended constitution will be submitted to the voters in a referendum on December 2. The changes would, among other things, abolish presidential term limits, allow the President to suspend some civil liberties by declaring a state of emergency, and allow expropriation of property without a court ruling. The stated intention of the reforms is “the construction of socialism.” Where have we heard this before?

Socialism continues to be a fatal temptation for a large segment of Latin American opinion, in part no doubt by reaction to U.S. meddling in the region through the years. There’s no question that the United States supported corrupt oligarchies in Latin America for decades. There’s also no question that socialism is a fool’s game. Reaction is a poor basis for policy, whether you’re a right-wing reactionary or a left-wing one.

If ever an ideology has been discredited by real-world experience, it’s socialism. No better system for institutionalizing penury and oppression has ever been devised. By 1989 it was clear that the most ferocious opponents of socialism were the people that had to live under it. Migration patterns are an infallible guide to quality of life, and it’s no accident that the migrant flow runs overwhelmingly out of socialist countries.

But capitalism by itself can’t provide the good life. All it does is ease the provision of material goods. You need a lot of other things along with capitalism, like the rule of law, sound institutions and social mobility lubricated by widespread education. In their absence, capitalism just gives you corrupt oligarchs and spectacular inequality. So people equate these things with capitalism and want to go back. The siren call of socialism is irresistible.

The problem is that you can’t have socialism without authoritarianism, because real thoroughgoing socialism requires the criminalization of independent economic activity, the very type of activity that provides the abundance that we take for granted. And that’s why Chávez knows he is going to need dictatorial powers in order to institute socialism.

It’s a bad bargain for Venezuela. What should we do? Nothing. Chávez is only going to hurt Venezuela, unless he gets serious about his alliances with people like Iran’s Ahmedinejad. Until Chávez makes some move that overtly harms our strategic interests, he is best left alone to get on with the business of impoverishing Venezuela. If he goes far enough down that road, the Venezuelans themselves will take care of him.

The worst thing we could do would be to make another Latin left-wing martyr out of Hugo Chávez. Because the C.I.A. aided Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973, you can’t get anybody on the left to admit that Salvador Allende was anything but a saint, even though Allende had trashed the rule of law by ignoring court decisions, creating parallel state organizations to rival any he failed to load with his supporters, decreeing expropriation of foreign property without compensation and allowing the creation of revolutionary militias under no lawful control. Martydom confers blissful oblivion.

So let’s not make a martyr of Hugo Chávez. Instead let’s watch him self-destruct, while meanwhile directing the attention of Latin Americans who want social and economic progress to the real success story in Latin America: Brazil.

Brazil is currently ruled by Luiz Inácio da Silva, nicknamed Lula, a trade union leader who was elected president in 2002. It was feared that the rabble-rousing Lula would give in to populist urges and socialist dreams and give away the store.

Instead, he chose a market-oriented finance minister and central bank chief, respected agreements with the IMF, maintained budgetary discipline and in short acted like a responsible head of government who understood how the world worked. At the same time, he instituted practical, intelligently designed programs to alleviate poverty, like tying welfare aid to education, consolidating hunger programs and strengthening infrastructure for small-scale farming.

The result? Economic growth, low inflation and the accompanying availability of credit are aiding the creation of a new middle class. Incomes for the poor are growing faster than those of the rich. Significant poverty reduction is occurring. This is happening because Lula is allowing capitalism to work.

Lula understands that socialism is candy and capitalism is vegetables. Candy’s more appealing, but it gives you a stomachache. It’s the vegetables that give you what you need. In Brazil, Mexico and yes, in Chile, where another nominally socialist president is also showing good judgment in not reversing free-market reforms, smart leaders are letting capitalism slowly bring people out of poverty. They know that there are no short cuts except to strengthen the institutional bases (like schools and fair court systems) that allow the poor to benefit from economic growth.

Meanwhile, Chávez and his protegés in Ecuador and Bolivia are offering poor Latin Americans the candy of socialism, financed by the oil boom. It will be interesting to see who’s better off in ten years or so.

Sam Reaves

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