What if the state of the world were measured by its majority?
What real democracy looks like: a communal council in Merida votes for its electoral commission in July 2010. Photo by Tamara Pearson.
By Tamara Pearson, Merida, Venezuela
December 30, 2010 -- Venezuelanalysis.com -- The rich and their golf courses. From their perspective the whole world is one -- a wonderland of hillocks and streams and games made just for them, watered without thought for drought, and the world’s poor nowhere to be seen. But a bit of the map has said it doesn’t want to be a golf course. The rich, sweaty and sulking, arm themselves with reports, statistics, surveys, foundations, institutes and “causes” and set out to prove that Venezuela is burning and broken, its economy rumbling, its health system out of order, and its politics repressive.
In fact, Venezuela has the worst economy in the world, according to a Newsweek study in August 2010.
The study ranked the world’s 100 “Best Countries” (read biggest countries; read excluding the little islands) according to five factors. In one factor, “economic dynamism”, the US ranked second place and Venezuela 100th. The factors the study used to calculate these rankings included “productive growth”, services as a percentage of GDP, an “innovation index” calculated by the World Economic Forum and “ease of doing business”, which “ranks economies from 1 to 183 on the regulatory environment’s conduciveness to business operation”.
For the US to have the second-best economy, Newsweek clearly forgot to include factors such as “trillions in debt”, “caused a world financial crisis”, “job and home loss” and “bank collapses”. Or perhaps Newsweek didn’t forget, but rather by "economic dynamism" meant "most capitalist country", because in 2009 the number of millionaires in the US rose by 16%, corporations made record-breaking profits and CEOs received record-breaking bonuses.
In education, Venezuela Newsweek ranked 48th, well behind my native Australia, even though university education is free here, unlike in Australia. Even though university students get free lunch and dinner and public transport, and Australian students do not. (And the barrio child whispered to no one that her mother, who had never finished high school was now getting a degree, that more people than ever before were studying in Venezuela).
In health care, Newsweek ranked Venezuela 42nd and the US 26th, based on life expectancy. (And the barrio child, adjusting her new glasses given to her by the eye mission as she sat on an abandoned and rusted car in front of her school, whispered to no one that her teachers regularly took them to the free dental clinics, that on Fridays the Cubans organised free community sports, and how the Barrio Adentro doctors made sure all the kids in the barrio were up to date with their injections.)
Venezuela’s political environment ranked was 77th, compared to the US’s 14th. [The right-wing] Freedom House based the rankings on the countries’ electoral process, political participation, functioning government, freedom of expression and belief, and political stability. It defined the latter as “political risk faced by governments, corporations and investors”. (And the socialist left whispered to almost no one, for the umpteenth time ... but in Venezuela there’s been 16 elections in 11 years, there is the ability to recall, there is political participation for everyone through communal councils, higher voter turnouts [at least double the US], and the US only has a choice between two almost identical, pro-business parties.
(If democracy is so great in the US or Australia, why do people there hate politics so much? In Australia, politics is lies, talking heads [usually white, old male heads], it is uninspiring and unrepresentative. Here, election days are calm, and even joyful events. Venezuelans’ involvement in national and regional elections is reflected in their ability to organise their own communal council elections. They know how to make their own ballot papers and electoral registry, and how to organise the division of labour on voting day. Come the voting day to elect the spokespeople, here in my communal council 20 of us stayed up late into the night, sharing bread and observing the counting with more anticipation than watching the soccer.)
Newsweek is not the only one crying out Venezuela’s economic and social gloom. The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington that makes recommendations to “strengthen American democracy”, said in a July 2010 report on Latin Americ's economic recovery, “Venezuela is now at a historical low in terms of economic performance, not necessarily in levels but certainly in growth terms.”
In June 2010, New York-based Morgan Stanley, provider of global financial services for corporations and governments, in an effort to protect its clients which the organisation itself describes as “ultra-high net worth individuals, families and related institutions”, expressed concern over “Venezuela’s economic outlook as investment plunges”, citing nationalisations and apparent waning oil output.
The Miami Herald, probably the revolution’s fiercest foreign media bully, wrote on November 5, 2010, of a World Bank report that said Venezuela was the country with the worst business climate in Latin America and that it was “less risky to invest in Haiti and Surinam than in the Bolivarian nation”. (Haiti and its earthquakes – of course it is well known how profitable wrecked cities are.)
The report, Doing Business 2011: Making a Difference for Entrepreneurs, ranked Venezuela 172 out of 183 countries, in its ability to engage in international trade, tax payments, opening and closing of companies, and protecting investors.
Venezuela's daily El Universal in a September 10 article rejoiced as Venezuela “occupied the last places” (sic) in the Global Competitive Index (GCI) put together by the World Economic Forum. According to the index, Venezuela ranked 122 out of 139 countries in the 2010-2011 period, a drop from a rank of 113 in the period before. Venezuela was last of the Latin American countries. According to El Universal, the study showed that currency exchange controls, political instability, restrictions and labour regulations, government bureaucracy and inflation are the main obstacles to doing business in Venezuela.
The study also said that Venezuela ranked last out of the 139 countries for property rights. (And the barrio tizana vendor wondered what kind of property they meant; the right to water, the right to basic food, the right to housing, or the right of Banco Federal, for example, to run on below minimum liquid assets and still not be nationalised as it was recently.)
Finally, there was no Eurocentrism in a Freedom House/UN Human Development Index report (written about by El Universal on December 13, 2010) which ranked all European countries, plus New Zealand, as the most “complete and developed democracies”, and ranked Venezuela 76th -- last of the Latin American countries -- well behind Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Honduras. (The history student dutifully noted that the June 2009 coup in Honduras was democratic.)
Measuring elephants with straight wooden rulers
The reports and studies, beyond the rich sulking, are part of an information and ideological war that aims to delegitimise Venezuela and any other "rebellious" countries that don’t bend under the whim of US imperialism and that put the poor and working majority first.
It’s an unequal war in which the US, through so-called "human rights reports", studies, institutes and other mechanisms, judges the rest of the world, declaring who is democratic and who has freedom, according to its list of best friends and worst foes. It’s a war in which the other side is never allowed to judge the US back. The other side is often forced to whisper. Not because it is quiet, passive, small or weak, but because it lacks the resources and power.
If we could, if we owned just a little bit of the global media, we would shout out that they have made a mistake. Their calculators are upside down, their statistics are inside out. And smelling of sulphur, as Chavez might say. According to their measurements, hectic and fighting India – with its industrious self-mutilated beggars lined along the streets competing for five cents of pity, with its houses built of found rubbish squeezed into every uninhabitable space of New Delhi like railway tracks and graveyards – has a much healthier economy than happy and dancing Venezuela, where little by little the government and, importantly, organised communities, are replacing the ranchos for dignified housing and infrastructure.
When the minority rich and those representing business talk and write about the economy or human rights or politics, they use pleasant phrases like "general wellbeing" when what they really mean is their own, minority wellbeing. They calculate general happiness and freedom according to what makes them happy and free. They measure elephants with straight wooden rulers.
Also, they want the rest of the world to see the economy in their terms, to the extent that many of the poor and working class care if the rich lose money. Hence, a healthy economy for Newsweek is one where there is “ease of doing business” and low “risk faced by ... corporations and investors”.
They repeatedly refer to productive or economic growth, using GDP. Gross domestic product is basically the amount of goods and services produced in a country, and it can be calculated by output of enterprises, people’s expenditure in buying things, or producers’ incomes. The expenditure method, for example, adds up private consumption, investment, government spending and exports minus imports.
The final number is based on the “market” value of the goods and services, not on their social utility. It’s a measurement that assumes that consuming more than we need is good. Typical of capitalism, what the products are don’t matter, only the final dollar amount. So, under GDP, high spending on war or high spending on health care is the same thing. Oil spills (because there is a cleanup cost) add value to the GDP, and things like child rearing, housework, volunteer and community work, and even freeware software creation, don’t count at all because no money is directly involved.
The production process – whether it is sustainable or environmentally damaging, and workers’ wages and conditions – doesn’t affect the GDP, and, because of wealth disparities and a growing super-wealthy class, GDP per capita can increase while the earnings of the poorer majority decrease or increase at a slower rate.
The international private media has celebrated that Venezuela is technically in a recession, meaning negative GDP growth. Although it also entered into the recession later than other countries, the media is gloating that Venezuela will be the “last Latin American country to come out of [it]”, that is, the global recession as a result of the so called “economic crisis” (a hypocritical term that recognises sudden high rates of unemployment in "First World" countries as a crisis, but the ongoing high unemployment and extreme poverty in many "Third world" countries is not described as an ongoing crisis).
The media mentions Venezuela’s recession, but it never mentions that the government has maintained social spending levels during it. Its social spending over the last 10 years has been an average 60.6% of income according to AVN. Other governments around the world have taken advantage of the economic crisis to cut social spending, increase university fees and raise the retirement age.
During the GDP decrease in Venezuela, wealth disparity and extreme poverty have also decreased. On December 28, Elias Eljuri of the Venezuelan National Statistics Institute (INE) predicted that for the last half of 2010 Venezuela’s growth will be close to 0% and next year it will be around 2%. In 2009, when oil prices plummeted, the GDP contracted by 3.3% and by 5.2% during the first quarter of the year. Nevertheless, extreme poverty dropped to 7.1% this year, from 7.3% in 2009 and 40% in 1996, according to Eljuri.
According to the Gini coefficient Venezuela has the least wealth disparity in Latin America and equality has increased from a figure of .498 in 1998 to .412 this year.
Further, since GDP only includes money exchanges, it makes a world of people invisible and unmeasured. Not only do housewives not count, but there are whole groups of people and aspects of Venezuela’s economy that aren’t reflected well, or at all, in the GDP calculations. These include the illegal or parallel economy, the whole informal sector, below-inflation loans provided by the government to support cooperatives, communal councils and other collective initiatives that counts for less in the GDP because the loans are "cheaper", and other government spending such as the eye operations to restore sight. Were those operations paid for privately, they would cost more and therefore add more to GDP.
`Shop-happy capitalist country'
The mainstream media and reports characterising Venezuela’s economy as "dismal", not only ignore what is more important, but are also quite wrong. Despite significant political changes and growing grassroots empowerment, Venezuela is still a shop-happy capitalist country, in which conditions for business have actually significantly improved under the Chavez government.
Newsweek and the Miami Herald should to do the right thing and come to Venezuela, to Merida right now and observe the Christmas consumerism. They would see the stalls crammed into the streets around the plaza, busy from 8 in the morning until dark, selling everything from wrapping paper, to fireworks, to shoes, shirts, inflatable Spiderman dolls, overpriced popcorn, ham bread and hallacas. People crowd into restaurants and the traffic piles up Avenues 4 and 3 as shoppers spill out onto the road.
Venezuela’s GDP per capita was US$13,100 in 2009, higher than most Latin American countries, and 37th out of 164 countries, according to the World Bank. Not only that, but overall, GDP has actually markedly increased more under Chavez than under previous governments. According to Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) figures and Oilwars.blogspot.com, in the six years before Chavez the GDP increased by a total of 2.1%, compared to his first eight years in which it increased by 30.3%. Keep in mind those years included the bosses' petroleum strike, but also, later, higher petroleum selling prices. Using the same time periods, other specific industries like manufacturing decreased (by 15.9%) before Chavez but increased by 34.3% during his government. The numbers for commerce are even more extreme: -4.5% and 76.3%.
The private sector has benefited from this revolution, as the general population has greater purchasing power due to a constantly increasing minimum wages, subsidised food and increased free social services. In 2006, it grew by 10.3% compared to the public sector’s 1.7%.
What if the state of the world were measured by the majority?
So why bully Venezuela? Why does the Brookings Institute say Venezuela’s economy is at a “historical low”, when it isn’t? Apart from the slight possibility of nationalisation of larger, essential industries, pesky labour regulations, and some difficulty importing due to currency control, businesses have little to lose here. But Chavez called Bush the devil. And Venezuela is organising an alternative trading currency to the dollar (the sucre). And for once, the poor are being prioritised. Venezuela is not a socialist country (yet), but it represents an alternative path to big business feet kissing.
The media wants to take Venezuela’s crispy green hope by the neck and drown it in a bath of omissions, statistical manipulations and emotional lies.
A few years ago, at a government youth training camp in the Merideñan Andes, a Cuban from the sports mission told the young Venezuelans, “In my country we are rich.” He smiled, “We have all the education and health that we need.”
What if Venezuela’s economy and politics were instead measured by us and for us; by the workers, the poor, the housewives, the youth, the racially marginalised – by the majority?
Perhaps we would adjust GDP by a third factor: the level of violent, economic and political abuse the country has been subject to by imperialist countries. We would make the statistics tell the stories, like the ever common one here of the elderly widow, who, like so many elderly, couldn’t stop talking the first time she came to a communal council meeting because she was lonely. She became active in her community, chaired her first meeting, and was elected onto the finance committee.
We might measure cultural aspirations; the desire of the population to write poetry, sing, paint, dance and learn to express themselves. An index of cultural passivity verses cultural activity, where culture is something questioning and created rather than something watched and absorbed. In Venezuela, this would include the cultural ministry’s yearly book fairs; the publisher El Perro y la Rana that prints books en masse and sells them at extremely cheap prices, and opens up the possibility of being published to all writers and poets, not just a limited elite; the free concerts; the boom in alternative and community radio; the community libraries; and more.
How about an apathy and alienation index: an index that counts and measures depression, the number of youth hanging on street corners and avoiding eye contact, the blankness on the buses, the unrequited anger of a smoking woman swearing in a pub, the number of neighbours known, the number of political conversations, the level of support from society that a person feels, and how connected they are to their work and their land. In Venezuela there is a humble epidemic of political conversations and arguments in cafes and pubs, taxis, on campus, over breakfast at home, even under the sun on the beach. In my community, we know most of our neighbours by name, as well as their jobs, state of health and concerns.
And how do you measure the extent to which a country has recovered its history? Not the plastic history with its individual heroes, its emphasis on dates, its glorification of war and conquest, its lack of understanding of class – the history written by white men, where a single person “discovered” an inhabited continent, written as a fairy tale, as a happy nationalist far-away event rather than something for analysising and understanding. Rather, how much has Venezuela recovered its peoples’ history, the one that explains its conditions now, that remembers the maltreatment, exploitation and struggle, and that gives it back its dignity and identity? Government media and publications have emphasised Venezuela’s history within a Spanish and US imperialist context, but there is some way to go in terms of emphasising more the important role of collective struggle and of women.
How about a delusion index: what if we were to rank countries according to the percentage of people who believe that buying new things is the secret to happiness, according to the number of women and men who believe that beauty is nothing more than clothes and a painted face, the number of children who believe the same, those who believe that television is a reflection of real life, those who believe they are not being exploited by their bosses, those who believe that Hollywood actors are the embodiment of the best kind of human being, the number of people who think milk is made in a factory not on a farm and the number of people who believe we are not screwing the planet and that poverty is natural and the rich work hard.
We could also measure the awareness of the law and of rights and responsibilities? In Australia and the US, how many people know of their right to food, health, equality and education, and are prepared to defend it?
Can any country compare to Venezuela where the laws are sold in the street, are discussed by citizens before they are passed, are debated and read together in groups on campus and in the communities, and where almost everyone has their own little blue copy of the constitution?
Finally, we might consider an overall humanity index; the country’s treatment of its disabled, its homeless, its mentally ill, its drug addicts, its elderly, its confused, as well as its treatment of other countries – with solidarity or with bombs and condescension?
Point of view
The real state of Venezuela’s economy and political life depends on point of view. Perhaps for Newsweek writers or managers, Venezuela has the worst economy and is a festering disaster. But for the poor of Venezuela, activists in other countries, the ignored, the exiled, the silenced and repressed, Venezuela is not a utopia, but it is the beginning of fresh hope.
[Tamara Pearson is an Australian socialist and solidarity activist living in Merida, Venezuela. This article first appeared at Venezuelanalysis.com and is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]