Monday, 1 April 2013

Why was Hugo Chavez so Popular? A look at the Numbers

Reading the newspapers, we see that Hugo Chavez was an authoritarian demagogue. A “would-be dictator”, no less. Why then, did he and his party win 15 of 16 elections and referenda in just 14 years, while maintaining consistently high approval ratings from the Venezuelan public? In short, why was he so popular?

There are a wide range criticisms that one can make about the Chavez administration, although many of them have been debunked in a previous post. This piece, however, will not catalog them. This piece will analyse the policy decisions which have generated sustained support for the Chavez administration, using data from readily-accessible, unimpeachable international sources, such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program and Latinobarometro, a Chilean polling organization that is cited frequently in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. This is to make sure there can be no questioning the data's validity. It is also important to note that Venezuelan sources usually show even bigger improvements. Unlike most people who write about Venezuela, I don't want you to just believe me, I want you to check up on me and scrutinise my figures, which is why links to the figures are provided. However, in order to judge the Chavez administration, some context is needed beforehand. 

Venezuela Before Chavez

Despite producing more than $300 billion of oil wealth between 1958 and 1998, the equivalent of 20 Marshall Plans, the majority of Venezuelans were living in shocking slums (McCaughan, M. The Battle of Venezuela, pp. 29-32). By the 1990s, quality of life indicators for ordinary Caracas residents were slightly below Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Between 1970-1997, workers' incomes declined by 50%, while poverty doubled between 1984-1991. There was widespread repression, with the previous 3 presidents all using censors and all suspending constitutional guarantees. The two main political parties, almost indistinguishable in ideologies, shared the oil wealth between them, blocking out any third parties. Just in case, they rigged elections anyway, as 89% of Venezuelans believe.

 The LA Times' Bart Jones commented that Andres Velasquez, the man who came 4th in the 1993 election may have received the most votes (Jones, B. Hugo!, p. 184). Inflation reached 103% and there was considerable repression, like the infamous Caracazo massacre, where Jones describes “mass graves” filled with “mutilated corpses” of all ages, “tied up corpses” with “bullets in the back of the head” and Red Cross workers gunned down in the street (Jones, Hugo!, p.124).


This is the big one. It is often mentioned in passing in the press, but never explored. Let's do so. According to the World Bank, poverty has halved in 10 years, while extreme poverty has dropped by around 2/3. Here they are juxtaposed with Brazil, a country lauded for its achievements in poverty reduction. Given Venezuela's population, that equates to around 9 million people (1/3 of the entire population) pulled out of poverty.

 Both the United Nations Development Project and the World Bank agree that unemployment dropped from over 11% to under 8%.

Child malnutrition has dropped by 2/3. Fully 1.2 million children were malnourished when Chavez came to power.

 Venezuela's GDP per capita has increased, as has GNI per capita. Even taking into account the high inflation, GDP has risen.

In Foreign Affairs, the flagship US political science journal, Bernardo Alvarez shows that DataAnalysis published a report which found a 445% income increase among the poorer classes of Venezuela and a 194% increase for the upper classes, due to the huge economic boom driven by the state. However, these measures only take into account financial improvements. It is to non-financial improvements we now turn.


The Chavez administration has accomplished the task of creating a universal healthcare system from out of the ground. Health expenditures per person have tripled.

As a result, child mortality has continued to drop. The number of public doctors rose 1,100%, from just 1628 for the entire nation in 1998 to 19,571 in 2007. These doctors had given 225 million free consultations by 2007 (Cannon, B. Hugo Chavez andthe Bolivarian Revolution, p. 93). 51,000 forgotten Venezuelans were given operations to restore their sight.


Voter turnout in the 2012 elections was over 80%, higher than any US election in history. Under Chavez, nearly two and a half times as many people vote as in the 1990s. (1998 turnout: 6.3million, 2012 turnout: 14.8million). Jimmy Carter and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Carter Center recently stated “the election processin Venezuela is the best in the world.” The European Union Election Observation Mission agreed, saying “the system developed in Venezuela is probably the most advanced in the world to date”. Canadian NGO, the foundation for Democratic Change gave the Venezuelan election 78/100 (very satisfactory). It gave the 2012 US Presidential elections 54.5/100(unsatisfactory). One year pre-Chavez, only 11% of Venezuelans claimed elections were clean. By 2006, 2/3 believed they were.

Venezuela has by far the largest number of political parties in Latin America, and their confidence in them is the joint-highest in the region. This is in contrast to a 1990 poll which found only 4% approval of parties. (Buxton, J. Case Studies in Latin American PoliticalEconomy, p. 177)

In 2002, 80% of Venezuelans believed  that “my vote influences policy.”

In 2009, Venezuelans were asked to rate their democracy, on a scale of 1-10, by far the most popular answer was 10. In fact, Venezuelans believe there is about as much freedom of speech in Venezuela as the Spanish do in Spain.

Women's Rights

Venezuela was an uber-machismo society (think Mad Men). The new Constitution was written with gender neutral words. Housewives' work is officially recognised as work and housewives get paid by the government to work. The women's bank was set up to provide loans to women. There has been a 300% increase in the amount of female representatives in parliament. Venezuelan women enjoy the third longest paid maternity leave in the world, after Norway and Canada. It is a long way from a feminist's dream. But it has considerably improved.


Venezuela's economy has more than tripled in size since Chavez took office. Venezuela's stock market is the highest-performing in the world.

Venezuelans are among the most optimistic about their economy in Latin America. Contrary to what you might have heard, Venezuelan inflation has plummeted since Chavez took office- down from 103% one year pre-Chavez to just 18.6% this year.

This despite a large increase in spending power in ordinary Venezuelans. How are they doing this? They must be racking up huge debts, right? Wrong again.


Thanks to MissionRobinson, more than 1.5 million forgotten Venezuelans have learned to read and write for the first time (Jones, B. Hugo!, p. 8). Despite its modest population, Venezuela has the 5th largest student body in the world, having tripled to 2 million in 2010 (7% of population) (S Brouwer, Revolutionary Doctors, p. 147) University education is free in public universities. Nearly half a million street children are now in school and dropout rates are very low.


According to the GINI index, in 1998, Venezuela was the most unequal country in the most unequal region in the world. In contrast to the USA where inequality is rising, inequality has dropped from 0.49 to 0.39 and is now the lowest in Latin America.


Venezuela has taken the lead in integrating Latin America. Organizations like the Bank of the SouthCELAC, Unasur and ALBA have been formed to help integrate Latin American nations. CELAC is an anti-imperialist union of co-operation which includes all the countries of the Western Hemisphere except the United States and Canada, who were not invited. The President of Bolivia stated that CELAC's purpose is

"a weapon against imperialism. It is necessary to create a regional body that excludes the United States and Canada. ...Where there are U.S. military bases that do not respect democracy, where there is a political empire with his blackmailers, with its constraints, there is no development for that country, and especially there is no social peace and, therefore, it is the best time for prime ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean to gestate this great new organization without the United States to free our peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean."

Venezuela is, by a considerable margin, the most admired country in Latin America. In 1996, it was only the 6th.

Most of these highly accessible facts are easily available online, in English. Yet almost none of them have appeared in the US media. The question is why? That is a question that would require an essay in itself.

For all the achievements, serious and pressing problems persist in the police force, with violent crime and drugs, with unemployment, housing, public services and general infrastructure. With Chavez's death, it is now up to whomever succeeds him to deal with these persistent problems. 


  1. Where are the graphs about Venezuela murder rates from 1998 to 2013?

    1. Hi Carlos, you can see them in a previous post -

    2. Cuando realmente se consolide la disminución de la pobreza, disminución de la ignorancia, con más salud y oportunidades de empleo..... LA INSEGURIDAD.... disminuirá.... PROGRAMAS DEL GOBIERNO QUE CONTINUA BATALLANDO....
      En Venezuela la inseguridad es la misma que en toda latino-américa.....sólo que los medios de comunicación utilizan este argumento para criticar al GOBIERNO.

  2. Murder rates, kidnap rates, theft, in fact any rate about violence would be good to show.

    1. The only rates which are easy to find are the homicide rates, which were shown here


      or the raw data can be found here-!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=intentional_homicides&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:VEN:BRA:COL:SLV&ifdim=region&tstart=889142400000&tend=1267833600000&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false

    2. The police itself admits that the homicide rates available on international platforms and studies are complete BS. Many many deaths are never reported nor claimed.

  3. see also

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. No, I don't want to buy your viagra pills, thanks.

  5. I just know this from here. Facts of Chaves, or Controversy of Hugo are same buddy :D

    good news