The Inflation of Hugo Chávez

Hugo Chávez, the recently deceased Venezuelan president, oversaw a sharp drop in poverty and included millions of marginalized citizens in politics for the first time. But poverty has plummeted in almost every country in the region since the start of the century – and at a far lower cost.

MEXICO CITY – Supporters of Hugo Chávez, the recently deceased Venezuelan president, and even many of his critics, have repeatedly emphasized two supposed achievements that will burnish his legacy. First, the share of people living in poverty plummeted to approximately 28% in 2012, from a peak of 62% in 2003 (though it was 46% three years earlier, at the beginning of Chávez’s first term). Second, he gave to a majority of Venezuelans a sense of identity, pride, and dignity long denied them by a corrupt, elitist, light-skinned oligarchy.

Both claims, however, are only partly true, and only partly account for Chávez’s recurrent electoral victories – 13 of 14 popular votes, including referenda. As for the first claim, both The Economist and the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa were right to put Chávez’s achievement in perspective. Almost every country in Latin America has reduced poverty significantly since the beginning of this century, with the extent of progress depending on baselines and cut-off dates, good years and bad years, the reliability of official data, and other factors.

The reasons for this progress are well known: with the exception of 2001 and 2009, these were boom years for commodity-exporting countries like Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and, of course, Venezuela, as well as for manufacturing-based economies, like Mexico. Furthermore, during these nearly 15 years, most governments have managed their accounts responsibly: small or no fiscal deficits, low inflation, well-targeted anti-poverty programs, and so on.

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