By Joe Emersberger & Justin Podur – Sep 28, 2021
Joe Emersberger and Justin Podur look at some of the mainstream mistruths about Venezuela.
The following piece is adapted from the authors’ new book, Extraordinary Threat: The US Empire, the Media and 20 Years of Coup Attempts in Venezuela, published by Monthly Review Press.
In his State of the Union address on February 6, 2019, Donald Trump said:
We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom—and we condemn the brutality of the Maduro regime, whose socialist policies have turned that nation from being the wealthiest in South America into a state of abject poverty and despair.
Trump’s ridiculous comment was not considered controversial, because the Western media, including the anti-Trump outlets like the New York Times, have spent many years conveying a lie: that Venezuela had been very prosperous and democratic until Hugo Chávez, and then his successor Nicolás Maduro, came along and ruined everything. If readers believe that, then they may indeed wonder, “Why shouldn’t the US government help Venezuelans return to that prosperous state?”
But this attitude is the result of common deceptions about Venezuela’s economic history, and it ignores how the rise of Chávez actually brought democratic reform, not regression, to Venezuela. The story the Western media tell should instead make people wonder how Chavismo could have become the dominant political force if everything had once been wonderful in Venezuela.
‘Once the richest’
This vague claim about Venezuela’s economic history, in various forms—“once prosperous,” “once the richest”—has become ubiquitous in the Western media. A Nexis search of English-language newspapers for “Venezuela” and “once prosperous” turned up 563 hits between 2015 and 2019.
The “once prosperous” claim cannot refer to Venezuela’s natural wealth: The huge oil and gold reserves are still there. The clear intent of describing Venezuela as “once prosperous” is to suggest that living conditions were “once” those of a rich country.
So by what measure was Venezuela “once” wealthy? When exactly was that? What is the ranking criteria being used to say it was one of the wealthiest? Was it once in the top 10% (by whatever measure)? The top 50%?
It’s always implied that Venezuela’s economic glory days were in the pre-Chávez era, but the financial journalist Jason Mitchell has made this claim explicitly. Writing for the UK Spectator (2/18/17), he said, “Twenty years ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the world.” So Venezuela had supposedly enjoyed its wealthy status in 1997, the year before Hugo Chávez was first elected. That’s utter nonsense.
In reality, when Chávez was first elected in 1998, Venezuela had a 50% poverty rate, despite having been a major oil exporter for several decades. It started exporting oil in the 1920s, and it was only in the early 1970s that the biggest Middle Eastern oil producers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, surpassed Venezuela in production. In 1992, the New York Times (2/5/92) reported that “only 57% of Venezuelans are able to afford more than one meal a day.” Does that sound like “one of the richest countries in the world”? Obviously not, but it is worth saying more about the statistics that can be used to mislead people about Venezuela’s economic history.
Income and distribution
Economists typically use GDP per capita to assess how rich a country is. It is basically a measure of the average income per person. If journalists cared to be at all precise when they say that Venezuela had once been “rich,” then that’s a statistic they’d cite.
The chart below shows World Bank data for Venezuela’s real (inflation-adjusted) GDP per capita since 1960, and it contradicts Western media’s relentlessly insinuated story that a transition from prosperity to poverty took place because of Chavismo. Real GDP per capita peaked in 1977, near the end of an oil boom, then went into a long-term decline. When Chávez took office in 1999, it was at one of its lowest points in decades. Then it was driven even lower by the first two attempts to oust Chávez: the April 2002 coup and, several months later, a shutdown of the state oil company—the “oil strike.” By 2013, real GDP per capita recovered dramatically, nearly reaching its 1977 peak.