Johann Hari: The lies being told about Hugo Chavez

In his presidency, the proportion of Venezuela's GDP in the private sector has actually increased
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The Independent Online

After the landslide victory comes the landslide of lies. Last week, Hugo Chavez was re-elected as President of Venezuela with 63 per cent of the vote - in an election declared "totally free and fair" by the international legal monitors, in a country where almost all of the media militantly opposes him.

I know the reason why. Her name is Maria Gonzalez. She is a lined, stooped 60 year-old grandmother I stumbled across last year in Barrio Neuva Tacagua, a fetid slum made of tin and mud in the high hills around Caracas. Maria grew up in a Venezuela that was dripping in oil wealth - but she never went to school and she never saw a doctor, because the country's petro-profits surged only into the bank accounts of the country's 25 richest families. Like the vast majority of Venezuelans, she was left to live and die in makeshift rust-and-cardboard shacks.

The day I met her, Maria wrote her name - in shaky handwriting, on a blackboard - for the first time in her life. Since Hugo Chavez was first elected, in another free and open election in 1998, Maria's world has begun to change. The new President began to use the country's oil wealth to build clinics where Maria could be treated free of charge, to subsidise food prices for the 70 per cent of Venezuelans who, like her, live in grinding, binding poverty, and to establish mass literacy programmes to teach his country - and a million Marias - how to read.

But somehow, somewhere in-between Maria's Venezuela and the newspapers and television screens of the US and Britain, Chavez undergoes a strange transformation. He ceases to be the most popular leader in the democratic world, and instead morphs into "a grotesque dictator", "like Hitler, Stalin or Mao".

Why is that? I know of only one persuasive explanation: these people reporting on Chavez are deeply ingrained in a political culture that views the rest of the world as a trough for corporate profit. When a developing-world regime funnels its profits to a handful of rich, they instinctively describe it as aiding "regional stability" and "democratic". But when a government uses its resource-riches for people who live in slums, they become suspect and "a threat to stability".

Let's go through the lies about Hugo Chavez one by one to see how this deception occurs:

Lie Number One: Chavez is a dictator. In reality, he has been chosen by the Venezuelan people in elections praised by the Carter Centre - the gold standard for election monitoring across the world - as "impressively open". This is hardly, as some critics who have never visited Venezuela jeer, because the people are pickled in Chavista propaganda. Pick up any of Venezuela's seven national newspapers any day and six of them will blast you with ferocious anti-Chavez invective. I have been to dictatorships - from Saddam Hussein's to Bashar al-Asad's - and they are nothing like this.

Lie Number Two: You can tell what Chavez is really like by looking at his allies. It is true Chavez has allied himself with some repellent dictatorships, praising Fidel Castro and - when I met up with him earlier this year - Robert Mugabe. Similarly, Tony Blair has allied himself with the torturers and murderers Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Communist Party and the House of Saud, and found praise for them all. Does this mean Britain is not a democracy? All democratic governments make unsavoury alliances but it does not reveal the true nature of the government in Caracas any more than in Westminster.

Lie Number Three: Chavez is suppressing human rights. This accusation is screamed loudly but with little evidence. Sometimes, the critics claim there are 200 political prisoners in Venezuela. Here's the reality. In 2002, an anti-democratic junta consisting of oil barons, media bosses and a few disgruntled generals kidnapped Hugo Chavez and announced they were taking over the country. They dissolved parliament and the courts, and announced a military lock-down on the streets, threatening to shoot anybody who came out. The Bush administration jumped in praising the coup with suspicious speed. With incredible courage, more than a million democrats descended from the barrios on to the streets around the Miraflores palace in Caracas, refusing to allow their elected President to be toppled. The soldiers holding Chavez joined the rebellion, and he was returned to power.

The only "political prisoners" in Venezuela - the so-called 200 - are the people who directly planned and participated in this attempt to destroy the country's democracy. If a foreign-funded group had kidnapped Tony Blair, trashed Parliament and the Old Bailey, and placed Britain under military curfew, would we imprison so few of the guilty?

Lie Number Four: Chavez is a communist who is determined to nationalise the whole of the country's economy. This is a Rumsfeldian lie that, ironically, is also reinforced by some of Chavez's old left supporters in Britain, such as that smirking Stalinist carbuncle George Galloway. In reality, Chavez is a European-style social democrat who believes in an active government that lifts up the poor alongside a vigorous market economy. He calls this "21st-century socialism". The tragedy is that in Latin America, under the heel of the IMF and US power, it takes a revolutionary to be a social democrat.

The evidence for this is pretty overwhelming. During Chavez's presidency, the proportion of Venezuela's GDP that is in the private sector has actually increased, and the Caracas stock exchange is at an all-time high. Chavez has not nationalised land; instead, he has redistributed it, breaking the vast unused landed estates of the rich into smaller packages for landless peasants. For all his rhetorical praise for Fidel Castro, Chavez's policies are much more like Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act of 1862, which doled out the land in the West to poor people who wanted to settle there.

While market fundamentalism and communism deflate an economy - look at the history of Latin America for proof - mixed social democratic states work: Venezuela grew by 12 per cent last year. The anti-Chavez critics carp that this is due to soaring global petrol prices. How do they explain that in the 1970s when the oil price was - adjusted for inflation - just as high, the Venezuelan economy hardly grew at all?

No, it's not just the size of your oil money that counts, it's what you do with it. Chavez is using his petro-dollars to carry out the will of the people - to lift them out of their slums. A woman like Maria does not need to be tricked or intimidated into voting for Chavez. She is doing it for a simple reason: he has kept his promises to her. No amount of lies can bury this bright, shimmering reality.