In the face of criticism

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t often get a fair hearing in the international arena. This has become particularly clear in recent days as the efforts of the Security Forces have brought the LTTE to the very edge of collapse, with all but a sliver of its usurped territory gone, its cadres vastly reduced in number and much of its weaponry abandoned. While there are sure to be plenty of failings in the military campaign, none of which should be dismissed as insignificant whatever the results, they are rarely discussed in the proper context or with reference to the likely consequences of failing to tackle the LTTE. Outright lies are commonplace too.

I found my attention drawn away from this incredibly frustrating situation last week. Another country that is regularly subjected to just as much if not rather more of such nonsense reached a key milestone, and there was plenty to celebrate. Hugo Chavez marked ten years as president of Venezuela.

Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and the rest of the NGO circus have done at least as good a job of demonising the Venezuelan president as they have with Mahinda Rajapaksa. And Sri Lanka is fortunate that it only has to deal with misguided politicians from small European countries, because their American counterparts have played an even more active role in undermining the administration in Venezuela. They have official backing too, which helps. And CNN could definitely give the BBC a run for its money in the wilful misinterpretation of facts and promotion of dodgy expert opinions. Mahinda Rajapaksa should probably thank whoever it was that failed to gift this country with significant deposits of oil for the relative lack of interest in Sri Lanka.

Hugo Chavez has been called a lot of names over the last decade, from populist to authoritarian and from strongman to dictator. The American Defence Secretary even resorted to likening him to Adolf Hitler. The basic argument of his critics is that he is a threat to democracy, both in Venezuela and throughout the region.

I’m sure we all remember the horror that was expressed a year or so ago when the Venezuelan government called for a referendum on some amendments to their constitution, to take but one example. These included plans to abolish the existing limits on presidential terms and expand the powers available to the state in an emergency, which is what got the pundits so agitated. But it wasn’t exactly going to deliver a crushing blow to our democratic ideals. Hugo Chavez has never declared an emergency, and these measures were by no means the focus of the proposed changes. It was also suggested to guarantee free university education, offer pensions for workers in the informal sector and prohibit discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, amongst other progressive measures.

Whatever the proposals, Hugo Chavez demonstrated his commitment to democracy in his response to the poll. Despite losing by a tiny margin, he acknowledged defeat before the counting had even been finished and congratulated the opposition on its efforts. A decision to hold back on reforms and focus on the top priorities of the voters was announced shortly afterwards. Given that many regular voters didn’t participate and the no campaign only won a total of 50.7%, it was a strong endorsement of democracy in Venezuela.

Democracy has actually been under attack by opposition groups. Half a dozen years ago, they launched a military coup to take over the Venezuelan government. Hugo Chavez was held prisoner for a couple of days until massive street protests led a group of soldiers loyal to him to move to recapture power. In the meantime, the constitution had been abolished, the judiciary sacked and the national assembly dissolved. And it didn’t end there. The opposition subsequently engineered a lengthy strike in the all important oil industry, which sent the economy into a recession. Finally having opted for democracy, they refused to accept the outcome when they lost a presidential recall vote and boycotted the next elections, despite approval of the process by European Union observers.

The irony is that the American government has been implicated in many of these attempts at destabilisation. It has spent millions of dollars funding groups allied to the opposition in Venezuela, including leaders involved in the coup. American officials met with the coup leaders in advance of their power grab, and the White House recognised the new Venezuelan administration with quite unseemly haste. Regime change has been part of the American strategy for Venezuela ever since Hugo Chavez became president, and plenty of apparently well intentioned groups have shown themselves to be quite willing to help out. They certainly haven’t exposed or condemned American intentions.

Hugo Chavez would seem to be rather lucky to have made it through a decade in power. But here we come to the rest of the story. Populist, authoritarian, strongman and dictator are only some of the labels that have been applied to him. Another favourite tack of his critics is to engage in a bit of old fashioned scaremongering about communism, given that he represents the leftwing in Venezuelan politics, the implication being that he has ruined the economy and sentenced the country to eternal poverty by offering a lot of things for free.

The fact is that Hugo Chavez has delivered results for his country. A study by an American research institute that was published last week to coincide with the tenth anniversary of his election showed that poverty has been cut by about 40% over the last decade in Venezuela, while extreme poverty has come down by more than half. Inequality has also dropped from 47 to 41 on the Gini scale, while the corresponding score for America went up from 40 to 47 between 1980 and 2005.

The Venezuelan government has certainly invested a lot of money in getting social services working. Social spending per person has more than tripled in real terms, with particular focus on healthcare, education and food. The number of primary care physicians in the public sector is up twelvefold, with similarly dramatic increases in the number of primary care centres, emergency rooms and rehabilitation centres. An additional four million people have access to safe drinking water and five million to sanitation. Gross enrolment in higher education has more than doubled and there are an extra one million children in school. Hugo Chavez has also started literacy and numeracy programmes and made efforts to get more adults to return to fulltime education. Half a million people graduated from these programmes in the first three years of their operation. The number of people receiving state benefits has more than doubled, and the Venezuelan government has set up a network of food stores for the needy.

As a result, all indicators have moved in the right direction. Infant and child mortality rates are down by more than a third and malnutrition related deaths by over half, amongst other achievements.

I can almost hear the whining of the critics, who like to claim that such advances in the less internationally popular but equally important human rights cannot be achieved without heavy penalties. But the economy has done well. Over the last decade, it has expanded by 50% in real terms, with an annual growth rate of 4.3%, which is roughly the same as other countries in South America. Public debt has been cut by half. Exceptional circumstances are the other excuse generally proffered to explain away such a turnaround, given that the oil industry accounts for more than 50% of government revenue and 80% of export earnings and prices have been going up of late. Yet most of this growth has been in the non-oil sector. The private sector has grown more than the public too. The public sector accounted for 31% of economy when Hugo Chavez came to power, whereas this proportion now stands at only 27%. Unemployment has been cut by one third with almost three million new jobs, more of them in the formal sector than ever before, and most of this job growth has taken place in the private sector.

In fact, these achievements are rather understated. Hugo Chavez didn’t control the main oil company for half of the decade. It was managed by people hostile to the Venezuelan government and used as part of their strategy to destabilise the country. Calculating from the time it was taken over, the economy has almost doubled in size with yearly growth averaging some 13.5%.

The oil industry has given Hugo Chavez an important advantage, and this helps to explain why he has incurred the wrath of the American government and its hangers on in the media and NGO world. He has been able to lend millions of dollars from his foreign exchange reserves to other governments in the region, primarily like-minded administrations, helping them to end their dependence on funds tied to America and its favoured economic policies. South America has gone from a region practically controlled by the White House to one fiercely independent and becoming ever more united, and Hugo Chavez would be justified in claiming a major role in that transformation.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has plenty to show for his rather shorter term in power. But military victories, however necessary, will not sustain him for ten years. He needs to deliver the kind of results for ordinary people that Hugo Chavez has made his core business, and without delay. Sri Lanka has a much stronger base on which to build than did Venezuela, and let’s hope things start moving in the right direction soon.

Meanwhile, let’s not read what international observers have to say about Sri Lanka. Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders et al may pontificate, and they will get ever shriller in their criticisms as time goes on and the LTTE approaches its natural death, but listening can only give us a headache. So never mind the ridiculous ideas given credence by British politicians, their counterparts in Germany, Canada and wherever else. When we can’t even rely on the United Nations Secretary General to express a reasonable opinion, we know it is a hopeless case. As for the BBC, forget it, the only thing to do is turn it off.

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