Trivia question 1: who has reduced the percentage of people living below the poverty line by 28% over 5 years in office?
B. Lyndon Johnson
C. Hugo Chavez
D. Teddy Roosevelt
Trivia question 2: Over a three year period, which President's policies led to an extraordinary 11% growth in the economy?
A. Barack Obama
B. Ronald Reagan
C. Hugo Chavez
The answer may surprise you: to both questions, it is C.
I'm not here to defend all of Chavez's policies, in particular, his repression of free speech and democratic dissent. Those actions are wrong, from both a moral and political perspective.
Yet there are some things Obama, and all of us, can learn from Venezuela's leader.
Let's look at the data that substantiates trivia question 1. According to economist Mark Weisbrot, of the non-partisan Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC., 54 percent of Venezuela in 2003 was in poverty and 26 percent was in poverty at the end of 2008.
It looks like Chavez's policies are working. Here is what he has pursued to achieve these accomplishments, which by no means are finished:
1. Mission Mercal- grocery stores that help low-income families buy discounted food.
Together with over 6,000 soup kitchens, Venezuelans have greater access to food.
2. Government run-microcredit programs- providing loans and grants for small businesses
3. Increased petroleum production
4. Price controls on foods to help low-income people eat well
5. Creation of Communal Councils, small groups of citizens that determine how the government's money will be spent in their community.
6. Communal banks focused on helping individuals, not accruing profit
7. Increased spending on education
8. Government training to farmers
9. Nationalization of key industries, including telecommunication, banking, and electric utilities.
Imagine if we had a Mission Healthy Food in the United States and grocery stores in inner-cities and food deserts offering low-cost food to those who need it. Or contemplate the community councils; how much money would the military get to buy new fighter gets, and how much money would local libraries and food stamp programs get with the extra cash. I think implementing all of the above numbers, except point 3, would benefit the United States.
Let's look at trivia question two, economic growth.
When people are not hungry, they are more productive workers. When starting a business is not only limited to those with connections to big banks, entrepreneurs have a fair shot. There seems to be a false dichotomy suggested between social justice policies and economic growth; in fact, social justice policies often create economic growth.
Again, I am not here to defend all of Chavez's policies. But I hope our politicians do not exclude considering the progress Chavez has made and some of his unique policies that could be successful here.