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No, Hugo Chavez Did Not Improve Health Or Human Development In Venezuela

Reuters' recent obituary for Venezuela's anti-American strongman, Hugo Chavez, obscured the fact that he made life worse for his countrymen -- worse, that is, than if his oil-rich country had been governed by just about anyone else during a period of rapidly-rising oil prices, that showered Venezuela's government with money, much of which Chavez wasted. As Reuters put it, Chavez's "death will devastate millions of supporters who adored his charismatic style, anti-U.S. rhetoric and oil-financed policies that brought subsidized food and free health clinics to long-neglected slums." Reuters also calls this "socialist leader a hero for the poor but a hate figure to his opponents."

Reuters' reference to "health clinics" implies that Chavez improved public health in Venezuela. But the opposite is true. In 1999, just before the Marxist Chavez took power in Venezuela, life expectancy was three years longer in Venezuela than in Colombia. But after 13 years of Chavez's socialist rule and seizure of key industries, life expectancy in Venezuela is now a year shorter than in Colombia. (These figures are from the World Almanacs for 1999 and 2013.) Improvements in life expectancy lagged in socialist Venezuela even though Venezuela has benefited from rapidly-rising oil prices during Chavez’s rule, enabling Venezuela to dramatically increase government health care spending. Oil was dirt cheap when Chavez took office, and is fairly expensive now, giving him a huge amount of revenue to spend at his whim. It was Chavez's good luck to preside over massively increasing oil prices that gave him so much revenue to spend that he could effectively buy the loyalty of key voting blocs through government largesse. Yet, under the Chavez regime, Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, has become one of the world’s most violent cities.

Socialism does not improve public health, and it does not make people live longer. Cuba is often cited as an example of how socialism improves health and education, which is peculiar, because Cuba lost its edge over other Latin American countries after the Communist Castro took over. Cuba led virtually all countries in Latin America in life expectancy in 1959, before a communist regime took power in Cuba. But today, countries like Panama, Chile, and Costa Rica that once had shorter life expectancies than Cuba now have slightly longer life expectancies (even if you trust official Cuban government statistics), even though countries like Panama were much poorer than Cuba before Cuba became Communist in 1960, and had a much shorter average lifespan. As the proudly progressive economist Brad DeLong admits, Cuba's health achievements predated Castro and Communism, and Cuba's relative position in health and education has eroded under Communism:

Cuba in 1957 had lower infant mortality than France, Belgium, West Germany, Israel, Japan, Austria, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Cuba in 1957 had doctors and nurses: as many doctors and nurses per capita as the Netherlands, and more than Britain or Finland. . . .GDP per capita, infant mortality, education . . . for Cuba in the late 1950s [were] in the range of Japan, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Israel. . .Thus I don’t understand lefties who talk about the achievements of the Cuban Revolution: “…to have better health care, housing, education, and general social relations than virtually all other comparably developed countries.”