The Useful Idiocy of Johann Hari


Johann Hari, columnist for The Independent and, on this side of the pond, occasional contributor to The New Republic, is a peculiar character. Once a vocal supporter of the war in Iraq, he quickly backtracked, writing that war was being waged with a "desire to achieve US control over Middle East oil." (Previously, Hari had wondered if "When it emerges—as I strongly believe, based on my experience of the Iraqi exile community and the International Crisis Group's survey of opinion within Iraq—that [the Iraqi people] wanted this war, will the anti-war movement recant?") While he was still writing in defense of the invasion, the British satire magazine Private Eye and the far-left website Counterpunch questioned the veracity of some of his reporting. Make what you will of their conclusions. But Hari has written some tremendously smart pieces on totalitarianism, including this terrific column warning his comrades to stop lionizing thugs like Che Guevara.

But Hari's aversion to authoritarianism apparently doesn't extend to the type practiced by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. It is with an astonishing degree of credulity that Hari assesses the Chavista revolution in his latest column, and one could quibble with almost every sentence (In fact, Venezuelan blogger Quico has done just that). But a few points are worth commenting on:

First, it is difficult to take seriously Hari's truth-to-power preaching on Venezuela when he claims that, in 1908, the United States installed the authoritarian government Juan Vicente Gómez in order to steal the country's oil. This will be news to historians. As historians H. Micheal Tarver and Julia C. Fredrick write in their history of Venezuela, President Taft "ordered a U.S. warship to Venezuela to protect Gomez" after he overthrew his predecessor Cipriano Castro, but Washington did not plan or help execute the coup. And as Quico points out, there were no major oil field discoveries in the country until 1914, and it wasn't until 1918 that the petroleum industry yielded substantial revenues.

Second, Hari writes that "In 2003, two distinguished Wall Street consulting firms conducted the most detailed study so far of economic change under Chavez" and "found that the poorest half of the country have seen their incomes soar by 130 percent after inflation." This is wrong. The study which he is referring to was conducted in 2007—an important distinction, as we will see in a moment—and it is unclear how Hari determined that "it was the most detailed study" of the Venezuelan economy under Chavez. I would urge him to look at the research of Wesleyan economist Francisco Rodriguez, for a more detailed discussion of Venezuela's petro-economy.

But as most economists studying the subject have observed, Chavez is merely the beneficiary of extremely high oil prices—from $10 when he entered office to $140 today—and it should be noted that the economic boom began in 2003, just when oil prices began to climb. Hari neglects to mention that Chavez's economic wizardry was ineffective in his first four years of rule, when economic growth was almost completely flat and the poor got poorer. As The Economist pointed out in 2006, "In the five years to 2003, Mr Chavez's performance was disastrous. The proportion of households below the poverty line increased by more than 11 percentage points…It was the first time since data were collected that poverty rose even as the oil price did too."

Sorry to quote myself here, but in a review from reason, I addressed the supposedly miraculous economic growth of the late Chavez years:

Using government-supplied statistics—notoriously generous to Chavez—Francisco Rodriguez, a former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly, determined in December 2006 that while poverty was finally on the decline (thanks to a massive increase in oil revenue), "There is no evident sign in the data that supports the hypothesis that Chavez has been any better than his predecessors for the Venezuelan poor, and a good deal of it appears to say that he might have been worse." In an email message, Rodriguez elaborated, explaining that it would be strange, considering current oil prices, if the economy didn't grow: "It's normal for poverty to decline during economic expansions and the decline under Chavez is not unprecedented-indeed, it is smaller than the decline observed during similar periods in the past." And with an economy so dependent on oil, which accounts for 90 percent of the country's export earnings, how long can the free-spending revolution survive?

Despite this predictable growth, Venezuela is running an enormous budget deficit and inflation is the highest in the hemisphere; food shortages, precipitated by price controls, are rife; government intervention in the economy and nationalization efforts have stanched foreign investment; crime rates are the highest on the continent, including a staggering 12,300 murders last year; oil production is down by nearly a million barrels a day, after Chavez fired 20,000 PDVSA employees and replaced them with party apparatchiks; courts are packed with supporters; and the government has liberally used a list of people who voted against the president to deny passports, benefits, and jobs. But Hari, Fleet Street revolutionary, mentions none of this. Instead, he bellows that Chavez has maintained power through a series of free elections, though he certainly realizes that this is rather different than governing democratically.

Finally, on the issue of Venezuela's support for FARC, Hari suggests that the laptops seized by the Colombian military in the cross-border raid that killed Raul Reyes are phony. He provides no evidence to support this claim, though he cites recently released FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt's sister Astrid as saying they are "plainly fake." As far as I can tell, Betancourt had not examined the contents of the computers, nor is she an expert in forensics. Her verdict—not that the disks were "plainly fake," but that it was "very improbable" the computers would survive an air and ground assault—was clearly influenced by her understandable determination to see her sister freed with the help of Chavez and Ecuadorian President Raphael Correa. (Ecuador tacitly acknowledged the authenticity of the laptops when it attempt to explain away some of their contents.)

Another correction for the Independent: One laptop, Hari writes, contained 39.5 million pages of Word documents, which the Colombian authorities claimed to have "already rummaged through." Close to 40 million pages of Microsoft Word documents on one laptop?  Hardly. When confirming that the disks hadn't been tampered with, an Interpol spokesman said that all of the computers captured contained "600 gigabytes of information—the equivalent to 39.5 million pages of text" (emphasis added). In other words, there were 600 gigabytes of information on a series of laptops (Microsoft Vista alone requires approximately 10 gigabytes of storage), not 39.5 million pages of emails and word processing documents.

But as Venezuelan blogger Miguel Octavio observes, it is almost like Hari is new to the FARC-Chavez connection, and believes that the only evidence of a "working relationship" between the two are the captured hard drives. I'll let Miguel remind interested readers of the many connections between Miroflores and the guerrillas. I've probably said enough.

NEXT: Organized Labor in Russian Maternity Wards

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  1. Mr. Moynihan-

    Having just read Miguel’s piece, I can’t help but conclude that he’s doing the same thing you allege Mr. Hari of doing-lots of assertions without citations to source.

    Those that troll these here parts know that I am no fan of ANY socialist-particularly american socialists who think it quite ok to loot the stuff of those who produce in order to make war on latin american socialists.

  2. Who wins in a no holds barred steel cage match between the 4th generation anglo saxon protestant yankee ivy league legacy admittee cocky spoiled rich pansy draft dodging business flop


    The bolivarian Bolshevik?

  3. I don’t care about Hari, but what’s up with the persistent anti-Chavez fury of you guys? You’d think he was the only oil-fueled self-dramatizing strongman out there. Heck, he’s a pretty benign example of the species, compared to the misrulers of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, etc. Why use a term (“useful idiots”) that implies Chavez has a coherent, compelling ideology that threatens world peace?

  4. DannyK
    MM’s role at Reason is to feed the more right wing libertarians red meat. Chavez is a highly hated figure among movement conservatives as he directly berates Bush by name among other things. Ergo MM’s obsession with him.

  5. So there’s a study that says one thing, and then a study by an economist who worked for the National Assembly during the Chavez administration that says another.

    That settles that.

    I mean, surely there are numerous acadmeic examinations of the recent Venezulan economy…

  6. 12,300 murders last year

    Huh, wha?

    That’s a lot of baseball players.

  7. “crime rates are the highest on the continent, including a staggering 12,300 murders last year”

    I’m not sure where MM is getting his figures from. From this compilation of data from the UN Survey of Crime Trends (international crime comparisons are, as the site notes, problemattic at best, but hey I didn’t bring ’em up first) Venezula does seem to have higher rates than Chile or Brazil, but interestingly seems to have lower rates than, say, Mexico. And their murder rates seemed to indeed be quite high, but lower than Columbia’s or (get this) Jamaica’s.

    MM gets tough on the leadership of the nation with a higher murder rate than Chavez’s (and it has plenty of corruption, electoral chicanery and the like that brings endless posts from MM when Chavez is the source) here:

    “So yes, the Uribe government is far from perfect-it is Latin America after all, so we must judge on a steep curve-but as even the left-leaning Guardian acknowledged this week, Uribe is indeed a “skilled politician” who “has been able to bring a degree of order, security and prosperity to the country that was scarcely believed possible when he took office in 2002.”

    Actually, that certainly seems to be different…

  8. “but what’s up with the persistent anti-Chavez fury of you guys? You’d think he was the only oil-fueled self-dramatizing strongman out there. Heck, he’s a pretty benign example of the species, compared to the misrulers of Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, etc”

    I think the best answer MM could give would be that Venezula has more of a history of liberal democracy than Nigeria or Saudi Arabia and so it’s sadder to see it “going” under Chavez (don’t anyone get me wrong, Chavez is not a good thing for Venezula in terms of liberal democracy or just basic sanity)…That could be the case.

    But given the sheer number of MM posts I’ve seen dumping on Chavez compared to the comparable lack of commentary from him on the crappy conditions in a place like Saudi Arabia makes me think it’s just MM feeding the right-wingers around here…Since both are terrible from a libertarian position there should be comparable condemnation.

    Could it be that Saudi Arabia makes with the nice-nice talk about the US and Bush while Chavez does the opposite? I’d hate for that to be it because patriotism and Bushism both seem a strange justification for a libertarian sense of outrage. I also hope it’s not the pro or non-pro nature of the rhetoric of the regimes (though I can see why a libertarian may be more wary of dictators that use class warfare rhetoric).

    You can compare Saudia Arabia’s human rights record with Venezula under Chavez here:

  9. I meant “pro or non-pro poverty alleviation rhetoric”

  10. Yeah, you know what else is ridiculous? All the Kerry Howley posts on Myanmar. How dare these people keep making posts on the countries on which they have the most expertise.

  11. I dunno guys. I honestly fail to see what all the excitement about is on this topic. Enlighten me..


  12. I dunno guys. I honestly fail to see what all the excitement about is on this topic. Enlighten me…

    There is no excitement. There’s just MNG furiously arguing with an empty room, while the rest of us swig our beer (or wine, if TWC is around), and nod and say, “Yep. Chavez still sucks.”

  13. All the Kerry Howley posts on Myanmar.

    The country is called Burma. “Myanmar” is what the thugs who rule the place call it.


  14. Michael,

    Sorry to quote myself here

    See, there is where you made an error and got all of these Leftoids frothing. If you had only ghost written that, then used it as a source, like the Great Hero of Progressivism, Ward LeRoy Churchill is rumored to have done, everything would have been just fine with those guys.

    Well, plus you picked on the latest in their series of poster boys. 10 years from now the Che t-shirts will be replaced with Fidel t-shirts, in 50 years it will be Hugo.

  15. It’s pretty nasty to quote to ‘Private Eye’ smears against Hari without first pointing out that these appeared literally the week after Hari publicly condemned its’ editor and former editor for their anti-gay prejudices. You should really post a rider for that; it’s pretty important context.

    On a separate subject: Can’t you see it’s consistent for Hari to condemn the tyranny of Che Guevara, while supporting a government that has been democratically elected?

  16. Hopefully MNG has another complete meltdown like he did in that Rush Limbaugh thread last week. joe’s got nothing on him.

  17. Mister Nice Guy is not having a meltdown. He is only accurately observing sloppy “journalism” as I pointed about above.

    Again, what is Moynihan doing in citing “Miguel”? Give us some evidence.

  18. liberty mike
    Some people only look at the conclusion reached by a blogger and then feel the need to reflexively defend or berate it.

    Guy Montag notes all the “Leftoids frothing.” There’s no more than four people on this thread who’ve raised questions about this thread, and it would be stupid to consider you a “Leftoid.” You see, in people like Guy’s world you disagree with a post critical of someone he has been told is bad and therefore you MUST be defending the bad man. In fact you must be a fan of Che and etc., etc.,.

    Of course neither of us I imagine are big fans of most of what Chavez (or a sociopath like Che) has done. But that was never the point I or I suspect you were making here. That kind of nuance is lost on a loooot of people sadly…

  19. MNG-

    Your suspicions are right. The essence of my post was the sloppy “journalism” of Messrs. Moynihan and “Miguel”. Don’t pass of an opinion as fact and don’t pass of another’s opinion as fact.

    We know that Guy knows that you and I are no leftoids. The reality is if one supports the ever growing projection of state power-one is a leftoid. Thus, those that support the income tax, the IRS, the 5 trillion dollar military, the wars of agression, the effort to make the criminal acts of state actors immune from civil and criminal liability, etc., etc., are scummy socialists.

    Hey, there are lots of “conservative” folks who have difficulty recognising and accepting that ole dishonest abe was a socialist.

  20. I’m a tad bored, so I’ll wade in…

    There are several reasons why MM might write about Chavez as opposed to the Saudis.

    He might be more interested in Central America.

    Chavez has been the darling of “progressives”, and they need to be reminded that he is not all that. Nobody is holding SA up as a model for anything.

    There is evidence Chavez has been mucking about with his neighbors. SA has been building mosques, but they aren’t forcing people to go to them.

    Finally, the Saudis might not be nice people, but if they are not messing with us (or making noises about doing so) they become inherently less interesting, especially if they are in a relatively static position (Zimbabwe being an example of a place also not messing with the US but in a dynamic situation).

    Finally, he just might find Chavez more interesting than the Saudis. I mean, however important it might be, I find monetary policy very boring.

  21. My wacky conspiracy theory: a few years ago, there was a coup attempt against Chavez that was (at least verbally) supported by the US. It failed, but the idea of toppling a left-wing populist and replacing him with somebody more friendly to the oil companies still has its appeal.

    Somebody, not necessarily Mr. Moynihan, is hoping to build public support for another go, and this is part of the effort, just as we’ve seen a steady stream of articles about the danger from Iran, and we saw a similar effort with Saddam before 2003. After all, there must always be an enemy, and he might as well have some oil reserves!

  22. Michael,

    Sounds like some of the frothing class are demanding an explaination on why you don’t bother taking down their pet vilans before picking on their pet icon. Maybe it is just one, but I am not taking off the filter to see who or how many.

    I wonder if a class on editorial control and personal choice would be of more assistance?


    Um, yea, could not be anything like being anti-Socialist or anything. No way it could possibly be that simple. Nope, no way.

  23. All of the connections between Chavez and the FARC cited in my post have been extensively covered in the past and are no “news” except to the distant observer, and as I said, Venezuelans know them quite well:

    Rodriguez Chacin encouraging the FARC? Here is the video:

    Rodrigo Granda living here and having national ID papers (and even voting!):

    Chavez calling for the FARC to be recognized as a belligenrent force? This one was all over the news:

    Ivan Marquez at the Venezuelan Presidential Palace? A picture is worth 10,000 words:

    Finally, in response to other comments, homicides have triple under Chavez according to official statistics. Here is a link to the Minister of the Interior and Justice on the 12,000 number mentioned above:

    while in the website of human rights organization Provea, you can see the compilation of deaths for the last twenty years, ntoing that in 1998 when Hugo Chavez got to power there were only 4450 deaths. (See Derecho a la Vida (Right to Life) document, Table 2):

  24. Geez. Who would have thought an attack on Hugo Chavez would provoke such fury. Anyway, a few points:

    1) Jammer is right: I’m not particularly interested in Saudi Arabia. I am, on the hand, interested in Latin America. No conspiracy of silence, I’m afraid, just don’t know too much about the House of Saud.

    2) Andy: I was unaware of Hari’s attack on Private Eye, but I think I was pretty fair just by linking and saying “make what you will of their conclusions.

    3) On the Uribe piece: It would be helpful if you also quoted my criticism of the guy: “There is an understandable desire to bludgeon Uribe’s credibility by citing, for instance, his shady family and political connections. And there is quite a bit to unpack here. While it’s unfair to compare President Uribe to the buffoonish President Chavez, his critics are indeed justified in expressing skepticism of the timing of the raid, which they claim is designed to distract the public from a very Chavista-like scandal. Uribe’s second term election victory was secured after Congress lifted a ban on the serving of consecutive terms-a victory secured through good old-fashioned bribery, say his critics. The court recently ruled against the president on this very issue, forcing Uribe to issue a furious denial.”

  25. I consider Chavez to be an idiot, but I also consider him to rule in a democracy, so it’s up to the people of Venezuela to vote him out if the so choose. Now, it’s clearly not a perfect democracy (neither is the United States), but it’s definitely on the side of being mostly free and fair. The fact that Chavez lost the election on the referendums to change the constitution proves this. Now there is a line between real and fake democracies, and Chavez is admittedly close to that line (some things Chavez has done, like the closing of an opposition TV station, are why he is close to the line). I would say the line is between Venezuela and Russia at this point. Russia has fake elections; Venezuela has real ones.

  26. Michael,

    One would think that people who visit this board would respect your choices in what you report on, rather than demand that you report on whatever their pet subject is.

    Plenty of other places out there discussing all sorts of things that reason has not covered. These folks could even cover it themselves!

    Perhaps it is just a lack of manners from some with certain leanings?

  27. Michael
    I can grant that some people, for a variety of reasons, have an interest in Venezula. Maybe that’s the case here.

    I think what I’m getting at is that while Chavez is certainly no worse than any number of rotten leaders around the globe, he gets an extraordinary amount of coverage by “right leaning” writers. And the reasons for that strike me as that he 1. has progressive rhetoric and 2. has called out Bush and the USA.

    Now a lot of right wingers read Reason. And perhaps your pre-existing interest in Venezula just happened to coincide with the fact that Chavez is Villian Numero Uno among the right these days and they love reading about how bad the guy is. But it just seems to me like feeding meat to the wing-nuts. I grant that I suspect this in part because, while a libertarian philosophy should find many things progressive and conservative equally abhorrent your posts seem to invariably focus on the former.

  28. “Maybe it is just one, but I am not taking off the filter to see who or how many.”

    I’ve said it before: that the irony of a guy choosing the handle Guy Montag and then bragging about how he filters out posters he doesn’t like is simply yummy.

    “One would think that people who visit this board would respect your choices in what you report on, rather than demand that you report on whatever their pet subject is.”

    And I love how he has the filters on, but then knows what we are posting. And misunderstands it at the same time. Seriously Guy you are fast approaching Lonewacko status.

  29. prolefeed | July 12, 2008, 1:56am | #

    “”I dunno guys. I honestly fail to see what all the excitement about is on this topic. Enlighten me…””

    There is no excitement. There’s just MNG furiously arguing with an empty room, while the rest of us swig our beer (or wine, if TWC is around), and nod and say, “Yep. Chavez still sucks.”

    Thats not entirely correct.

    I was drinking whiskey.

  30. The main reason we regularly dump on Chavez is to counteract all the leftists who hero-worship the man. Most of them would probably love to see a left-populist like Chavez here in America, but deprived of the opportunity they instead lionize this douchebag. And it proves that all of us were right when Chavez came to power and we said his policies would lead to his nation’s economic ruin. Indeed, given the price of oil and Venezuela’s abundant supply of the resource, even a brain-dead monkey should be able to at least break even on the budget.

  31. Geotpf,
    Whether or not elections confirm bad policies is irrelevant to the wisdom or rightness of said policies. Democracy is not, in its basic principles, any better than monarchy, military dictatorship, or a limited republic. It must justify itself by being less oppressive and destructive in practice than other forms of government.
    Democracy, in its worst form, is 2 wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner (I apologize to the person I stole this analogy from).

  32. I have heard way too many hosannas to the great Chavez, bringing the mighty low and raising the little guy bullshit, to not take an impish pleasure in the mess he has put his country in.

  33. Apologies to Venezuelans who were/are opposed to Chavez. It sucks that you have to put up with his policies.

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