Hit & Run

The Useful Idiocy of Johann Hari

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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.