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Rarely a week goes by without Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, jetting off to another country in the region, or further afield, to offer discount fuel to poor communities or to extol the virtues of his home-spun “Bolivarian Revolution”.
Flush with copious oil revenues, Mr Chávez has probably clocked up more air miles in recent times than any other Latin American leader. This week he will take in Rome, Vienna – where he will take part in the EU-Latin America summit – London, Tripoli and Algiers.
But as Mr Chávez struts the world stage, there are signs that the former army officer may be neglecting pressing issues at home, in turn emboldening challengers who see a chance to unseat him in elections in December.
Some of the president’s supporters are protesting that, after seven years in power, the government has little to show in terms of its pledges to create jobs, provide homes for the poor and tackle crime.
“I’ve been filling in forms and waiting for a new home for three years,” says Mariana Gómez, a mother of three, sitting outside a government housing office in Caracas. “Chávez was meant to fix this sort of thing but he’s not done so.”
The Chávez administration’s record on social and economic progress is brittle. Housing provision has been a disaster. In 2005, the government constructed 41,500 new homes – only 34 per cent of its target.
Last Sunday, on his “Alo Presidente” television programme, Mr Chávez pledged to build 150,000 homes this year. Since the start of the year, 17,400 have been built. Venezuela has a housing deficit of 1.6m units.
Mr Chávez, a self-described “21st century Socialist”, is not admitting any failures, however. “What this revolution can claim are achievements and more achievements,” he insisted last weekend.
In one area – poverty – the government is adamant that it scores top marks. But there are doubts over the reliability of official data.
Early last year, Venezuela’s National Statistics Institute said 53 per cent of the population lived in poverty at the end of 2004, 9.2 points higher than in early 1999, at the start of the Chávez government.
Irked by the numbers, the president ordered a change in INE’s “methodology”. Shortly after, it announced that, in mid-2005, only 39.5 per cent of people lived in poverty – a 14.5 point “improvement” in a few months.
The six opposition candidates who have so far announced plans to run against Mr Chávez this year have been emboldened by such issues.
Teodoro Petkoff, a former economy minister and presidential candidate, says Mr Chávez has failed to tackle what would be the key goal of any self-respecting “socialist”.
“The great success of Chávez has been to introduce social issues into the national debate. Paradoxically, however, seven years later poverty is still the biggest national drama,” says Mr Petkoff, a former guerrilla and a well-known figure on the Latin American democratic left. “That’s a real disgrace.”
Mr Petkoff has proposed the establishment of a heritage fund that would share out some of Venezuela’s oil revenues directly to poor families through “petroleum vouchers”.
However, the opposition has significant divisions to overcome before it can capitalise on the assertion that life under “El Comandante Chávez” is worse than before.
Some opponents, such as Julio Borges of the centre-right Justice First party, favour primary elections as the ideal method of choosing a single candidate.
Others, like Mr Petkoff, argue that low participation in primaries would weaken the victor. A single opposition candidate, he says, should emerge as a result of “natural selection”.
While the opposition struggles with its internal problems, Mr Chávez is strengthening an array of parallel social programmes, called “missions”.
The most successful “mission” provides staple foods at subsidised prices through a chain of government-supplied stores. Today, the majority of poor families, and a third of high-income families, shop at these stores, called “Mercal”.
Luis Vicente León, director of Datanálisis, a polling company, says the “missions” have allowed Mr Chávez to compensate for dissatisfaction with the government over its handling of issues such as unemployment and crime.
“Chávez gets high approval ratings for the missions; they are very important for the poor,” he says. Datanálisis’s latest poll, in March, found that if elections were held tomorrow, Mr Chávez would win 56.8 per cent, ensuring him victory.
“The results show a clear advantage for Mr Chávez as campaigning gets under way,” says Mr León.
With vast oil revenues allowing the president to spend almost without restraint, even on the most inefficient of programmes, it looks likely to be enough to ensure Mr Chávez remains in office, as well as to continue travelling the world.
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