Nancy Folbre in the NYT's Economix:
President Hugo Chávez is dead, but the debate over “Chavismo” lives on. His economic policies were aimed at improving the living standards of the poorest citizens of Venezuela, and those are the terms on which his ultimate success is likely to be judged.
Measured in terms of tangible improvements in human development, his achievements are significant. The bigger question is whether they can be politically and economically sustained.
A loud critic of United States policies and leader of a broader Latin American renunciation of neoliberal policies, Mr. Chávez has never been popular in the United States.
Strong aversion to both his political values and his personal style has often led to dismissive assessments of Venezuela’s economic record since he became president in 1999. But as Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Research have carefully documented, the Venezuelan economy experienced significant growth after 2003, when the Chávez government successfully gained control over the national petroleum industry, and fared surprisingly well even after oil prices collapsed in 2008.
Oil revenues were used to finance large public investments in health, education, housing, pensions and food subsidies to the poor. World Bankindicators show a sharp decline in poverty from slightly more than 60 percent in 2003 to slightly more than 30 percent in 2011.
Many projects or “misiones” that Mr. Chávez put into place proved so popular that even Henrique Capriles, his opponent in the last election, promisedvoters he would maintain and augment them.
While some critics of Mr. Chávez suggest that his policies have not had much impact on other Latin American countries, others contend that they are not that different from those carried out by other social democratic governments in the region, like Brazil’s. The influential Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, past president of Brazil, has lauded Mr. Chávez’s contribution to regional initiatives.
The impact that Mr. Chávez had on other left-leaning governments in the region, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador, certainly represents part of his political legacy.
Economists have not yet developed very good tools for assessing the impact of specific development policies, partly because these are intrinsically difficult to measure.