Hugo Chávez: not dead

Reports of the Venezuelan President's death have been exaggerated.

Hugo Chávez, a Mark Twain fan, might feel like quoting Twain's famous quip that "rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated" this morning. Reports of Chávez's demise began on Twitter last night after a group calling itself WikiLeaks Argentina (not associated with Julian Assange's outfit) tweeted: "Argentinean Embassy Cable: Confirmed - ALERT!! Hugo Chavez died of heart attack today in Cuba. 06/25/11 08:43AM 0438VZ/11". But the claim was not verified by any news organisation and appeared to be a hoax.

Chávez has been governing Venezuela from a hospital bed in Cuba since 10 June when he had emergency surgery on a pelvic abscess. He was rushed to hospital after suffering abdominal pain while in a meeting with Fidel Castro. The Venezuelan government has insisted that he is "recovering well" and has denied rumours that he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Chávez telephoned the state-run television channel, Telesur, on June 12 and said medical tests showed no sign of any "malignant" illness. His Twitter account, which had laid dormant for 19 days, was updated on Friday. Chávez tweeted: "I'm here with you during the hard battles every day! Until victory always! We are winning! And we shall win!"

But his absence has highlighted what has been clear for some time: there is no obvious successor to the man who has led Venezuela for 12 years. The left, ostensibly committed to collective agency, has allowed itself to become dependent on another caudillo.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fate of the self-styled "21st centry socialist" has attracted little comment, even in the liberal press (the Guardian, for instance, did not report on Chávez's hospitalisation). But Chávez's unsavoury friendships with dictators and autocrats, including Robert Mugabe, Colonel Gaddafi, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Alexander Lukashenko, mean that he is no longer viewed so favourably by the British left. For Venezuela, the question remains whether Chávezism is possible without Chávez.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.