Is Venezuela a middle class country?

Clotilde Palomino, middle class warrior

The past few days, I’ve been going back and forth with Amherst Prof. Javier Corrales on the issue of whether Venezuela is a middle class country. This was with regards to an article he just posted on Foreign Policy on the subject.

His money quote:

Venezuela has been classified as an “upper middle-income” country for decades. Furthermore, the government claims that the country has seen an expansion in the size of the middle class since 2004. In that case, observing that the protests are too middle class seems unworthy of note: What else would one expect from such a country?”

If there were going to be discontent, especially about governance issues, it would come from the middle classes.”

So far so good, but when Javier gets into the data, something simply doesn’t fit. Corrales thinks the data support him … and he’s probably right. I looked at his calculations, and have no easy way to argue his numbers are wrong. However, it just doesn’t feel right to say that Venezuela is a middle class country. (Ah, truthiness rears its ugly head)

For example, according to standard GDP per capita numbers, the top ten percent of Venezuela’s population earns at least $91 per day, or $33,000 per year. We’re talking those are the minimum earnings … for 2.9 million people in our coutry. If you look at the other deciles, the picture of a middle class country – as defined by current international standards – emerges. You may quibble with the numbers, but that is what they are.

This has profound consequences for the analysis of the type of protests we see.

As Javier says,

The distribution of classes today is distinct from that of previous years in which Venezuela experienced explosions of social unrest. In 1990, for instance, the year after the start of violent anti-government protests that took the lives of dozens, approximately 40 percent of Venezuelans fell in the vulnerable categories (mostly poor). As would be expected, in 1989, the majority of protesters came from low-income groups — that was a sizeable segment of the population back then. In 2001-2002, the period of heaviest unrest under President Hugo Chávez, the vulnerable population still represented between 40 and 50 percent of Venezuelan society.

But by 2012, the proportion of poor was smaller: only one decile.  Two formerly poor deciles, on average, had entered the lower middle class. One could argue that the size of the middle might have shrunk since 2012 due to the severe deterioration of the economy since 2012. But even assuming the worst economic conditions for 2013-2014, the distribution of classes in Venezuela today would not look as dismal as in the pre-2007 period.”

Now, this may be right. It could be that we tend to think of Venezuela as mostly poor, and the middle class as just a tiny sliver of the population … and that we’re wrong. It could be that Venezuela is middle class in its own, unique Venezuelan way – Quico has talked about the warped idea of the Venezuelan middle class on the blog here, and here, using the example of the typical family we would see in the Mavesa margarine commercials such as the one above. He has used this to make the point that Venezuela is decidedly not middle class, that what we think of the middle class is just a shrinking sliver of the population.

But are we wrong? Can Venezuela really be a middle class country?

Middle class brings to mind middle class values, ones that we certainly don’t have, at least not in their “liberal democracy” form. It conveys a certain sense of security in their socio-economic status – a somewhat stable middle class, not a paycheck-to-paycheck, one-SICAD-away-from-poverty economy. Can we really say Venezuela is a middle class country when it does so poorly on other social indicators (as Corrales rightly points out)?

I guess that, in the absence of hard evidence, we must cede the ground to the facts. Or as Javier says,

Yet even those who contend that the official rhetoric on poverty reduction is hyperbolic and official figures opaque must still recognize that, by world standards, Venezuela is a nation of mostly middle-class people.”

Read the rest of the piece here. It makes quite a few interesting points.