Most discussions about the government of Hugo Chávez assume that his administration has significantly redirected the priorities of Venezuelan public policy towards the country’s poor and disenfranchised. These favorable views of Venezuela’s efforts to curb poverty are commonly accompanied by references to recent changes in the government’s social focus, and particularly his well-known Misiones—the set of social programs initiated in 2003 to target everything from adult illiteracy to high food prices.

The effectiveness of these programs in raising the living standards of Venezuela’s poor often goes unquestioned. The truth, however, is that we know remarkably little about their actual effects. Since most of these programs target non-income components of well-being, their effects cannot be evaluated by measuring trends in poverty rates, which in any case have shown an unremarkable improvement in comparison to that experienced during previous oil booms. Reliable statistics directly measuring progress in health and education indicators is scant. What little information exists, however, does not paint anything even remotely resembling the magnitude of achievements claimed by government officials and international commentators.

Take, for example, the Ministry of Planning’s statistics on the weight and stature of children. According to this series, the percentage of underweight newborns and babies who are below the standard height for a newborn actually increased from 8.4 to 8.8 percent since Chávez took office in 1999. Infant mortality and newborn mortality rates have decreased, but their reduction is not dissimilar to that achieved by Venezuela in previous years or by other Latin American countries. Indeed, there is little evidence that the Venezuelan government is even trying to do anything different from its predecessors: The share of social spending in relation to total public spending, currently at 40.6 percent, is almost identical to the level reached during the period of application of free market reforms in 1992-93 (40.1 percent).

Despite these realities, government officials routinely make sweeping claims about the success of their social programs—claims that are commonly taken at face value by international public opinion. Consider, for example, the government’s official declaration of Venezuela as an “illiteracy-free territory” on October 28, 2005, when it announced that the Cuban-designed Misión Robinson literacy program had succeeded in teaching 1.5 million Venezuelans how to read and write in just over two years. Some of the highest-ranking representatives of international bodies and foreign governments, including Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and UNESCO director general Koichiro Matsuura, voiced their recognition and approval of this supposed achievement.

Given the extensive academic literature documenting the very low success rates of large-scale literacy programs, one would have expected a little more skepticism. Even a cursory look at the government’s figures will reveal deep inconsistencies in the official story. For starters, it seems awfully difficult to teach 1.5 million people how to read and write given that, according to the 2001 census, there were only 1.08 million illiterate persons in Venezuela. Indeed, the number of illiterate Venezuelans has never exceeded 1.5 million adults since the nation started collecting statistics in 1936. The government also claimed to have mobilized 1.8 percent of the country’s labor force as paid trainers in the program. The problem is that official employment statistics show no evidence that these trainers were ever employed and official budget figures show no evidence that they were ever paid.

In a recent paper I co-authored with Daniel Ortega and Edward Miguel, I used the raw data files of the Venezuelan National Institute of Statistics’ Household Surveys to estimate literacy rates in Venezuela during the period that the Robinson program was implemented. Our results show no evidence of the dramatic reduction in illiteracy claimed by the Venezuelan government. According to our estimates, in the second half of 2005—the first period after the government declaration regarding the eradication of illiteracy—there were still 1,014,441 illiterate Venezuelans over age 15, only slightly less than the 1,107,793 illiterate people registered during the first half of 2003 (before Robinson began). The statistical analysis carried out in our paper shows that most of this absolute decline in the number of illiterate Venezuelans can be traced to changes in the age structure rather than to any effect of the government’s literacy program.

American journalist Sydney Harris once wrote that, “we believe what we want to believe, what we like to believe, what suits our prejudices and fuels our passions.” Chávez has galvanized much of the international Left with an ideal of a popular democratic revolution in which the country’s poor have risen to redress deep social injustices. There is a deep gap, however, between those idealized beliefs and the realities faced by the Venezuelan poor. The rectification of the region’s deep economic and social inequalities is a moral imperative, but it is simply not happening under the government of Hugo Chávez.