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The Most Outrageous Lie in Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's New York Times Op-Ed

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In one respect, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's op-ed in Wednesday's New York Times is old news—the same litany of worn-out propaganda lines that gets repeated every day on Venezuelan state media. What's new is the context. Venezuelans have grown used to the tsunami of spin, obfuscation, half-truths, and outright lies that dominate our large and growing state propaganda system. The Times' readers are likely less prepared for it. 

Fact-checking the entire piece would be enough to cause an aneurysm. Instead, to give a sense of the depth of historical falsification involved, let's focus on one particular line: Maduro claims that the Bolivarian revolution "created flagship universal health care and education programs, free to our citizens nationwide." 

This is roughly equivalent to President Barack Obama claiming that he created Social Security. Venezuela first established free universal primary education (for both boys and girls) back in the nineteenth century. It was 1870, in fact, when President Antonio Guzmán Blanco—the visionary military dictator who dominated politics at the time—created a mandate for the state to teach all children "morals, reading and writing the national language, practical arithmetic, the metric system and the constitution."

Granted, universal education remained more an aspiration than an on-the-ground reality for several decades, but by 1946 Venezuela's first elected, social democratic government rode to power partly due to a commitment to enact that vision. Free education, including at the university level, was an ideological cornerstone of successive governments beginning in 1958. Under the leadership of the great educational reformer Luis Beltrán Prieto Figueroa, the government created one of Latin America's first adult education institutions, INCE, in 1959, and in the 1960s pushed to increase adult literacy through the famous ACUDE program.

Maduro's mentor, Hugo Chávez, might have told him a thing or two about that: As a teenager in the '60s, Chávez volunteered as an adult literacy coach at ACUDE—one of the flagship education programs that Maduro claims didn't exist until Chávez created them. 

It's much the same story with health: Already in 1938, still in the era of dictatorships, landmark public hospitals were being built and treating patients free of charge. The 1961 constitution—the one chavismo insisted on replacing, seeing it as a vehicle for neo-imperial domination—guaranteed free public health care in article 76. Even today, virtually every major hospital in the country was built before the Bolivarian revolution, whose contribution was limited to a secondary network of outpatient clinics staffed by Cuban medics and located inside poorer areas that, in the view of many, ended up largely diverting resources that would have been better spent upgrading the increasingly ramshackle legacy hospital network. 

Yes, both the school system and the hospital network were overstretched, underperforming, and in need of reform by the time Chávez came to power in 1998, and yes, chavismo's reforms of both systems have been broadly popular. There's an interesting conversation to be had about the successes and failures of those reforms.

But that conversation can't happen when the government insists on a wholesale falsification of history, simply erasing the long, rich history of health and education reforms that in 1999 bequeathed Chávez the large and ambitious, albeit flawed, health and education systems that Maduro oversees today. 

Maduro's op-ed is strewn with similar whoppers, like his commitment to labor organizing rights, U.S. involvement in the 2002 coup, the vitality of Venezuelan democracy, and a call for "peace and dialogue." None of these lines are new, either. Time and again, chavismo doesn't so much bend the historical record as simply ignore it, and government propaganda employs words to mean the diametrical opposite of what the dictionary says they mean. Big lies are used where small lies would have done the job just as well.

Which helps explain why, to the Venezuelans protesting in the streets, Maduro's talk of peace and dialogue is about as credible as his history of the free health and education systems.

This post has been updated.