JR Max Wheel
6 March 2013
The death of Hugo Chávez marks an end to a fourteen-year experiment in Venezuela with the demise of a populist demagogue President, whose legacy will be viewed with decidedly mixed feelings both in his native Venezuela, as well as Latin America and the West. This is a purely personal take on Chávez the politician and his so-called Bolivarian revolution.
Latin America has never been short on revolutionaries throughout its history and to that extent, he fits the mould of yet another colourful, flawed and difficult idealist, whose mistakes are as notable as his unquestioned popularity with the poor- the paratrooper as a secular saint. Venezuela was the first place I visited in Latin America in the late seventies- Caracas, a bizarre mix of imported US culture supported by the tidal wave of oil money, superimposed on an indigenous culture that had barely changed, where the streets were filled with poor and where it was difficult to avoid violence. The hillsides were dotted with slum dwellings and the wealthy middle class largely did not care a jot. The oil company had been nationalised and lost many skilled staff seconded from Exxon Mobil, Shell, Conoco Philips, BP and the supermajors, agriculture was moribund, some of the world’s finest cocoa plantations were left to rot, with the fruit falling from the trees and where the national staple the arepa, a white corn fritter depended upon imported flour. A uniformly awful series of Presidents followed on, each with their hands in the national oil till, and public services were supplied by a grotesque arrangement of state entities responsible for housing, sanitation, water and electricity. Most of these agencies were corrupt and went on large borrowing sprees, willingly supplied by Western banks recycling petro-dollar surpluses after the creation of OPEC, but whose intent was more designed to prop up their executives standards of living rather than carry out any series attempt to deliver any social obligations.
The Press and media, certainly in the capital is and was largely supine. The misrule of Venezuela was nothing new in the post-war era, being marked by a dismal series of corrupt “democrats” and military coups. As long as Venezuela behaved and PDVSA supplied the oil, the US remained largely passive, barring one or two notable escapades.
The one exception to this dreary band of Caudillos (military chieftains) was Rómulo Bétancourt, a democrat who twice held the Presidency in the 1940s and late 1950s; Venezuela can thank him at least for embedding the idea of democracy in the country, even if it was subject to considerable and continual manipulation. The rise of Chávez was then perhaps long overdue, an idealist whose hero Simon Bolívar achieved freedom from colonial Spain in the 1830s and whose house is still a tourist attraction in the Capital. Mobilising the ranks of the poor was a risky but ultimately viable strategy and for all the criticism, Chávez was an elected President, but it remains to be seen if he was even remotely a good one. Clearly, something had to be done for the people. Venezuela’s only other claim to fame had been the dubious title of having created more Miss World’s than any competing country! Using the oil wealth as a tool of redistribution, Chávez embarked on a programme of land reforms (seizures), provision of education and healthcare (modelled largely on Cuba’s system) and took his Bolivarian revolution to the world, provoking the US, its major trading partner and forging alliances with the Castro brothers, whilst supplying discounted oil to poorer Latin American neighbours. No wonder then, that with world media attention and domestic support he began to believe in his cause as a righteous crusade. His choice of political allies in Iran, Cuba and N.Korea was hardly likely to endear him to the State Department and it is widely alleged that the CIA tried to assassinate him.
In the disastrous strikes of 2002-3, the lockouts at PDVSA caused a near implosion of the country’s economy, with GDP collapsing by a staggering 27%. Chávez blind spot was that he failed utterly to develop the country’s productive capacity, from the mangled hydrocarbons law to his failure to address the problems of agriculture and his increasingly erratic behaviours made him into an international pariah. The Revolution was never a thought through process, but more a series of gestural politics: this is the tragedy of Venezuela, so resource rich and so badly governed. It is doubtful if the legacy of Chávez will be ever realized, there is no party to carry it on, more a movement and ultimately he possessed neither skill, vision nor capacity to deliver lasting change. He remained to the end a colourful maverick, whose passing will not be missed in most of the West or in Latin America. Such improvements to the lives of the people are likely to be regrettably ephemeral as the country copes with the damage done to its economy. Even Venezuelan oil, once a vital import for the US, is of increasingly less importance.