Wednesday, March 6, 2013
The Facts Concerning Hugo Chavez
From the Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2013
When Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela in December 1998, the country had endured nearly two decades of political and economic turmoil, including violent rioting, high inflation, huge foreign debts, a president impeached on corruption charges, and two failed 1992 coups—one of them led, and the other inspired, by a brash and ambitious army colonel named Hugo Chávez.
Yet when the Chávez era finally drew to a close Tuesday with his death from cancer at age 58, life for Venezuelans had only become worse. As life stories go, the lesson of Chávez's is to beware charismatic demagogues peddling socialist policies at home and revolution abroad.
That's a lesson one would have thought the world had learned by the time Chávez came to power. By 1998, the Soviet Union was a memory, Latin American countries from Mexico to Chile were successfully adopting free-market policies, and Chávez's friend and role model—Cuba's Fidel Castro—was a discredited dinosaur.
Chávez showed that it's possible to run against the tides of history, at least for a while, and at least if you happen to get lucky with an oil revenue bonanza. When he took power, Venezuelan oil prices were plumbing lows of about $10 a barrel. When he took to the podium of the United Nations in 2006 to compare George W. Bush to the devil, he was high on surging global oil prices that would peak in 2008 at more than $150.
That kind of money can buy a lot of influence, and Chávez was quick to use it to purchase the political support of Venezuela's poor, the army and a loyal nouveau riche. It also allowed him to become a classic petro-dictator. In 1999 he revised the Venezuelan constitution to give him expanded powers. He used a constitutional assembly under his control to appoint a chavista Supreme Court. He stripped independent TV and radio stations of their licenses and intimidated reporters with draconian libel laws.
Though elections were held on schedule, he made sure to tilt the playing field. For his fourth election last October, opposition politicians were limited to three minutes of advertising a day, while Chávez could commandeer the airwaves at any time. He permitted no debates. Public workers risked being fired if they voted against him. It was the sort of election only Jimmy Carter could bless—which our 39th president predictably did.
Yet despite the populism and government handouts, life for Venezuela—and particularly the poor—has only become worse. While wealthier Venezuelans could flee, the less-fortunate now endure routine food and medicine shortages, thanks to price and capital controls. Prices are more than 20 times higher than in 1999. Capital has fled the country. The murder rate in Caracas is one of the highest in the world. Bridges and roads are in disrepair, blackouts are routine, and untreated sewage pollutes drinking water.
Meanwhile, state-owned oil company PdVSA has been all but stripped for parts. Daily production fell by more than one million barrels over the course of Chávez's rule to 2.5 million barrels at the end of 2012.
Chávez made his mark on the world stage by forging alliances with Bashar Assad in Syria and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, giving sanctuary to Colombia's narco-terrorist FARC movement, providing the Castro regime with free oil, and inveighing loudly against the United States. He succeeded in spawning political imitators in Ecuador and Bolivia.
This brought him some adulation, notably from the usual Hollywood suspects. But the reality of what Venezuela became under Chávez is hard to ignore. On Tuesday the Venezuelan government expelled two U.S. Air Force attaches. Heir apparent Nicolás Maduro also accused the U.S. of poisoning Chávez with cancer, suggesting that the combination of buffoonery and thuggery that Chávez pioneered will continue past his grave.
As for Venezuelans, they will have to fight to reclaim the democracy they once enjoyed. Mr. Maduro lacks his predecessor's charisma or military background, but the institutions of the regime are now entrenched, and its beneficiaries will not easily part with them.
The Constitution requires that new elections be held in 30 days, assuming Mr. Maduro honors the law. Let's hope Venezuelans seize the chance to bury the tragic legacy of Chavismo alongside its author's corpse.