To say that Hugo Chavez divided Venezuelans doesn’t do justice to the extremes of emotion he provoked in his fellow citizens.
I once spent an evening with a wealthy woman in Caracas who made increasingly lurid and damning allegations about the president, culminating in an anecdote about a friend of a relative of a friend who supposedly knew Chavez and heard him express admiration for Hitler.
This was preposterous, but then so was much of the hagiography that surrounded Chavez when he lived, and that will surely get kicked up a notch now. Chavez was not a tyrant, but nor was he saint who sought to liberate Venezuela’s poor and unite the country behind revolutionary socialism. That Venezuela is so split now at the moment of his death is the natural result of his own polarizing politics.
Chavez was an autocratic populist who governed as if in the midst of a perpetual election campaign in which he was not constrained by normal democratic rules. For Chavez, Venezuelans could be divided between his supporters — chavistas — and opponents. Most chavistas were poor, and many benefited from his polices designed to help them. Chavez brought them subsidized food and more accessible healthcare. He built cable cars to connect residents of mountainside shantytowns to the centre of Caracas.
But to Chavez the poor were also — and perhaps primarily — supporters to be mobilized. So many of his social programs were politicized. The committees administering them were linked to Chavez’s party. Schoolchildren learned to sing his praise. In one particularly telling incident, Venezuelans who signed a petition asking for a presidential recall referendum found themselves excluded from public service jobs — whether they were poor and in need of employment or not.
The sad irony is that after 14 years with Chavez in power, Venezuelans are still poor. Wealth is now distributed more evenly, but there is less of it to go around. While the economies of neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Colombia have expanded during the past decade, Venezuela’s has stagnated. Chavez made economic decisions on the fly, sometimes announcing them during weekly unscripted televised addresses that also included the president singing and dancing.
He devalued the currency. He nationalized the oil industry and managed it poorly. He didn’t diversify the country’s economy. Some 50 per cent of government revenue comes from oil. If its prices hadn’t have soared so high during his presidency, Venezuela would be in even worse financial shape than it is now.
Hugo Chavez tried to raise Venezuela’s global profile by forging alliances with pretty much anyone opposed to the United States. His bonds with Fidel Castro’s Cuba at least made some ideological sense; those with the archconservative theocrats running Iran betray the amoral hypocrisy of his brand of socialism.
If Chavez can be justifiably praised, it is for empowering Venezuela’s vast underclass. They had been variously cheated, exploited, and ignored before he came to power. They cannot be ignored any longer. With luck, a more democratic, liberal, and economically competent president will eventually take Chavez’s place without forgetting that lesson.