There is no doubt that Hugo Chavez will be remembered in Latin American history. The debate about how he will be remembered is just getting started,
Was he a dictator or a man of the people? Did his economic and social policy lift up the poor or stifle development? Was he a man of deep, principled conviction or just an egotistical blowhard? Was he a human rights violator or a savior of the masses?
Chavez’s impact on Venezuelan society can not be understated and his influence on other Latin American leaders from Cuba to Bolivia was significant. Rather than labeling him with ill-fitting descriptions, I prefer to analyze the impact of his policies.
As a political leader, Chavez was an ideologue. He deeply believed that governments must assist their poor populations through direct subsidies and handouts and his policies reflected that. Chavez galvanized Venezuela’s poor and disadvantaged by demonizing the upper and middle class of the country and creating a generous social welfare state in exchange for political loyalty in national elections. He used Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to pay for much of this spending along with the taxes collected predominately from the countries middle and upper income groups.
Chavez insisted that the only way to help the poor was to empower himself and his government at the expense of individual and collective liberties. His government took control of most mainstream news outlets and media companies in Venezuela and punished publications critical of his administration through intimidation, censor, and prosecution. The constitution was rewritten to allow Chavez to consolidate power, sideline the nation’s court system and stay in office for life,
Human Rights Watch published an article detailing other blatant abuses initiated by the Bolivarian autocrat.
Chavez’s economic and social policies were classic socialist reactions to neoliberal Western capitalism.
As President, Chavez was fortunate to presided over an boom in oil production at home and oil prices abroad. While the country failed to develop much of an economy outside oil, that commodity threw off huge revenues for Chavez to spend liberally. He changed various rules to put himself in charge of the Central Bank and the state oil company, giving him free reign to spend as much as he wanted on whomever and whatever he wanted. Rather than invest some of the oil windfall in infrastructure, advanced education or urban development, he introduced massive welfare programs and subsidies to win the undying support of disaffected groups. He introduced free health care (through an oil for doctors deal with Cuba), free public education at state operated schools, accessibility to public pensions for millions and food subsidies for most Venezuelans.
As David Sirota of Salon magazine points out, the social welfare net created by Chavez seemed to have had a positive impact. Thanks largely to an oil price boom, Venezuelan GDP more than doubled in Chavez’s first ten years in office and his new social spending is credited with halving both the infant mortality rate and unemployment. The poverty rate in Venezuela plummeted and is now the third lowest in Latin America .
However, poverty plummeted all over Latin America, including in countries that did not dramatically alter their economic models toward a more socialist agenda. The same is true of infant mortality and unemployment. In fact, poverty declined all over the developing world from 2002 – 2011, especially in Asia where very few countries have developed a functioning, robust social welfare system.
Even with the oil boom, Venezuela’s GDP growth is not particularly impressive when compared to the per capita GDP growth of other Latin American countries since 2000. Chile has experienced uninterrupted GDP/per capita growth since 2000 with income per person and life expectancy greater than in Venezuela while also having a lower infant mortality rate.
It is unclear whether Chavez’s socialist agenda directly contributed to the country’s rapid move away from desperate poverty. However, the side effects of his policies are clear. Massive social spending is outpacing Venezuala’s income, leading to an unsustainable build up of debt. Partially because of irresponsible fiscal policy, the nation’s currency is declining in value every few weeks, with a recent official devaluation of 32% in February. The price of basic goods are steadily increasing for the poor and middle class as they see their savings and earnings become less valuable and subsidies fail to keep up. Compare Venezuela’s 28% inflation rate with Brazil’s 7%, Peru’s 4.8% or Chile’s 2.8%. Venezuela’s inflation is made worse by the fact that the country must import much of it’s staple economic necessities.
Chavez’s hostile attitude toward capitalism and free market concepts have isolated his country from international investors and foreign capital needed to prop up it’s beleaguered private sector. Years of class warfare chased away many young entrepreneurs and put experienced business owners into early retirement. The inefficient and corrupt political structure created by Chavez’s large bureaucracy has led to poor performing schools that have graduated students ill prepared for the modern economy and ignorant of business development best practices or entrepreneurship.
The socialist agenda may have helped eliminate pockets of desperate poverty; but, it is now stifling economic growth, threatening poverty for those still clinging to Venezuela’s middle class and restricting individual opportunity for advancement.
In addition, the mechanism of government required to implement a vast socialist agenda creates it’s own problems.
Corruption in Venezuela is the stuff of legend. Chavez and his allies flooded the public workforce with ill-prepared political friends and supporters, incapable or unwilling of delivering efficient public service. Basic tasks like transferring a car title requires bribery and extreme patience. Trying to get a passport, applying for a business license or engaging in any kind of real estate transaction is a painstaking process.
In addition to economic hardship, the murder rate in Venezuela is among the highest in the world. Chavez purged the country of experienced military and para-military leaders out of fear that they could overthrow him. The murders may not be a direct result of these moves, but the nations pitiful response to the spike in violence is probably directly linked to the purging of those best trained to deal with it.
Chavez’s legacy is also inextricably linked with the global leaders he aligned himself with. Chavez’s support of leftist regimes in Latin America is well documented including the discounted crude oil he provided to communist Cuba to prop up it’s lifeless economy. He also sent cheap oil to Syrian President Bashir Assad, now being used to fuel his assault on Syrian civilians; and publicly praised the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier. His close relations with slain Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi and executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein are proof enough that wherever there was a despot suppressing their people, Chavez’s support was not far behind.
There were poor people left behind by previous regimes and globalization in Venezuela. Many of them saw Chavez and his leftist vision as a breathe of fresh air. He represented a new opportunity for them. His handouts and social welfare programs were a life line and his expressions of anger toward the rich allowed them to air their grievances vicariously through him.
To his political opponents, private business interests and educated workforce, he was a authoritarian whose policies restricted freedom, hampered individual advancement, damaged trust in public institutions, twisted economic realities and corrupted the levers of government.
To the poor people living under repressive regimes in Libya, Syria, Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea; Chavez was a cruel outsider supporting their oppressors.
On the international stage, he was an antagonist who propped up despots and thumbed his nose at liberal democracies.
When judging an international figure, we must weigh the positive results of their actions against the negative ones to evaluate how many people were helped versus how many were harmed.
By any fair measure, the number of people oppressed by Chavez’s policies, both in Venezuela and abroad, far outnumber the relatively small number of people who gained a voice under his rule at home. The number of freedoms lost and human rights undermined under his regime were not matched by any corresponding expansion of rights or freedoms for anyone under his rule. The number of people denied an opportunity to advance their place in society through education and economic opportunity is greater than the number of poor who now have limited access to a creaky welfare system.
Hugo Chavez is not a murderous dictator responsible for the systematic killing of thousands of his own people like most other cult of personality regimes. His supporters can even cling to the concept that his socialist vision can work with appropriate reforms. In the arch is history, Chavez will not be remembered among the most extreme authoritarians.
However, no one can argue that Chavez had a net negative impact on his country and the world.
His exit from the world stage provides an opportunity for healing and revising of the misguided policies he implemented.
With Chavez gone, Venezuela’s future is slightly more optimistic and the prospects for human advancement around the world is much better.