Hugo Chavez’s damaging legacy
Hugo Chavez was never the evil tyrant portrayed by many American politicians and commentators. Unlike Ayatollah Khamenei, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad, and others he chose to support, he never engaged in mass oppression of his people or opponents. He waged Putin-style battles against the media and other institutions in his country, but, like Putin, retained office through elections that were largely free and fair. He even bowed to the will of the people when Constitutional changes he proposed were voted down by less than 51 percent of the population.
Chavez never came close to fully implementing the socialism he espoused, either. The share of the economy controlled by the government of Venezuela is still smaller than many European countries. While social programs for the poor expanded greatly under Chavez, the country remains a fundamentally capitalist country and a far cry from the Cuban model that forbids most private property.
One thing Chavez did manage to “achieve” economically, however, was to create uncertainty. Venezuela’s national oil company was completely taken over by the state (as were hundreds of other companies), leading foreign oil companies to pull up stakes and oil production to plummet. Public oil companies become increasingly inefficient and corrupt as time goes on (see Mexico). The same is likely to happen in Venezuela.
While Venezuela still depends heavily on the global economy, Chavez has also been an outspoken critic of globalization and trade. One article suggests that opposition to free trade was the defining element of Chavez’s relationship with the United States.
Venezuela can get away with inefficient economic policies to some degree because of the massive infusion of cash that oil revenues bring. Under Chavez, the Venezuelan economy expanded overall in large part due to good fortune he had in coming to office just as oil prices began to skyrocket in the late nineties (another trait he shares with Putin).
Other world leaders advocating nationalization of key industries and opposition to trade are likely to point to Chavez’s track record in support of their positions. The trouble is that in a non-petroleum based economy, the types of policies Chavez advocated are the same type of statist policies that have mired much of the lesser-developed world in poverty. Part of Chavez’s legacy is an economic message that may lead to greater poverty in countries seeking to emulate his policies.
Another troubling part of Chavez’s legacy involves his role as the most influential voice of “anti-imperialism.” The problem is the message of anti-imperialism, as espoused by Chavez, but also by less obnoxious leaders in countries like India, China, and South Africa, always privileges state sovereignty over human rights. Vocal advocacy for the idea that the United States plays a negative role in the world while some of the most violent dictators play a positive one will be one of the more lasting memories the world has of Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s message to the globe was that human rights did not particularly matter and that governance based on a cult-of-personality, whether at home or abroad, was acceptable and respectable. That’s not a legacy that improves the world, it’s one that detracts from it.