The Cost of Chavez

Venezuela descends into chaos while its president blusters.

Since coming to power in 1998, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has presided over radical changes inside the country. Promising to create “21st century socialism,” he has reformed the constitution, giving government-funded health care to all. He has nationalized key industries in repeated attempts to address what he perceives as an imbalance between Venezuela’s business elites and its masses of poor, including a “re-nationalization” of the oil sector. He’s worked within OPEC to keep the price of oil high and contain America’s power (while also blaming it for his economic woes).

Most alarmingly, he has turned into the bully of Latin America, purchasing large quantities of Russian weapons, threatening his neighbors with war and constantly yammering on about American assassination plots and military threats whenever he needs a boost to his domestic approval ratings. He has supported the FARC terrorists in their insurgency campaign against US-ally Colombia. Clearly, the man has been busy. So busy, in fact, that it was to be expected that he would drop at least one of the balls he was juggling. Too bad for the people of Venezuela that the ball in question was the one concerned with keeping crime low and the streets safe: Under his leadership, Venezuela has become a disaster.

The statistics are sobering, and astonishing. On the whole, the country, with 26 million people, saw a whopping 19,000 murders in 2009. To put that into perspective, the state of Texas, with a comparable population of roughly 24.5 million, experienced 1,374 murders in 2008, considerably less than a tenth of Venezuela’s total. Indeed, the United States as a whole, with roughly 12 times the population of Venezuela, recorded nearly 3,000 fewer murders in 2008 than did Venezuela in 2009. (Please note the differing years reflect the most recent available data for both nations.)

Put another way, it is safer to live in Iraq than it is in Venezuela.

The problem is particularly acute in the capital city of Caracas, currently the murder capital of the world. In 2008, as rival gangs battled for control of the underworld and kidnappings for ransom flourished, the city’s central forensic lab was filled to capacity with murder victims awaiting examination, with more arriving each hour. Later that year, after more than 500 people were murdered in the capital during the month of December alone, the Ministry of Interior Relations and Justice announced a slate of initiatives designed to help bring down the rate of violent crime the next year. Community outreach into troubled areas and specialized police units operating within the capital were entrusted with bringing the murder epidemic back under control. It didn’t work.

How is Chavez, a man willing to shake his fist at mighty America, tackling this national nightmare? He’s blaming the media for reporting the extent of the problem. Rather than face up to the fact that the number of murders in Venezuela has at least doubled (some figures suggest an even great increase of 400%) since he took office, Chavez’s government is accusing the media of supporting opposition parties ahead of legislative elections later this month by running pictures of the afore-mentioned Caracas morgue, overflowing with the bodies of murder victims. Venezuela’s courts quickly deemed the images pornographic and banned similar images from publication, in a move that brought swift condemnation from the United Nations and various international press agencies. The rulings have largely been reversed, though the first two papers to publish the images remain under sanction.

It seems to have escaped the notice of the government that if there’s a morgue full of crime victims, that itself is the problem, rather than the willingness of journalists to report on the facts. But for leaders such as Chavez, facts come a distant second behind ideology, and his ideology is simple: He is doing what is right for Venezuela, and if the country is in fact getting worse under his leadership, then it’s far preferable to shoot the media messengers than admit the truth. On the rare occasions when a government official is even willing to admit that there is a problem with a rising crime rate, they attribute it to regional factors, pointing out that other Latin American countries, such as Mexico, are also drowning in blood.

It is therefore interesting to compare Venezuela to its neighbor, Colombia. Colombia is of course far from perfect. It continues to grapple with an entrenched left-wing narco-insurgency, the very same FARC terrorists that Chavez supports. And violent crime remains a serious issue in many of Colombia’s major cities, in large part due to the same drug cartels and smuggling rings that beset Venezuela.

But unlike its socialist neighbor, Colombia shows no interest in denying that the problem exists and is more focused on finding solutions, including closer co-operation with America in modernizing its police. Such mutual assistance has paid dividends before; American military and technical aid was essential in allowing Colombia to deal several harsh military defeats to FARC, bringing large swathes of the country under government control for the first time in decades. FARC has even put out peace feelers.

Colombia’s efforts have paid off. Increasing security, economic development and a strengthening and maturing central government have seen the crime rate, while still problematic, drop by half during the same period than Venezuela’s has skyrocketed. With a newly inaugurated president, Colombia is well positioned to ride a wave of increasing prosperity in the wake of improving security conditions and continue to develop and modernize. None of this is to deny or minimize the challenges that lie ahead for a country that still must address economic disparity and remaining guerilla holdouts. But certainly, it is today better to live in democratic, capitalist, stabilizing Colombia than corrupt, violent Venezuela.

Hugo Chavez cannot be blind to the successes of his neighbor compared to the continued setbacks in his own nation. Whether or not he’s prepared to stop blaming the media for his own failures of leadership and take the steps necessary to improve the lives of his own people is an open question. But given his history of preferring the sound of a rattling saber over that of constructive criticism, there seems little reason for optimism.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected].