It is no accident that the death of Hugo Chavez, while mourned by the usual suspects on the left, was celebrated by thousands of his fellow countrymen. In the Doral section of Miami, FL, home to the largest enclave of Venezuelans living in America, the strongman’s demise was met with unrestrained joy. Daniela Calzadilla, who moved from Caracas five years ago, due to the skyrocketing crime rate and dwindling career opportunities, expressed a common refrain. “We hope this is the path to return our democracy and that hopefully we can have the same country we once had,” she said. Mary LaBarca put it even simpler. “We are not celebrating someone’s death,” she said. “We are celebrating freedom.”
Hugo Chavez was born July 28, 1954. Raised largely by his grandmother in the western state of Barinas, Chavez began nurturing his fascination with Marxism at an early age, boosted by Castro’s revolution in Cuba in 1959. His education led him to despise “imperialist” America, even as he idolized Castro and 19th century South American liberator Simon Bolivar. He eventually joined the army, after failing to fulfill his dream of becoming a major league baseball player.
In 1992, after rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, Chavez led an unsuccessful coup against then President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Scores of civilians and soldiers were killed, but Chavez won a large populist following as a result. He was jailed, but then released two years later by then President Rafael Caldera. Four years later, Chavez was elected president with 57 percent of the vote. Chavez changed the nation’s name to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and often appeared in front of huge paintings of Bolivar. The message was clear: Venezuelans were invited to think of him as the second coming of a historical hero.
Yet shortly after he won the vote, a lawyer from Barinas told Newsweek Magazine what had really occurred. “Venezuelans are dreaming of a savior, but Chávez is a dictator. People don’t know what they are getting.” After his inauguration in 1999, Chavez rewrote the nation’s constitution, precipitating a special presidential election in 2000, giving him a six year term.
1999 was the year he also began traveling around the world, ingratiating himself to a number of America’s enemies. While in Communist China, Chavez put his cards on the table. ”I have been very Maoist all of my life,” he declared at the time. He was also successful in getting OPEC to pump up oil prices.
Steadily, Chavez’s “democratic” revolution began to resemble the dictatorship his regime inevitably became. The legislative and judicial branches of the Venezuelan government were subordinated to his authoritarian rule. He stacked his government with military officers, emulating the juntas that ruled Peru and Panama in the 1970s. The constitution became increasingly irrelevant, a reality most recently emphasized when Chavez’s absence still allowed him to win inauguration last January. That absence should have triggered certain procedures, but they were completely ignored. Chavez also politicized Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-owned oil company, whose output has declined by almost half from 2000 to 2011.
This combination of factors, as well as Chavez’s interminable rants (one went on for almost ten hours), polarized the nation to the point where Chavez was himself ousted in a short-lived coup in 2002. Yet his populist supporters, angered by TV images of the nation’s former elite reveling in victory, restored him to power two days later.
Chavez was hardened by the coup attempt, which he blamed on George W. Bush. His hatred of America and capitalism drove him into alliances with other Latin American leftists, with whom he formed the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), an effort to counterbalance American “hegemony.” That counterbalance also included tactical support for the communist Columbian terror group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He formed alliances with Libya, Iraq, and Iran and Syria, and former members of his military alleged he supported Al Qaeda as well.
Chavez forged more dubious alliances during a 2006 trip. They included Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin, who sold Chavez $3 billion worth of military hardware, and Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who awarded him Iran’s highest state honor, the Islamic Republic Medal, for supporting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. In the same year, he referred to Israel as one of America’s “imperialistic instruments,” and President Bush as “the Devil,” an “extremist,” an aspiring “world dictator,” and the “spokesman of imperialism.” This year it was revealed that Chavez was keeping Venezuelan Jews under surveillance because he considered them a “fifth column.”
Chavez’s ongoing relationship with Iran was despicable. He acted as their banker in order to help them avoid sanctions, and allowed them to open factories in remote locations, likely to pursue weapons production. According to the Israelis, he was also supplying them with uranium.
Unsurprisingly, Venezuela increasingly began to resemble some of the authoritarian states Chavez admired. The Heritage Foundation’s 2013 Index of Economic Freedom ranked the nation as one of the most repressed in the world. Only Zimbabwe, North Korea and Cuba ranked lower. Chavez’s government also seized TV stations, numerous banks, the assets of 60 oil service companies, 32 sugar plantations, and foreign-owned cement plants, that refused to be nationalized. All privately held oil production was effectively nationalized in 2007 as well.
Crime soared. Caracas became one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and Venezuela’s 2009 murder rate topped that of war-torn Iraq, and Mexico’s cartel-inspired carnage. By 2012, Venezuela’s national murder rate was one of the highest in the world. Chronic food shortages and power outages as well mounting debt – leading to a 33 percent currency devaluation last month, Venezuela’s fifth in a decade – has turned the nation into one of the Western Hemisphere’s worst economic basket cases.
None of this should surprise. A year after he won reelection in 2006, Chavez held a constitutional referendum whose chief purpose was the elimination of presidential term-limits. When voters defeated it, he repeated the process a year later and succeeded in eliminating them. He won another term in 2012, after lying and declaring himself cancer free. Two months later, he went back to Cuba. He was never heard from again.
Chavez characterized his repressive regime as “21st-century socialism.” In reality, in bore a striking resemblance to the repressive regime of Fidel Castro, a man he idolized, and whose nation he kept propped up with cheap oil in return for the training of his private army of enforcers, known as the Bolivarian Circles. Chavez’s regime, in turn, has been largely propped up by China, which has subsidized Venezuela with $36 billion in loans that are being repaid in oil, not cash. And as of last September, the state-run oil company in a nation sitting on some of the largest oil reserves in the world is now paying its debt by issuing bonds–aka IOUs.
Thus, despite his bravado, his charisma, and a host of other dubious qualities that endeared him to leftists, Hugo Chavez was little more than a self-aggrandizing authoritarian thug. His grandiose schemes did little to alleviate the country’s economic woes. Yet he leaves behind a hand-picked successor in Vice President Nicolas Maduro, and enough of a political apparatus that the constitutionally mandated election required to take place in 30 days will likely be nothing more than a formality, officially instating Maduro as president.
Henrique Capriles, a charismatic opposition candidate who lost the October election to Chavez, may mount a challenge, but it is unrealistic to expect him to coordinate a viable election campaign in the space of a month in a nation where “Chavistas” have all but eliminated opposition media.
Chavez is dead. Sadly, the authoritarianism he nurtured will likely live on.
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