12 Mar 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Hugo Chavez’s death changes the trajectory of the developing world and models contending within it for economic progress and democratic deepening, writes Tony Leon
IN 2011, from his enforced stay at a US correctional facility, dethroned media mogul Conrad Black described his erstwhile rival, Rupert Murdoch, as "a great bad man". This seemed a suitably contradictory epitaph for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, whose death last week changes the trajectory of the developing world and the models contending within it for economic progress and democratic deepening.
I happened to be in the hedonistic Brazilian coastal town of Parity when the news flashed across the TV screens in a beach bar of the demise of the Venezuelan strongman, the self-styled "El Comandante". The samba music continued to play and few of the locals in this, the largest and most consequential country by far in South America, seemed particularly stirred. In Venezuela itself, however, the masses poured onto the streets in a tumult of grief.
Back in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma’s message of condolence noted how Venezuela instituted "a dramatic change to the promotion of regional integration based upon principles of social justice". Closer examination suggests that Chavez divided the region far more than he united it and that the gains of his "revolution" were purchased at great, perhaps ruinous, cost.
Zuma’s juvenile nemesis, Julius Malema, issued his own statement of grief, which observed, with characteristic understatement, how, "despite massive resistance from rented imperialist puppets, Chavez was able to lead Venezuela into an era where the wealth was returned to … the people".
Quite who the former African National Congress Youth League president had in mind as rent-an-imperialist is not clear. But even his message was mild in comparison with the statement of Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, who darkly hinted that the US had caused Chavez’s cancer. Thus, a handy unifying force is found in a moment of national uncertainty.
But in some revealing ways, there is a superficial similarity between Chavez and Malema beyond their chubby features and rhetorical exuberance: both grew up in rural poverty, reared by their grandmothers, and both burnt with a charismatic determination to challenge the forces of capitalism and to use their countries’ resource wealth to address the needs of the poor. Of course, the singular difference was that Chavez was fully grown up when he ascended to power in 1998. He also presided over a country, which despite 14 years of conspicuous economic mismanagement, still contains the largest oil reserves in the world.
In fact, it was the rocketing price of oil — $10 a barrel when he was first elected, rising to more than $100 a barrel at the time of his death — that allowed Chavez the means to "buy a lot of influence in the world and to purchase the support of Venezuela’s poor", in the opinion of the Wall Street Journal.
But on the positive side of the ledger, Chavez did more than buy votes and prop up bankrupt regimes such as his close ally, Cuba, where he in effect stepped in as creditor of first and last resort after the demise of the Soviet Union. As Latin American expert Jorge Heine noted: "When Chavez took over, the standard of living for most Venezuelans hadn’t changed since 1963, when half the population lived below the poverty datum line. Poverty has now been cut in half."
But this stellar achievement came at great cost: his economic populism bequeathed to his country the highest rate of inflation (and crime levels) on the whole continent, marked by chronic food shortages and infrastructural decay. Even his country’s oil wealth has reversed itself. Having nationalised the Petroleos de Venezuela oil company, and stuffed its management with his cronies, daily oil production fell by more than 1-million barrels during the course of his rule.
On the democratic side of the ledger, the balance sheet is worse: Chavez was, in the description of one of his biographers, Rory Carroll, "a hybrid — an elected authoritarian". His country’s elections were held on time but were of the free rather than the fair variety. He closed down opposition-supporting TV stations, saturated his image via state-sponsored media and packed the Supreme Court with loyalist judges. In Carroll’s view, he was "a brilliant politician and a disastrous ruler". And while he bestrode the world and regional stages as an apostle for global equality, Chavez used his petrodollars to fuel a narco-terrorist force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army, in neighbouring Colombia. In fact, it is the less heralded rise of Colombia, on the back of market economic reforms and tough security policies, that allowed it to transform from narco-state to regional economic leader, second on the continent only to Brazil.
Colombia, Peru and Chile have followed the path of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s Brazil, not Chavez’s Venezuela. That’s the road that leads to the social justice of which Zuma approvingly wrote last week. He just got the country wrong.• Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA