As if often the case with charismatic dictators, Hugo Chavez, who died yesterday of cancer at the age of 58, is leaving behind a worse mess than the one with which he began his rule.
But not to worry! He had plenty of personality! The left-wing Guardian marks his departure:
The symbol of Latin American socialism succumbed to a respiratory infection on Tuesday evening, 21 months after he first revealed he had a tumour. He had not been seen in public for three months since undergoing emergency surgery in Cuba on 11 December.
He will be given a state funeral in Caracas, likely to be attended by millions of supporters and leftwing leaders from across the globe who have been inspired by Chávez's doctrine of "Bolivarian 21st-century socialism", grateful for the subsidised energy he provided or simply impressed by his charisma.
Wonder if Joe Kennedy II will attend the U.S.- bashing strongman’s funeral? Kennedy, you’ll recall, took oil handouts from Chavez for his Citizens’ Energy, which provided heating for the poor while helping Chavez slap the U.S. in the face. Kennedy issued a statement yesterday:
Kennedy said in a condolence statement yesterday that Chavez, ?notorious for nationalizing industries while suppressing Venezuela’s media and his political rivals, “cared deeply about the poor of Venezuela and other nations around the world and their abject lack of even basic ?necessities, while some of the wealthiest people on our planet have more money than they can ever reasonably expect to spend.”
Chavez may have used his oil to buy the affections of Mr. Kennedy, but he managed the country’s oil company badly and the poor of Venezuela didn't benefit as much as they might have from a good economy. Perhaps the scariest aspect of Chavez's death concerns the “murky” future of the Venezuelan oil industry. Instability in Venezuela could send oil prices skyrocketing. But it’s always nice to get a send off from a member of one of America’s most famous families.
It is rare that I agree with the Obama administration, but their statement on the death of Chavez was letter perfect—it voiced support for the Venezuelan people and didn’t mention Chavez’s name:
At this challenging time of President Hugo Chávez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”
Predictably, Jimmy Carter's statement was less felicitous.
Meanwhile, actor Sean Penn "lost a friend."
Chavez came to power in 1998, when most Latin American countries were moving towards free-market policies. Chavez, by contrast, was an admirer of Fidel Castro, and, as such, brought a good touch of that good ol' Castro prosperity to Venezuela by rejecting the free-market policies that then seemed likely to produce prosperity.
Chavez was able “to run against the tides of history” because of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, those very oil reserves that made him a player on the international stage and helped him play with willing dupes such as Joe Kennedy. None of this helped the Venezuelan people, but Chavez continued to win their support. The Wall Street Journal notes:
Though elections were held on schedule, he made sure to tilt the playing field. For his fourth election last October, opposition politicians were limited to three minutes of advertising a day, while Chávez could commandeer the airwaves at any time. He permitted no debates. Public workers risked being fired if they voted against him. It was the sort of election only Jimmy Carter could bless—which our 39th president predictably did.
Yet despite the populism and government handouts, life for Venezuela—and particularly the poor—has only become worse. While wealthier Venezuelans could flee, the less-fortunate now endure routine food and medicine shortages, thanks to price and capital controls. Prices are more than 20 times higher than in 1999. Capital has fled the country. The murder rate in Caracas is one of the highest in the world. Bridges and roads are in disrepair, blackouts are routine, and untreated sewage pollutes drinking water.
The Wall Street Journal finds the lesson:
When Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela in December 1998, the country had endured nearly two decades of political and economic turmoil, including violent rioting, high inflation, huge foreign debts, a president impeached on corruption charges, and two failed 1992 coups—one of them led, and the other inspired, by a brash and ambitious army colonel named Hugo Chávez.
Yet when the Chávez era finally drew to a close Tuesday with his death from cancer at age 58, life for Venezuelans had only become worse. As life stories go, the lesson of Chávez's is to beware charismatic demagogues peddling socialist policies at home and revolution abroad.
From Julius Ceasar to Hugo Chavez, charisma in politics is a dangerous thing.