It won’t happen, of course, but Hugo Chavez’s tombstone should have enough space on both sides for totally opposing perceptions of his legacy. As usual, the truth encompasses both sides and even self-styled “objective” critics, like myself, will argue about where the balance lies.
Venezuela is in many ways a shambles, and its president for the past 14 years has been rightly vilified as an incompetent manager. Inflation (at 18 per cent) is the worst in Latin America; Transparency International ranks Venezuela 165th on its corruption index – separated by only nine countries from the most corrupt on the planet. Spending on imports has quadrupled in 10 years; criminal violence is soaring; infrastructure, including the electricity grid, is rusting; and the oil industry, now virtually the only engine of the economy, has been so badly administered that Venezuela imports some refined petroleum products from the United States.
The president who sat on what has recently been verified as the largest oil reserves in the world (approximately 296 billion barrels) contrived to have the country live beyond its abundant means. The fiscal deficit stands at close to 20 per cent. By contrast, the U.S., with its notorious fiscal cliff, is at 7 per cent.
One part of this equation was Mr. Chavez’s international philanthropy. The Cuban economy floats on Chavez oil and other subsidies. Most of the cash-strapped and oil-dry Caribbean and Central American countries are indebted to his concessional PetroCaribe program. Major recipients of generous Venezuelan support are Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Mr. Chavez has more than filled the holes left by the withdrawal of most Western development assistance to Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government. Angst in Havana and Managua will be especially high.
Mr. Chavez was proud of his democracy and to his credit, he installed what is probably the most tamper-proof voting system in the Americas. The opposition did not contest his 55-per-cent majority in October’s presidential election, nor is there much dispute about the overwhelming success of his party in December’s gubernatorial elections. (His candidates won 20 of 23 governorships.) However, reliable results on election day do not compensate for the loss of the country’s independent judiciary, the politicization of the electoral tribunal, the muzzling of much (not all) of the opposition media, the flagrant abuse of state resources for government candidates – in other words, the tilting of the electoral playing field and the removal of checks and balances.
Chavez zealots will claim that it was their leader who punctured the image of Uncle Sam’s massive clout in the hemisphere. He had a role, certainly, but a smaller one than Brazil and Cuba.
The dark side of Mr. Chavez is very dark and stands in puzzling contrast to his successes. Frequently a clown who took adolescent pleasure in America-baiting, he was also a genuine socialist reformer. Illiteracy has all but disappeared in Venezuela. Education and free health care are almost universally available. He has succeeded in partially closing the huge gap between wealth and poverty. Improving the quality of life for millions at the bottom levels of society is no small achievement. He also imparted to these millions a sense of dignity about themselves and pride in their leader’s often bombastic rhetoric.
Does Mr. Chavez’s good outrank Mr. Chavez’s bad? Probably, but taken together, they make a difficult legacy. There is now a major question about whether corroded institutions and a misshapen economy, previously held intact by his extraordinary vitality and communications skills, can be sustained by Nicolas Maduro, the non-charismatic designated successor. In the short term, it is likely that the transition will succeed and Mr. Maduro will win the next election. For the longer term, as they say in Caracas, Quien sabe? – “Who knows?”
John Graham is a former Canadian ambassador to Venezuela.