No, he was not a dictator. But there is a reason why this morning's new report from Human Rights Watch, assessing the legacy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez after his death on Tuesday at age 58, is titled "Chávez's Authoritarian Legacy."
In a decade during which South America was quickly moving away from its old binaries of far-right and far-left demagoguery, Mr. Chavez held Venezuela in the past, both economically and politically. Under the Chavez decade – while countries such as Brazil and Peru became models of success and equality – Venezuela seemed to return to the bad old days.
True, elections in Venezuela were generally fair and well-conducted under Mr. Chavez. He even willingly conceded loss in one referendum designed to consolidate his power. But during his 14 years, every other institution of democracy – the courts, the media, the opposition – was destroyed, in an old-style attempt to create a party-run state and economy.
"By his second full term in office," Human Rights Watch concludes, "the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda."
In a series of detailed research reports published over the last decade, the respected rights organization has documented the crushing of judicial independence, the large-scale censorship and intimidation of the media, the quashing of opposition parties and banishment and silencing of opponents, and the imprisonment of human-rights activists. During an era when such excesses and abuses of power were disappearing in most other major South American countries, Venezuela stood nearly alone in its magnitude of demagoguery.
The authoritarianism extended into the economy. While he didn't, contrary to popular myth, nationalize the oil industry (it had been government-owned since 1976, and he merely devastated its productivity and output by packing it with cronies and failing to maintain its infrastructure), he did manage to trash most of the non-oil economy. In a country that should be one of the great agricultural exporters of the Americas, he turned farming into a non-viable business by subsidizing consumption and controlling prices, and converted large swathes of commercial-agriculture land back into subsistence-level peasant farms. As a result, his country became heavily reliant on food imports and suffered from serious food shortages.
On top of that, somehow one of the world's largest oil exporters, during a decade-long petroleum-price boom, managed to accumulate a fiscal deficit of 20 per cent. That, combined with an annual inflation rate of 30 per cent, is the result of an authoritarian, rather than liberal, approach to the economy.
Was it all worth it, as some have argued, because Mr. Chavez used a torrent of oil money to bail out the poor? It sounds persuasive – poverty decreased sharply during his 14 years in power – until you look at the records of neighbouring countries with left-wing governments that didn't bother with economic or political authoritarianism.
During the Chavez years, inequality decreased only slightly in Venezuela, returning to 1990s levels – and that decrease can be attributed entirely to oil money. But, as one major study found, inequality plummeted far more sharply in those countries – Brazil, Chile, Uruguay – that had social-democratic governments which maintained open market economies and robust democratic institutions. Those countries, despite having lower resource revenues, achieved the sort of results on poverty and equality that Mr. Chavez could only have dreamed of, while also building an institutional legacy that will sustain them through the future.
And that, in the end, is the ultimate condemnation of the Chavez approach: It was all about instant spending, with no consideration to long-term investments. Once the oil stops flowing, there will be nothing left but debt and broken institutions.