Updated March 5: Hugo Chavez reported dead today. Jamie Daremblum reported on Chavez’s Legacy in Venezuela in January for PJ Media.
Shortly after Hugo Chávez won his first election as Venezuelan president in December 1998, a lawyer from the western state of Barinas, which was then governed by Chávez’s father, delivered a prescient warning to Newsweek magazine: “Venezuelans are dreaming of a savior, but Chávez is a dictator. People don’t know what they are getting.”
More than 14 years later, a cancer-stricken Chávez is reportedly near death, but his autocratic legacy is very much alive.
Venezuela long ago ceased to be a real democracy: The ruling regime effectively controls the Supreme Court (which in 2004 was expanded and packed with Chávez allies), the National Assembly (which in 2010 granted Chávez the authority to rule by decree for 18 months), and the National Electoral Council (which repeatedly allowed Chávez supporters to violate election laws and rules during the country’s 2012 presidential campaign), not to mention the armed forces and the federal police.
For that matter, Venezuela long ago ceased to be a country with real press freedom or real economic freedom. Besides imposing a series of draconian restrictions on media content, the Chávez government has “blocked critical coverage, closed broadcasters, sued reporters for defamation, excluded those it deems unfriendly from official events, and harassed — with the help of government allies and state-run media — critical journalists,” as the Committee to Protect Journalists detailed in an August 2012 report. It is a regime that seizes not only television and radio stations, but also banks, oil facilities, cement plants, food factories, sugar plantations, and much else.
Between 1999 (when Chávez took office) and 2012, Venezuela’s score in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom dropped by 32 percent. The only countries with a lower overall score in the 2012 index were Eritrea, Libya, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and North Korea. Not a single country scored lower than Venezuela for property rights. Meanwhile, in the Ease of Doing Business Index that the World Bank released on October 23, Venezuela placed well behind Zimbabwe and ahead of only the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, the Republic of Congo, Chad, and the Central African Republic. (Cuba, Libya, and North Korea were not ranked.)
Please remember that Venezuela is endowed with enormous petroleum reserves and once had a decent-sized middle class. But the madness of Bolivarian socialism has wrecked the state-run oil company and prompted a huge middle-class exodus, especially among Venezuelan Jews. (A year ago, Matthew Fishbane of Tablet magazine reported that “nearly half of Venezuela’s Jewish community has fled from the social and economic chaos that [Chávez] has unleashed and from the uncomfortable feeling that they were being specifically targeted by the regime.”) Venezuelans of all stripes began scrambling for the exits following Chávez’s reelection victory on October 7: According to Bloomberg News, “Traffic to MeQuieroIr.com, a Venezuelan website that provides information to people looking to emigrate, tripled to 180,000 visits the day after Chávez won by a 11-percentage-point margin.”
Plagued by high inflation, food shortages, power outages, and mounting debt, Venezuela has become one of the most economically dysfunctional nations in the Western Hemisphere. It has also become one of the most murderous. According to the independent Venezuelan Observatory of Violence (OVV), the country suffered no fewer than 21,692 homicides in 2012, up from 19,336 in 2011. Its national murder rate (73 per 100,000) is among the highest anywhere in the world, and easily the highest in South America. The homicide rate in Caracas is much, much steeper — the OVV has estimated that it was 200 per 100,000 in 2011 — making Venezuela’s capital arguably the most dangerous city on earth. (In one especially embarrassing incident in August 2010, a Hong Kong baseball player participating in the Women’s Baseball World Cup at a Caracas stadium was wounded in the leg by a stray bullet.)
To be sure, Venezuela had a serious problem with violent crime before Chávez assumed the presidency. But its national murder rate has more than tripled since he took office in 1999, according to the OVV. Telegraph correspondent Nick Allen notes that Venezuela is now experiencing more murders than the United States and the European Union combined. To offer some perspective: The total population of the U.S. and the 27 EU member states (815 million) is roughly 28 times larger than that of Venezuela (29 million). As Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro explains, “Venezuela’s murder rate is just unheard of among middle-income countries, to say nothing of oil-rich states on the receiving end of massive new petrodollar flows.”
The violence has many causes, including endemic corruption and Venezuela’s increasingly important role in the global cocaine trade. Governed by a regime that has supported narco-terrorists belonging to the Colombian FARC and allowed senior officials to become veritable kingpins, the country is awash in drugs, gangs, and guns. Between 2007 and 2011, Venezuela was the 15th largest arms importer in the world, importing 555 percent more arms than it did over the previous five-year period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Its Russian-financed weapons buildup has allowed Chávez to equip tens of thousands of pro-government paramilitary fighters with AK-47 assault rifles. These paramilitaries make up the so-called Bolivarian militia, which is tasked with defending the Chávez revolution and intimidating its opponents.
As you might imagine, there have been tensions between the militia and the official Venezuelan armed forces. Chávez’s death would increase these tensions. It would also lead to greater unrest over the “Cubanization” of so many Venezuelan institutions. (In early 2010, several former Chávez loyalists published a letter complaining that institutions such as the military had been “distorted by the incursion of outside elements,” i.e., Cubans.) The disputes over Cubanization could get especially fierce if Castro acolyte Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s designated successor, took power and governed as “a puppet of Havana” (to quote a recent prediction from former Venezuelan oil official Gustavo Coronel).
Maduro currently serves as both vice president and foreign minister. Neither he nor Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly, has anything close to the charisma, political talents, or cult-like following of Hugo Chávez. Yet both seem determined to maintain the key elements of his revolution, and both showed a complete disregard for the Venezuelan constitution in their statements about postponing the date of Chávez’s inauguration (which was originally scheduled for Thursday, January 10). Whether Maduro and Cabello will eventually find themselves — and their respective pro-Chávez factions — locked in a power struggle remains to be seen.
What about relations between Caracas and Washington? Recent news reports have indicated that U.S. and Venezuelan officials are working to secure a bilateral rapprochement, including a restoration of ambassadors. But it is hard to see how Washington could enjoy any type of “normal” relationship with a regime that shelters drug kingpins, brutalizes political opponents, confiscates private property, stockpiles Russian weaponry, threatens its neighbors, and helps Iran evade global sanctions.
The hope of Venezuelan democrats is that Chávez’s death would be followed by a national election in which opposition leader Henrique Capriles emerged victorious. Despite losing to Chávez by 11 percentage points in the country’s October 2012 presidential election, Capriles is still broadly popular, and on December 16 he won election to another term as governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-most-populous state.
For now, everything in Venezuela is highly uncertain and highly volatile. That’s just one more unfortunate consequence of Chávez’s autocratic revolution — a revolution that has turned an oil-rich nation into a land of crime, cronyism, and chaos.
(You can read this article in Spanish here.)