The Death of a Despot

Then there is the political toll: Venezuela is now an “elected autocracy,” with the central government controlling the courts, the legislature, and the electoral council. The country’s independent media have been hollowed out, and the regime has taken over many radio and television stations. Yes, Chávez technically won reelection back in October. But as Arch Puddington of Freedom House noted, you cannot have a genuinely free and fair election in an environment where the incumbent regime enjoys dictatorial powers. “The results in Venezuela,” wrote Puddington, “were determined by the regime’s actions well before the elections.”

Finally, there is the human toll: Venezuela has experienced a mass exodus of middle-class professionals. According to Matthew Fishbane of Tablet magazine, “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.” The chaos of Chavismo has also fueled a dramatic rise in violence: Venezuela now has the second-highest murder rate on the planet, and there is no capital city on earth more dangerous than Caracas. Last June, the Caracas-based daily El Universal reported that Venezuela had suffered no fewer than 155,788 homicides since 1999, when Chávez first took office. That would be a shocking number for any country, let alone a country of just 29 million people.

If the Chávez revolution had one positive impact, it was to convince other Latin American nations that autocratic populism was a dead end. Across the hemisphere, in countries large (Brazil), medium-sized (Peru), and small (Uruguay, El Salvador), left-wing leaders have witnessed the madness in Venezuela and have decided to chart a more responsible course. As The Economist pointed out following Ollanta Humala’s 2011 election victory in Peru, Latin America’s “fashionable formula” for governing is the model associated with former Brazilian president Lula da Silva (who served from 2003 to 2011): “economic stability, private investment, and social programs,” all within a democratic framework. Even ex-Chavistas such as President Humala have become advocates of free-market economic policies and democratic rule.

Of course, that is small comfort for Venezuelans, who will be cleaning up the wreckage of Hurricane Hugo for many years to come.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage assembled from multiple images.)