“A state too expensive in itself, or by virtue of its dependencies, ultimately falls into decay; its free government is transformed
into a tyranny; it disregards the principles which it should preserve, and finally degenerates into despotism.”
— Simon Bolivar
Regrettably, the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez did not heed the sage words of his own hero, South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar. Had he took to heart and acted upon Bolivar’s warning, far more Venezuelans might be mourning his passing this week.
Chavez died in Caracas hospital a few days ago leaving his beloved country severely polarized, crime ridden and economically flailing. His critics, within Venezuela’s borders and beyond, will point to objective economic and crime rate metrics that clearly illustrate that the former Army paratrooper made his country far less prosperous, and sharply more dangerous than when he took office fourteen years ago.
By almost all objective economic measures, Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” has not delivered as promised. Below is a very short list of the more prominent red marks on his performance report card –
What the Numbers Don’t Say
Despite his clear inability to efficiently manage one of the most resource rich countries on earth, Chavez’s supporters poured into the streets of Caracas this week to mourn the passing of a modern day Robin Hood. The son of working class schoolteachers compelled to sell home-made candies in the mud streets of his rural town to help his family, Hugo never tired of relating his own experience with poverty.
He once stated that he experienced, “humility, poverty, pain,” sometimes “not having anything to eat” for days. Chavez connected on a visceral level with Venezuelans who could never dream of traveling to Miami to shop or to be cast in any of Venezuela’s acclaimed telenovelas. Chavez was not afraid to talk publicly about race and social class disparities in Venezuela, taboo topics that were never before part of the national conversation. In 1998, the charismatic and bombastic Chavez took the political reigns of a country that had still not come to terms with the poisonous and intractable legacy of a long colonial past. Vast inequities existed between the “light skinned” mestizos of Venezuela and the black, Indian and mixed race categories from which Chavez himself hailed. He was hell-bent on starting a national transformation project that would rectify, what he and many other Venezuelans saw, as an unjust and intolerable socio-economic order. “El Comandante” did not create a polarized Venezuela, but he exploited the deep seated economic and social divisions to further his revolution.
The Fast Moving Red Train
The Venezuelan masses’ deep seated frustration with an inequitable order was the coal that kept Chavez’s “21st century socialism” train moving. Their absolute trust in him and fear of the possibility of a resurgent old political guard kept the Venezuelan poor voting for their modern day “Libertador.” Through the ballot box, they kept him in office and he in turn repaid his constituents by using the country’s immense energy revenues to establish a robust nationwide health, and education services infrastructure.
Chavez’s red train led to a reduction in poverty by over a half, and slashing of extreme poverty by over seventy percent. Further, he engineered the dramatic expansion of health and education services to the poor and raised the minimum wage, halving unemployment, and promoted local democracy by handing the reigns of social programs to power communities. In 2006, ninety-seven percent of the population of students aged six to eleven made it to the last grade of primary school, which was an increase from 88 percent in 1999.
For sure, Venezuela’s twenty-first century Robin Hood was on a relentless mission to rewire Venezuela to make it more inclusive of the poor and to ensure that the Venezuelan oligarchs would never again hold the reins of Venezuelan political and economic power. Did it work?
An Uncertain Legacy
Chavez’s failures are clear and hard to dispute, but will they define his legacy? Or will his “pro-poor” successes and his courage to pick fights with national and global political be what endures in the minds of his supporters?
It is likely that the majority of Venezuelans, the predominately working class folks, will appreciate their late leader’s sincere effort to complete the revolution that Simon Bolivar started almost two centuries ago. But, there is also the slight possibility, that over time, they may come to realize that they were passengers on a fast moving red train heading nowhere.