Adios Presidente

Adios Presidente
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There’s a popular quote by some famous right-winger — Margaret Thatcher, I think — where it’s smugly declared that the “problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” You see it a lot on conservative bumper stickers and such.

It’s clever because it’s true — at least in most cases. Raise taxes too high and the taxpayers will eventually leave — just ask President Hollande in France. Seize too much private property and you run the risk the government will wreck it all — just ask President Mugabe in Zimbabwe. If the government redistributes wealth faster than wealth can be created, or if the wealth-creators themselves emigrate or engage in some Atlas Shrugged-style act of self-sabotage, then the state will soon collapse into bankruptcy because it has, in fact, run out of other people’s cash.

Hugo Chavez gave Venezuela 14 years of socialist rule, yet Venezuela isn’t anywhere near bankruptcy. It has monstrous inflation, gigantic deficits, and chronic food shortages, true, but a poor country it is not. It’s GDP growth often outpaces America’s, unemployment is lower than many countries in Europe, and even Chavez critics admit his government’s generous handouts to the country’s vast underclass have undeniably helped raise millions out of crushing poverty without causing permanent damage to the state’s bottom line.

But Chavez’s success at solving the socialist Rubik’s Cube ultimately owed more to luck than skill. Venezuela has some of the world’s largest oil reserves, and the crude is harvested and exported by a network of government-owned corporations. This, coupled with the fact that Chavez’s decade-and-a-half reign overlapped with an unprecedented surge in the global price of oil allowed the long-term success of a particularly regressive style of socialism that would have quickly ruined a less naturally-gifted nation. Since his government had a bottomless well of the planet’s most coveted natural resource, the Chavez petro-state basically used capitalism abroad to subsidize communism at home.

It was never a contradiction that seemed to bother the late president very much. Indeed, he found it great fun to charge the devil-Americans — awkwardly, his largest customers — full cost for his oil, while selling barrels to socialist allies like Cuba and Nicaragua at well-below market rates in an attempt to impose moral justice upon the universe. In that sense, Chavez spent much of the 2000s filling a subsidy vacuum left by the USSR; his largess propped up leftist Latin American regimes with little economic strength of their own, creating a colonial network of dependency and ideological obsequiousness that suited the needy Caudillo very well.

And satiating the president’s neediness always seemed to be the primary purpose of the Chavismo philosophy, economic or otherwise. In contrast to one of his more modest socialist allies, Jose Mujica of Uruguay, who dresses like a slob, lives in a run-down neighbourhood, and has little time for ceremony or spectacle, Chavez was a man possessing an insatiable appetite for attention and self-aggrandizement, a supreme egotist who paraded around in gaudy uniforms, personally re-designed the national flag, motto, and even the country’s formal name to his eccentric specifications, and rarely believed his mind ever possessed a thought that wasn’t worth sharing.

In most nations, the head of state possesses the power to supersede all other television programming and personally address the nation, but only at times of national emergency. Chavez abused this power mercilessly, constantly hijacking network feeds to subject his citizenry to long – often hours-long — screeds, rants, or conspiracy theories about whatever was bothering him that day. And that was in addition to his infamous three-to-six hour weekly Sunday TV show — Allo Presidente — that was actually scheduled and scripted (allegedly). To live in Venezuela under Chavez’s vast personality cult was to be a supporting character in — as one PBS documentary put it — The Hugo Chavez Show.

If any network executives found this annoying Chavez got rid of them. His administration embarked upon a vicious war against the freedom and independence of the press through a multi-front campaign. It included the passage of disturbingly vague libel laws that forbade “disrespecting” the government, the politically-motivated stripping and granting of broadcasting licences, and an explosion of state-run media outlets. It was all part of the larger Chavez premise that people either agreed with him, or were rich, CIA-financed Yankee thought criminals of some form or another. The good had nothing to fear.

It was this attitude, as much as anything Chavez specifically said or did that made him a dictator. He came to power in a fair election, and his regime was not bloody or murderous, but it was not a government that recognized the validity of dissent, the need for limitations on state power, or the purpose of checks and balances. When you read a chronicle of his rule, as I did recently in William Dobson’s fair and thoughtful The Dictator’s Learning Curve, you’re confronted with a government that had little shame in brazenly doing the sorts of scandalous activities that rarely rise above innuendo and suspicion in North America.

He used taxpayer money to fund partisan propaganda. He filled courts, regulatory bodies, and election commissioners with ideological hacks. He used census data, referendum signatures, and voting records to issue politically-motivated audits, property seizures, firings, and harassment. He gerrymandered ridings and introduced a new electoral system that was rigged to over-represent his own party. None of this was a source of embarrassment or shame — every self-serving constitutional change or biased partisan initiative the president proposed was explicitly designed to help consolidate his agenda, no, “revolution,” and weaken the illegitimate counter-revolutionary opposition.

Chavez’s style of government “worked,” to an extent. He found a way to make socialist economics sustainable, he delivered the more egalitarian society he promised, and his periodic referendums and elections, though not clean or fair by western standards, did repeatedly re-affirm his public mandate, even at his most radical. But his vanity and opportunism ensured every victory came with a corresponding cost in the realm of civil rights, and cast a long shadow of tyranny that will now require a whole other revolution to undo.

Following his funeral last weekend — a funeral attended by some of the world’s worst dictators and at least one former Canadian prime minister — Chavez’ corpse was embalmed and preserved, and will soon be placed on perpetual display.

Let’s hope his legacy isn’t nearly so permanent.


  1. Colin Minich

    Chavez is an interesting character. He seems to have brought Venezuela out of political ennui and energized the poorer classes and brought Venezuela to some economic clout. However doing so he created not only a very polarized Venezuela but a very homophobic, racist, and anti-Semetic Venezuela, not always by his words but the actions of his followers and made many facets of its economy and society unreliable. To Chavistas, lighter skin meant a bourgeois status and thus the enemy.

    To Chavistas, Capriles was called a Nazi, a fag, and insulted for his Jewish heritage. Chavez energized the poor but in the worst manner possible, by creating the cult of personality. He made it worse by establishing a healthy corps of government money-dependent gangs known as colectivos.

  2. Jake_Ackers

    On the racism point. And yet the very crazy American left praises him. I suppose to them a racist socialist is still a socialist….

  3. Colin Minich

    Details…minor details…all inconvenient in the face of idealism.

  4. Colin Minich

    I have seen quite a few Western leftist sites utterly praising the man if not figuratively fellating him (a good laugh here):

    However what has been amusing is how every single article and blog I have read has had actual ethnic Venezuelans or Venezuelan citizens utterly debunking the spew said in praise of Chavez. To them, he made everything more unstable and crime continues to rise to where many desperately try to leave to Argentina or elsewhere including the US. A love or hate kind of guy, it's been slowly revealed that despite all his good intentions, he utterly bungled his attempts to be beloved by creating the celebrity status worthy of a North Korean.

  5. Simon

    "However what has been amusing is how every single article and blog I have read has had actual ethnic Venezuelans or Venezuelan citizens utterly debunking the spew said in praise of Chavez."

    Typical Western leftists, backing a dictator when even his own citizens don't! I say let Venezuelans decide: there ought to be some kind of event where every adult Venezuelan has the opportunity to say who they'd like to run the government, and whoever gets the most support is put in charge.

  6. Jack

    Just compare it to chile. You can start from half of the '80s, when Chile started being fully Pinera-driven (full free market economy), and yet it was far behind Venezual in GDP, GDP PC; and several other factors, and then you can notice when Chavez starts coming in….
    And let's not forget his latest move when he cut by over 40% the value of the Bolivares… to pay for his own re-election promises and handout
    Google Data is your friend =)
    Chavez and his Venezuela are my favourite manifesto of the failure of socialist policies and economics, it's far too easy now

    Cheers as usual from your European Fan

  7. truteal

    He didn't live/wasn't in power long enough to be a dictator in my view (if he didn't call bush the devil, the right would hate Evo Morales more)

    Nicolás Maduro (Henrique doesn't stand a chance) will pretty much rule like Chavez would've

  8. @Cristiona

    Dictatorship has little to do with how long you're in power, it's the amount of power you wield. Idi Amin only ruled for 8 years, but I doubt many would say he wasn't a dictator.

    Kim Jong-un has been in power for what? 15 months? Is he not a dictator?

  9. Dryhad

    No, he's a monarch:

  10. Jake_Ackers

    Monarchs are "chosen" by God. He thinks he is a God. He is more Pharaoh than King. Plus a King normally has some kind of realistic check and balance.

  11. Guest

    He's an absolute monarch, then.

  12. Jake_Ackers

    He removed term limits. The very ones he championed. If that isn't a dictator, that sure is the first sign.

  13. Shannon

    Canada doesn't have term limits, does that make us a dictatorship? Of course not.

    Chavez held power because he was ELECTED – fairly and honestly, in UN-monitored elections. I'm not sure even the Americans can say that anymore.

    So enough with this "dictator" crap.

  14. truteal

    Just wondering, who's the guy inbetween Ahmadinejad and Raul?

  15. J.J. McCullough

    It's the Belarus guy.

  16. Colin Minich

    Another true champion of human decency and liberty, no doubt.

  17. Jake_Ackers

    IIRC, wasn't Venezuela a leading market in the 50s? It was one of the largest economies in the world after WW2. 4th or 5th. It was until the government spent itself into a fiscal mess and then again when the oil market crashed.

    The Left praises Chavez because he redistributed wealth. Yah will now they are running out of it. Oil will run out. The middle class will run out of the country. And they will run out of rich people's money to take. Venezuela is in a situation (more so resources, geography, etc. not politically ) and has been in a situation to develop a strong middle class. Yet the Left rather have everyone screwed over to benefit a few (at least the ones praising Chavez).

    There will always be the poor and the disadvantaged. They need to be looked after (with the exception of the lazy) but that doesn't mean you have to screw over everyone else. Eventually you do run out of other people's money.

    The country has had massive amount of oil. They are pretty much pumping cash out of the ground during the last few years with these oil prices. Yet Chavez has failed to diversify their economy, failed to control inflation, just kept spending money. 90% of their exports is oil or gas. The US counts for about half of their exports and imports and then they whine about the US. If the US wasn't so dependent on oil the US could turn off Venezuela. It's not like any other country can refine Venezuelan oil.

    Chavez and his people have complained about these issues. Even though they have been the most pressing ones they have failed to be addressed. How does anyone praise this man? More than half of the country has directly been screwed over under his regime.

    One thing that i was surprised was Brazil slamming Chavez while many in Latin America praised him.

  18. gattsuru

    I'd be careful about calling Venezuela sustainable. The country is heavily, heavily dependent on oil, with roughly a fifth of the country's GDP and almost all of its exports being petroleum products. Meanwhile, oil production has fallen, and PDVSA has completely neglected its infrastructure — since the nationalization of oil platforms, maintenance has fallen dramatically, and there have even been increasing spurts of disasters as those cut corners start to cost lives.

    The country hasn't hit Zimbabwe-esque infrastructure failures yet, and hopefully the next leader will turn things around. Right now? The place is Atlas Shrugged in slow motion.

  19. loroferoz

    "This, coupled with the fact that Chavez’s decade-and-a-half reign overlapped with an unprecedented surge in the global price of oil allowed the long-term success of a particularly regressive style of socialism that would have quickly ruined a less naturally-gifted nation. Since his government had a bottomless well of the planet’s most coveted and marked-up natural resource, the Chavez petro-state basically used capitalism abroad to subsidize communism at home."

    This is a concise description of what "chavismo" (Chavez-ism, it's actually the name of his movement) is, and why it did not collapse on itself in three years like most similar experiments in Latin-America. But do not think for a moment that Chavez invented the Petro-state. It was already in place by previous governments that used it for electoral and patronage purposes. Venezuela was already half-socialist from the start. Chavez's innovation was to use oil to subsidize "communism" and authoritarianism at home, he did indeed destroy what independent wealth creation and real production there was in Venezuela. Another leg of his Revolution is a network of service-industry "businesspeople" utterly dependent on the government, or just plain leechers who make their fortunes due to corruption. They are the Bolivarian Oligarchs (Boligarcas), who allow highly placed chavista officials to amass 9-figure (dollar) fortunes.

    Nevermind the advances the poor might have had under chavismo. They are duly erased and then some by galloping inflation and all kinds of lack of security, not the least lack of safety for your dear life.

  20. Rolleyes

    Just to comment on that Thatcher's quote, if Chavez used his country's natural resources to the benefit of the citizens of said country, he was actually less "stealing other people's money" than people who would have acquired national resources and sold it for private profit. Above all if he was selling it at the market's price – it's not like private companies would have done otherwise.

    This said, I don't have any sympathy for Chavez.
    I just have even less for Thatcher and her policies and opinions. Other people's money don't come out of nowhere. Depardieu – to take France's example again – probably wouldn't have made as much money has the French cinema not been helped by the state as it is, and many of the new fortunes since the 80s wouldn't have been so rich, had they not found ways to make money out of the former welfare state infrastructures and through finance which doesn't produces much anything. Heck – even the old, industrial age fortunes happened because the guys exploited natural resources for private gain.

  21. Jake_Ackers

    Chavez and his goons were/are corrupt. He and his party officials stole billions from the Venezuelan people and put in offshore bank accounts and just lived rich on their backs. Most of the money did not go to the people.

  22. Shannon

    Really? I suppose you can provide evidence to back this up then ?

    Thought not.

  23. Shannon

    Let's not forget that where Chavez reduced poverty in his country, Thatcher doubled it in hers.

  24. Shannon

    OK, first off, Chavez has nothing to do with any of the other characters in your cartoon. He was NOT a dictator – he held office the old-fashioned away, by winning elections – elections that were fair, honest, and monitored by the UN. None of those other guys below can claim that.

    JJ has issues with his attempts at throttling free speech, and to be honest I do too. Where he and I differ is that I also take issue when his idol Stephen Harper orders climate scientists to keep quiet about their findings.

    And let's also not forget the times Harper has suspended parliament to avoid unpleasant debates on such things as treatment of Afghan POW's, or using "omnibus" bills to avoid debate.

    Oh, and let's not forget, Chavez can boast of very real accomplishments, having reduced income inequality by 54%, poverty from 71% to 21%, extreme poverty from 40% to 7.3%. Illiteracy and malnourishment has been eliminated, infant mortality cut in half, and 96% now have access to clean water.

    Of course, JJ believes "It's all because of the oil, stupid." One should point out that Mexico and Saudi Arabia have plenty of oil, but it hasn't helped poverty in either of these countries much. Plus, before he came to power, 90% of Venezeula's food was imported; now it's about 30%. That's not about "just the oil".

    Sorry JJ – I'll agree that Chavez suffered from a monstrous ego and had an unpalatable tendency to suppress dissent. But no more so than your beloved Stephen Harper. But a dictator he was not, and no amount of lying on your part will turn him into one.

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