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.