In a different era, he might have been called a fascist. After all, Hugo Chávez was an anti-Semitic demagogue and chauvinistic nationalist who hated Israel, hated the United States, hated democracy, and favored state control of the economy. A onetime paratrooper and failed coup leader, Chávez aggressively militarized Venezuelan society, creating pro-government citizen brigades to serve as his own praetorian guard and arming them with Russian-made assault rifles. He threatened neighboring countries and constantly warned of looming foreign invasions. He promulgated wild conspiracy theories about Jews and Americans. He befriended the most reactionary and fascistic governments on earth, including the theocracy in Iran, the gangster regime in Russia, and the racist Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe.
And yet, through it all, Chávez remained a folk hero to Western leftists and “progressives,” who either ignored or excused his bigotry, his militarism, and his trampling of democracy. Many admirers have mourned his death by casting the Venezuelan radical as a champion of the poor who did what was necessary to transform a corrupt and unjust social order. In an article posted on the website of The Nation, NYU professor Greg Grandin acknowledged that Chávez “packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree, and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances.” However, in Grandin’s view, all of that was justified: “The biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.”
In other words: Chávez had to destroy Venezuela in order to save it.
There are many ways to measure the destruction. First, there is the economic toll: Venezuela is suffering from food shortages, goods shortages, electricity shortages, and 22 percent inflation. The state-run oil firm PDVSA has seen its debt load increase by 150 percent since 2007. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom says that even Communist Cuba respects property rights more than Venezuela does. And the South American nation might well be headed for a sovereign default.
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.