March 9, 2014
Time to pay for the ticket
For the Herald
Say what you like about the late and much lamented Hugo Chávez, he was certainly a first rate political performer in the Great Latin American tradition. He may not have scaled the heights reached by the 19th century Bolivian tyrant Maria-no Melgarejo who, we are told, gave a large chunk of his country to Brazil in exchange for a white horse and, in 1870, ordered his army to swim across the Atlantic, taking care to ensure the powder remained dry, and help the French throw back the invading Teutonic hordes, but in his slightly less flamboyant contemporary fashion he did his best. As well as naming Venezuela a “Bolivarian republic,” Chávez entertained his fellow countrymen with televised speeches even longer than Cristina’s, sang songs, danced around on occasion and, of course, treated the loathsome Yankee imperialists much as Melgarejo would have liked to treat the Prussians. Chávez also made a point of befriending such notable progressives as the Iranian ayatollahs, Belarus’ dictator for life Alexander Lukashenko and had warm words for the appalling Kim dynasty that owns North Korea.
Everyone agrees it will be a hard act to follow. Though his anointed successor Nicolás Maduro seems determined to give it a try and started off by accusing the vile North Americans of injecting Chávez with cancer, he is anything but a born showman. So unless there is another soldier with a taste for making outrageous statements lurking in the wings, the Chavist movement will have to make do with grey common-or-garden politicos without a trace of charisma. For leftists both in Venezuela and other parts of the world who pretend to take seriously Chávez’s claim to be the inventor of “21st century socialism,” that would be unfortunate. What they need is a rambunctious, colourful character able to stick it to the US in an amusing manner, not a man, or a woman, who really believes in all that ideological claptrap.
Millions of Venezuelans feel Chávez cared deeply for them and therefore deserved their wholehearted support for the same reasons that just as many Argentines still think Juan Domingo Perón did more than anyone else to help their parents or grandparents. But while the two populist icons presumably wanted to give the desperately poor a much-needed leg-up, both contrived to keep them bogged down in poverty. Thanks largely to Peronist conservatism, Argentina, a supposedly rich country, soon fell behind others, such as South Korea, and then neighbouring Chile and, it seems, Uruguay. The reason? Populists give priority to spreading the wealth around; socialists and liberals are equally interested in producing it.
A large number of Venezuelans may have found the long Chávez melodrama tremendously exciting, but they will soon discover that the price of a ticket was far higher that they had been led to imagine. Despite getting up to a 100 billion dollars a year by flogging oil to the United States and other imperialist entities, the great man managed his country’s affairs so badly that energy is in short supply, hence the frequent blackouts, people are urged to take quickie “socialist showers” in order to save water, about eighty percent of the food Venezuelans eat has to be imported even though they dispose of plenty of usable farmland, inflation is running wild. A couple of weeks ago, the national currency was sharply devalued, but the official rate is still a mere fraction of what it fetches on the thriving black market
Venezuela is by all accounts an extraordinarily corrupt place, as those Argentine officials and businessmen who are fond of it could no doubt confirm. According to Transparency International, it is even worse in this respect than Argentina itself; if true, that is a notable achievement. It is also extremely violent, with more murders per head than Mexico and over ten times as many as Argentina; residents of Caracas who yearn for a quiet life could seek it by moving to such peaceful and law-abiding US cities as Detroit or Chicago where, according to the available statistics, they will run less risk of ending up dead the moment they step into the street.
If anyone eventually gets down to it, repairing the damage done by Chávez’s administration will take many years. In addition to handling the economy in a sensible way, future governments will have to confront the furious opposition of Cha-vists who will blame them for all the difficulties caused by the Leader’s spending spree. Should they try to “fight poverty” by attempting to balance the budget or asking people to get an education and go to work, rather than shouting slogans against capitalist savagery and US imperialism, they will be roundly berated for their callousness.
Argentina’s experience in this department has been depressing. The failure of Peronism to deliver the goods it promised has not induced the electorate to vote for a different approach. Instead, what most people seem really to want is to bring back the good old days (Cristina locates them in the early 1970s) when a magnanimous caudillo was in the Pink House. Will that be Venezuela’s fate? If, as looks more than likely, it is, Venezuelans, with the exception of the few who have mastered the art of turning political activism into hard cash, had better resign themselves to a decidedly bleak future, because that is what will be in store for them.