May 22, 2013
By Michael Soltys
Buenos Aires Herald Senior Editor
Those endless red tides of mass mourning for late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez should be seen as a measure of his success to the point of immortality but also a supreme confession of failure. If the Chávez crusade against poverty had been genuinely successful (as in Brazil where a number superior to the entire Venezuelan population has been lifted out of poverty in the past decade) instead of politically exploiting social needs to displace all institutions with his personal rule, his country would not be so adrift today with millions crying for themselves as much as for him — for their own vulnerability and potential exclusion. To the dead man’s credit, he did recognize and tackle social injustice far more effectively than any of his predecessors (with more institutional scruples and trusting in oil trickledown), reducing those below the poverty line from almost half the population to 28 percent in little over a decade — even if his use of petrodollar billions to that end might not resist too much cost-benefit analysis or graft probes. Yet he aided the masses in such a way that instead of empowering them to build their own future in a climate of political as well as social equality, he leaves them more helpless than ever with his death. If we may repeat yesterday’s reference to Abraham Lincoln, the latter died with the Civil War irreversibly won while the loss of Chávez leaves everything in the air.
The death of Chávez might be ill-timed for his country but it was good timing for his myth. His oil-fuelled populism was not sustainable in the long term — not only did Chávez increase his country’s dependence on world crude prices (petroleum rose from 69 percent of all exports in 1998 to 96 percent) but between giving fuel virtually free to Cuba and other allies (and also now China who have paid in advance with massive credit packages), most export revenues are coming from the arch-enemy, the United States. Such economic mismanagement might not disconcert Chávez admirers who never claimed entrepreneurial genius for their hero but there was at least one flaw in his social engineering which is insufficiently raised by friend and foe alike — crime with nearly 21,700 murders last year, a higher rate than Mexico with its all-out drug gang warfare (Venezuela has a third of Mexico’s violent deaths with only a quarter of its population) despite armed forces of some 134,000 troops, perhaps a bigger problem for Venezuela’s future rulers than for its criminal classes.
In any future dramatization of the Chávez myth, the words “Don’t cry for me, Venezuela” would not come amiss — his bereaved people have enough reason to cry for themselves.