I will not dwell—because this much is well known—on Chávez the “friend of the people” whose closest allies were bloody-handed dictators: Ahmadinejad, Bashar al-Assad, Fidel Castro, and, formerly, Gaddafi.
Nor will I dwell long, because this, too, is public knowledge, on the Chávez whose pathological anti-Semitism over his 14-year rule drove two thirds of Venezuela’s Jewish community into exile. (It is hard to image that this Chávez is viewed by a minister in François Hollande’s government in France as a “cross between Léon Blum and de Gaulle.”) Was not Chavez the devotee of the conspiracy theories of Thierry Meyssan, the disciple of Argentine Holocaust denier Norberto Ceresole, who professed his surprise that Israelis “like to criticize Hitler” even though they “have done the same and perhaps worse”? How was a Jew in Caracas expected to react upon seeing his president stigmatize a minority made up of “descendants of those who crucified Jesus Christ” and who had, according to Chávez, “made off with the world’s wealth”?
What is less known, something that we will regret overlooking as the posthumous cult of Chávez swells and grows more toxic, is that this “21st-century socialist,” this supposedly tireless “defender of human rights,” ruled by muzzling the media, shutting down television stations that were critical of him, and denying the opposition access to the state news networks.
What is less known, or deliberately not mentioned by those who would make of Chávez a source of inspiration for a left that seems to lack it, is that this wonderful leader, seemingly so concerned with workers and their rights, tolerated unions only if they were official. He allowed strikes only if controlled or even orchestrated by the regime. And, up to the end, he prosecuted, criminalized, and threw into prison independent trade unionists who, like Ruben Gonzalez, the representative of the Ferrominera mineworkers, refused to wait for Bolivarism to be fully realized before demanding decent working conditions, protection against mining accidents, and fair wages.
What has been omitted from most of the portraits broadcast during these sessions of global mourning—and what must be remembered if we want to avoid seeing post-Chavezism turn into an even worse nightmare—is the repression of the Yukpa Indians of the Sierra de Perija, carried out in the name of “cultural integration”; the targeted assassinations, covered up by the regime, of those of their chiefs who, like Sabino Romero in 2009, refused to bow down to Chávez; and, generally, the putting to sleep of democratic and popular movements that did not have the good fortune to be on Chávez’s agenda. Take women’s issues. It must not be forgotten that the rights of women suffered dramatic regressions during El Comandante’s reign. And would it be unfair to the deceased leader to observe that two provisions of family law—one protecting women victims of domestic violence; the other, divorced women—were repealed by the regime for being too petit-bourgeois by the standard of the prevailing machismo?
As for the good souls who remind us that Chávez’s national populism had “at least” the benefit of feeding the hungry, caring for the most vulnerable, and reducing poverty, they neglect to mention that these reforms were made possible only by budgetary recklessness, itself funded by colossal oil revenue inflated by the high price of crude. The result has been that the real economy of the country, the modernization of its infrastructure and equipment, and the formation of businesses capable of creating sustainable wealth were heedlessly sacrificed on the altar of a form of Caesarism designed more to buy social peace than to build the Venezuela of tomorrow.
Chávez imported, for a king’s ransom, tens of thousands of Cuban mercenary doctors—but let Venezuela’s hospitals die.
Rather than take the trouble to expand domestic production, he imported 70 percent of the bread he distributed to the people, without ever wondering what might happen if the price of a barrel of crude, now about $110, were to fall back down to near $20, where it was the year he came to power. This is the policy of the ostrich or the cicada. Very simply it is a policy of mortgaging the future.
And although the regime indeed provided work for many of those who had none, it has run up against that iron law of economics, which penalizes systems based on rent-seeking, widespread corruption, clientelism on a grand scale, and, last but not least, the creation of artificial wealth. Increases in the minimal wage, today about $250 a month, have, over 14 years, been overtaken by inflation. Half of the active population still just scrapes by, often by doing odd jobs on the margin of the formal economy. As a result, it is not unlikely that this long decade of oil-supported socialism will show a net deficit for those segments of the population who were supposed to benefit most (if at the price of renouncing freedoms that, like cancer, were supposedly imperialist exports) from the manna rained down on them by the profligate dictator.
May Chávez the man rest in peace.
But to pretend that the overall record of Chavezism has been positive is an insult to the Venezuelan people.
And to present Chavezism as an alternative for the people of the region would be evidence of an irresponsibility of which we had believed today’s left to have been cured.
—Translated by Steven B. Kennedy