By Michael Rowan
Ever since Hugo Chavez came on the scene in a failed coup attempt in 1992 and followed popular imprisonment by winning the presidential election in 1998, the domestic and international news media and politicians have missed the heart of the story. Chavez was seen as a revolutionary socialist and his opposition as an entrenched capitalist oligarchy duking it out on whether to spend some of the oil money on the poor. And the clever Chavez, to his credit, led this misunderstanding for all it was worth.
Now, over two years after Chavez died and handed his power to a bus driver no smarter than a deflated tire, they are still getting the story wrong. Having written a thousand columns and two books about the subject since 1994, almost all of which were thoroughly ignored, let me make one last effort at getting to the heart of the story.
Chavez was not a communist, a socialist, a leftist or a revolutionary. The Chavez “Bolivarian Revolution” had nothing to do with liberating the poor and nothing to do with Bolivar nor did it have anything to do with China’s Cultural Revolution or Iran’s Islamic Revolution, but Chavez insisted in Beijing and Tehran that all those revolutions were the same.
“I have always been a Maoist” the naďve Chavez told Chinese leaders who had purged Mao from China’s history. They were stunned, but when he offered them Venezuela’s oil at pennies on the dollar, they let Chavez rant on all day long about his revolution. Likewise, the Iranian ayatollah was not amused by Chavez’s conflation of Bolivar and Mohammed but found Chavez’s planes, ships, phony passports, opaque banking system and association with narco-terrorists of quite some use in creating a second front against Washington.
Chavez was tricky. Like Donald Trump, Chavez loved controversial labels that brought him attention but the man actually didn’t have any ideology. He had zero interest in government but lots of opinions on everything. And he read a lot superficially so it was enough to hit a responsive chord with public ignorance.
When he circulated tens of thousands of Cervantes’ Don Quixote neither he nor his readers got the irony: Chavez was tilting his lance at windmills that existed only in his twisted brain. In the sixteen countries where I have worked in politics since the 1970s Chavez is the only politician who was both a legend in his own time and a legend in his own mind.
The reason Chavez got away with utter nonsense was the same as why sheiks and emirs could do so: he had tons of oil to give away if you did what he wanted. Chavez was a populist who loved the sound of his own voice. Anybody who liked money tended to listen.
His association with Cuba was a natural: it gave him a club over his military. Chavez purged his military regularly, but Cuba’s security was useful insurance against a coup. Once Cuba was happy, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Nicaragua gave subservience to the Bolivarian Revolution talk that Chavez talked -- for a few billion here, a few billion there.
That’s all there was to it: money and power. It’s an old, old story. Chavez wanted power. He would let anyone steal the country blind if they got in line behind him and they did. And Chavez was not just thinking about taking over Latin America. He was thinking big: he wanted to bring the USA to its knees.
Chavez made his play for world power with the hardliner President Ahmadinejad of Iran, trying to use OPEC and terrorism to weaken the dollar and crush what both called the Evil Empire. For its part, the US never took Chavez seriously as a security threat when in fact Chavez set in motion serious discontent with the US that encouraged Iran, Syria, al Qaeda and ISIS to wreak their havoc.
But now that Ahmadinejad is gone and Chavez is dead the US has gone back to ignoring Venezuela as it turns into a version of Syria.
So here’s the story. Chavez was about power pure and simple. When he got power, he disabled the predictable attacks of his enemies. He did that by monopoly and secrecy, the two best pals of all despots. He suborned the legislative and judicial powers, the economic and banking systems, the productive capacity of the country, and the media.
As he was doing that, the price of a barrel of oil soared from $10 to $140, settling at $100, and a trillion dollars poured into Chavez’s hands which he augmented by borrowing $100 billion more. Chavez made Venezuelans totally dependent on oil, the state and thus him.
The opposition political parties had no alternative message because they were just as dependent on oil as Chavez and had no idea how to diversify the economy, invest in the poor, or regulate free markets and trade. So the whole country went for Quixote’s ride with Chavez. When he died and the oil price went south, it became apparent that Venezuela was as unsustainable as North Korea. This was denied vehemently by those in power who had misallocated – stolen, in English – something like $350 billion which economists can’t account for.
Even if Venezuela’s leadership were magically transformed today into Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, here are the facts: Food, water, electricity, and medicine will not be back to where they were for a long, long time – maybe a decade or more. Everything has to be rebuilt in Venezuela: institutions, law, governance, the military, the police, civil society, and then, the markets, investments, infrastructure, the productive capacity, education, health, housing, transportation, and so on.
Washington has no idea what needs to be done for Venezuela to recover. Haiti’s earthquake and political chaos is a piece of cake compared to the challenge Venezuela presents to the Americas.
In my view, Syria is probably in a stronger position to recover than Venezuela is, because Syrians know they need help. Over two million refugees have walked out of Syria, whereas in Venezuela over two million hungry Venezuelans will walk away from dark and empty stores with nothing after spending all day on line. What will they do tomorrow?Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.