WASHINGTON – Cancer is a terrible way to die, even for someone as unattractive as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Still, Venezuela is better off with Chavez gone.
However, the country will prosper only if Chavismo disappears as well. Which requires the opposition to offer a vision of opportunity and prosperity for Venezuela’s dispossessed.
Chavez was elected in 1998, a populist who challenged the country’s profoundly corrupt political establishment. People desperate for change voted for change.
And he brought it. But not a positive variety. Roger Noriega of the American Enterprise Institute assessed “Chavez’s destructive legacy: deep political polarization, authoritarian manipulation, hateful rhetoric, disastrous economic policies, and the devastation of Venezuela’s petroleum industry.”
Chavez failed even on his own terms. Venezuelans remain profoundly poor and dependent on the state. Poverty has fallen because of lavish social spending, but the country’s oil revenue provides only a temporary palliative. In fact, the Chavez government has mismanaged even this asset, and has done nothing to encourage Venezuelans to become independent wealth producers.
Unfortunately, an otherwise productive people suffer from an economy which doesn’t work. Food shortages emerged earlier this year. Chavez was dedicated to the sort of socialist state that has failed all over the world. Indeed, Venezuela ranked 144 in last year’s Economic Freedom of the World index, after war-torn Congo, bankrupt Zimbabwe and long-isolated Myanmar.
Chavez gained some other allies on the continent, but in other countries Chavez’s meddling created a backlash that boosted more mainstream candidates.
Today Latin Americans are far more likely to look to Brazil and Mexico for leadership than to Venezuela.
Venezuela remains nominally democratic, but Chavez’s abuses were legion. For instance, Freedom House classified Venezuela as “partly free.”
The human rights group cited exploitation of state resources, manipulation of election rules, centralization of power, and attacks on an independent press. Freedom House explained that “the media climate is permeated by intimidation, sometimes including physical attacks, and strong anti-media rhetoric by the government is common.” In fact, the group’s press freedom rating for Venezuela was “not free.”
Human Rights Watch was no less critical in its latest World Report. Under Chavez, explained HRW: “the accumulation of power in the executive branch and the erosion of human rights guarantees have enabled his government to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticize the president or thwart his political agenda.
“President Chavez and his supporters have used their powers in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and human rights defenders. While many Venezuelans continue to criticize the government, the prospect of facing similar reprisals — in the form of arbitrary or abusive state action — has undercut the ability of judges to adjudicate politically sensitive cases, and forced journalists and rights defenders to weigh the consequences of publicizing information and opinions that are critical of the government.”
New elections are to be held in a month. Chavez designated Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his political successor, and the latter will enjoy support from many Chavistas who benefited from Chavez’s rule.However, Maduro lacks Chavez’ charisma which held together a disparate movement and created an emotional bond with Venezuela’s poor. Some of Chavez’s followers have said: “With Chavez everything, without Chavez nothing.”
Moreover, the late Alberto Muller Rojas once called Chavez’s United Socialist Party, of which Rojas was vice president, a “scorpions nest.” Maduro faces serious rivals in National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, oil minister Rafael Ramirez and others.
Henrique Capriles Radonski, the state governor who opposed Chavez in last October’s election, will be the opposition candidate. Radonski is an attractive figure but lost by 11 percent points. The opposition also was badly beaten in gubernatorial elections held in December.
The good news for Venezuela is that Chavez’s movement and regime were based on one person. Remove that person and the foundation disappears. The system may stagger on for a time, but hopefully has been irretrievably weakened.
Washington should avoid political meddling during the transition, since there is little for official America to do or say other than wish Venezuelans well in charting their own future — hopefully in a more liberal and democratic direction. The most the United States can do is urge Venezuela’s neighbors, such as Brazil, to press for a fully free and fair election.
What Venezuelans most need is a government which empowers them, not political elites claiming to speak for them. A government which disperses rather than concentrates power, accepts rather than punishes criticism, and allows rather than impedes enterprise. Hopefully Chavez’ death will provide the necessary opportunity for Venezuelans to take back control of their lives and country.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington.