Posted on Tuesday, 03.05.13
The Oppenheimer Report
Andres Oppenheimer: Chávez's 'revolution' will lose steam abroad, but
not at home
By Andres Oppenheimer
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's death will most likely mark the
beginning of the end of Venezuela's political clout in Latin America,
but his influence inside Venezuela is likely to last for many decades.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom in the international media that
Chávez was the political heir of Cuba's guerrilla
leader-turned-president Fidel Castro, the late Venezuelan president will
probably go down in history as a political phenomenon closer to that of
late Argentine strongman Juan D. Perón.
Like Perón, Chávez was a military officer and coup plotter who first
flirted with fascism, later turned to the left, and once in power gave
millions to the poor thanks to a boom in world commodity prices, which
set him apart from previous Venezuelan presidents who had only paid lip
service to the country's poverty-stricken masses. And like Perón, Chávez
was a narcissist — he once used the word "I" 489 times in just one
speech, on Jan 15, 2011 — who built a personality cult around himself,
and impulsively gave away billions of dollars at home and abroad without
any accountability, at the expense of destroying his country's
institutions and much of the economy.
Chávez's influence in Latin America during his 13 years in power grew in
direct proportion to world oil prices.
When he took office in 1999, oil prices hovered around $9 a gallon. When
oil prices started rising gradually to more than $80 a barrel in the
years that followed, Chávez started bankrolling loyalist politicians in
Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other Latin American countries, and
ultimately built his ALBA bloc of Latin American allies that followed
his narcissist-Leninist model.
By 2006, Chávez was giving away up to $3.7 billion a year in Latin
America — compared to the Bush administration's $1.2 billion — to buy
political influence as he was drumming up support for his unsuccessful
bid for a Venezuela seat at the United Nations Security Council.
Many of his grandiose money pledges never materialized — like a pipeline
that was supposed to go from Caracas to Buenos Aires, which skeptics at
the time branded the "Hugoduct" — and some of his pledges for huge
infrastructure projects in Africa and Asia drew criticism at home, where
roads and bridges were crumbling.
But Chávez's influence abroad began after oil prices reached a record
$146 a barrel in 2008. Since then, and especially after Chávez was
diagnosed with a never-revealed form of cancer in mid-2011 and oil
prices fell further, Chávez's petro-dollar generosity has been confined
to Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and a few Caribbean countries.
Now, with Venezuela's economy in near chaos, a 30 percent inflation rate
and oil prices unlikely to reach their previous records in the near
future, Venezuela will have to give up its regional ambitions, for the
simple reason that it has run out of money.
And regardless of who will run Venezuela in the future, the days of
oil-based populist megalomania are likely over because of global trends
in the energy industry.
According to most forecasts, the United States will replace Saudi Arabia
as the world's top oil producer in five years, which will cause a
reduction in U.S. oil imports and a decline in world oil prices. This
will make it hard for Chávez's successors to keep bankrolling
Venezuela's radical populist allies in the region.
But at home in Venezuela, "Chavismo" will probably remain alive as the
biggest political force for generations to come. Because Chávez's years
in power coincided with the biggest oil boom in Venezuela's recent
history, and because Chávez gave away so much money to the poor, he is
more likely to be remembered as a "champion of the poor" than as the
populist who destroyed the country's private sector, scared away
investments, and turned Venezuela more oil-dependent than ever.
From now on, much like happened in Argentina after Perón's death, most
presidential hopefuls will declare themselves "Chavistas," even if they
despised the late military coup plotter-turned-president.
And much like happened in Argentina in recent decades, we will see
"Chavista" politicians of all colors: radical leftists, moderate,
centrist and rightists. In his never-ending speeches, which sometimes
lasted more than six hours, they will find enough memorable quotes to
support almost any political theory.
Guillermo Lousteau, a professor at Florida International University who
heads the Inter-American Institute of Democracy, believes that Chávez
will go down in history not so much like Perón, but like Ernesto "Che"
Guevara — a cult figure whose influence today is more romantic than
"Chávez will become a cultural icon: we will see T-shirts with Chávez's
face, much like we see T-shirts with Che Guevara's face, but his
influence won't go farther than that," Lousteau told me.
"Chávez is no longer alive to keep the Chavista movement united, like
Perón was after he was thrown out of office," Lousteau said. "Without a
charismatic leader, and with a deteriorating economy, Chavismo will
My opinion: Latin America's political cycles tend to change every dozen
years, and Chávez's death — alongside stagnant commodity prices — is
likely to accelerate the waning days of Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution"
in Latin America.
Much like we had military dictatorships in the 1970s, social-democracies
in the 1980s, pro-free market governments in the 1990s', and "Chavismo"
in the 2000s, we may be entering a new decade of something different —
hopefully democratic pragmatism.
But Chávez's undeserved image as the region's biggest champion of the
poor — in fact, countries like Peru and Chile reduced poverty more than
Venezuela in recent years, and without weakening their democracies —
will have a lasting negative impact on Venezuela. As often happens in
commodity-rich countries, populist leaders thrive during booms in world
commodity booms. Then, when commodity prices go down and they leave
office — whether they are thrown out or, as in Chávez's case, die in
office — their successors have to take unpopular economic measures, and
the former populist leaders' followers can say, "You were better off
when we were in power."
Venezuela will be no exception to Latin America's commodity curse.
Chávez's populism will remain popular for decades. It will take a lot of
time — and education — to convince many Venezuelans that Chavismo was
"bread for today, hunger for tomorrow,'' and that the most successful
countries are those that have strong institutions, rather than strong men.