Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías passed away on March 5th. He was 58 years old. I was surprised by the outpouring of pro-Chavez emotion that was on Twitter and Facebook when he passed. I was not what one would call a supporter of Hugo Chavez, but I not totally anti-Chavez either. I actually found him more comical than dangerous.
Hugo Chavez led a coup to overthrow the government in 1992 which failed. He was jailed for two years and released. He ran for President in 1998 and won. He held that post until his passing. He won every election since the first with ease. Some refer to him as a progressive democrat. He re-wrote the constitution of the country. Some articles note that he made Venezuela, the third oldest democracy in the Americas, more democratic and progressively so. He introduced Jeffersonian concepts like “the will of the people” into the constitution. He changed the name of the country to the República Bolivariana de Venezuela or Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Chavez was paying homage to the memory and intent of Simon Bolivar the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia (which included Panama at the time), Ecuador, and Bolivia from Spanish rule. Bolivar also teamed up with San Martin in the liberation of Peru. Chavez saw himself as the modern standard bearer of Bolivar.
The folks I know in Venezuela were colleagues and friends from my days with Colgate-Palmolive. Not one of them liked Chavez. They viewed him as a populist candidate. The poor supported and loved him. The rich were far less generous in their support and far less vocal in their opposition from my point of view. They viewed him as a dictator and all of his talk of democracy as smoke screen to cover his real intentions: socialism and dictatorship. His famed constitution obviously did not include term limits. The wealthier Venezuelans looked at his admiration of Bolivar as his aspirations to unite the Bolivarian Republics of Ecuador and Colombia with Venezuela. Chavez would, of course, be the ruler this larger country. His relationship with Castro infuriated the Venezuelans I know. They also believe the Chavistas rigged every election.
Me? As noted above, I actually viewed him more comical than dangerous. Chavez trash talked the US but never fully confronted us in any meaningful or military way. I do not believe confronted us in any meaningful clandestine way either. He was amusing. He called George W. Bush a donkey and Satan at various times. He suggested the US infected him with his cancer, that a US weapon caused the Haiti earthquake, and that Fox News was stupid. I loved his warm-up suits in the Red, Yellow, and Blue of the Venezuelan flag (Ecuador and Colombia too).
Chavez offered to provide free or subsidized home heating oil to the poor here during the depths of the recession. I am not sure if a real program was ever established or if anyone was ever helped. I did get an inordinate amount of emails imploring me to not patronize Citgo which was owned by the Venezuelan national oil company (PDVSA) but which the emails said were owned by Chavez. Presumably the profits were being used to fund… actually they never really said what Chavez was using the money to fund. I was kind of impressed that he kept gas prices to 6¢ per gallon and thus ensuring his populist support.
What do the numbers actually tell us about the legacy of Hugo Chavez? I perused some articles and websites to glean the following:
- The population of the country grew from 22 to 28 million during the Chavez years.
- The GDP per capita was $8,000 USD in 1999. It slipped to a low of $4,800 in 2003 and then has grown steadily to $12,700 in 2011. The growth during the Great Recession was probably due to an increase in oil prices.
- Unemployment in has generally declined from highs of 18% in 1999 and 2003 to 8.2% in 2011.
- From 1999 to 2011, Venezuela's daily oil output dropped by nearly 25 percent, from 3.3 million barrels of oil a day to 2.5 million barrels, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
- The poverty rate fell from 50.4 percent in 1998 to 28.5 percent in 2012, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America.
- Crime on the other hand has soared. Abductions went from 55 to 1,105 per year during the Chavez reign. Murders have skyrocketed to 67 per 100,000 which is considerably higher than both Colombia and Mexico. Murders averaged a whopping 53 per day in 2011.
Assuming the numbers were not cooked. There have been decent gains in terms of unemployment and per capita GDP but crime is a huge problem and lack of investment in oil production may be a looming policy. I can see where his populism, some of these results, and his trash talking the US endeared Hugo Chavez to many.
I look forward to getting feedback on this posting.