"In a despotic government, the only principle by which the tyrant who is to move the whole machine means to regulate and manage the people is fear, by the servile dread of his power. But a free government, which of all others is far the most preferable, cannot be supported without virtue." — Samuel Williams
When I heard of the death of Hugo Chávez, the socialist dictator had died due his bout with cancer my mind flashed back to when I was working as a contractor for the DOD in August of 1999. This was six months after his inauguration in February of that year. I was working on a contract for providing geodetic services for the development of GPS approaches at several airports in Venezuela.
My team and I had arrived late on a Saturday night at Caracas where we were met by a major in the Venezuelan air force and two recent engineering graduates who would accompany us for the purpose of learning how to use GPS to establish the precise locations of runways and obstructions around the airport — obstructions that would present a hazard to an instrument approach.
The next morning when we all met in the breakfast room of the hotel the TV was playing a speech by Hugo Chávez. As the speech was in Spanish I did not have the slightest idea of what he was saying, but the major and the two graduates seemed agitated at what he was saying. When I asked them why they were upset they responded that Chávez was a socialist who would ruin the country. It was obvious they did not like him. It turned out that they were correct and eventually the two graduates left Venezuela for the United States — they were a part of the brain drain that would affect the country.
When Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela in December 1998, the country had endured nearly two decades of political and economic turmoil, including violent rioting, high inflation, huge foreign debts, a president impeached on corruption charges, and two failed 1992 coups—one of them led, and the other inspired, by a brash and ambitious army colonel named Hugo Chávez.
Yet when the Chávez era finally drew to a close Tuesday with his death from cancer at age 58, life for Venezuelans had only become worse. As life stories go, the lesson of Chávez's is to beware charismatic demagogues peddling socialist policies at home and revolution abroad.
That's a lesson one would have thought the world had learned by the time Chávez came to power. By 1998, the Soviet Union was a memory, Latin American countries from Mexico to Chile were successfully adopting free-market policies, and Chávez's friend and role model—Cuba's Fidel Castro—was a discredited dinosaur.
Chávez showed that it's possible to run against the tides of history, at least for a while, and at least if you happen to get lucky with an oil revenue bonanza. When he took power, Venezuelan oil prices were plumbing lows of about $10 a barrel. When he took to the podium of the United Nations in 2006 to compare George W. Bush to the devil, he was high on surging global oil prices that would peak in 2008 at more than $150.
That kind of money can buy a lot of influence, and Chávez was quick to use it to purchase the political support of Venezuela's poor, the army and a loyal nouveau riche. It also allowed him to become a classic petro-dictator. In 1999 he revised the Venezuelan constitution to give him expanded powers. He used a constitutional assembly under his control to appoint a chavista Supreme Court. He stripped independent TV and radio stations of their licenses and intimidated reporters with draconian libel laws.
Though elections were held on schedule, he made sure to tilt the playing field. For his fourth election last October, opposition politicians were limited to three minutes of advertising a day, while Chávez could commandeer the airwaves at any time. He permitted no debates. Public workers risked being fired if they voted against him. It was the sort of election only Jimmy Carter could bless — which our 39th president predictably did. The two graduates and the major were right Chávez had become a total dictator — a dictator loved by the left in this country. Here are a few quotes on Chávez’s death from a few of our luminaries on the left:
"Hugo Chávez was a leader that understood the needs of the poor. He was committed to empowering the powerless. R.I.P. Mr. President." — Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-NY)
"Rosalynn and I extend our condolences to the family of Hugo Chávez Frías. We came to know a man who expressed a vision to bring profound changes to his country to benefit especially those people who had felt neglected and marginalized. Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chávez's commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen. We hope that as Venezuelans mourn the passing of President Chávez and recall his positive legacies — especially the gains made for the poor and vulnerable — the political leaders will move the country forward by building a new consensus that ensures equal opportunities for all Venezuelans to participate in every aspect of national life." — Jimmy Carter
"I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place. Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chávez will live forever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned." — filmmaker Oliver Stone
"Today, the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have." — actor Sean Penn
"Hugo Chávez declared the oil belonged 2 the [people]. He used the oil $ 2 eliminate 75% of extreme poverty, provide free health & education 4 all. That made him dangerous. US approved of a coup to overthrow him even though he was a democratically-elected President. You won't hear much nice about him in the US media in the next few days. So, I thought I'd say a couple things to provide some balance." — filmmaker Michael Moore
Yet despite the populism and government handouts, life for Venezuela—and particularly the poor—has only become worse. While wealthier Venezuelans could flee, the less-fortunate now endure routine food and medicine shortages, thanks to price and capital controls. Prices are more than 20 times higher than in 1999. Capital has fled the country. The murder rate in Caracas is one of the highest in the world. Bridges and roads are in disrepair, blackouts are routine, and untreated sewage pollutes drinking water.
Meanwhile, state-owned oil company PdVSA has been all but stripped for parts. Daily production fell by more than one million barrels over the course of Chávez's rule to 2.5 million barrels at the end of 2012.
Chávez's lieutenants have been insisting for months that the Venezuelan president would be making a full recovery from his cancer-related operations and that Venezuelans had no cause for alarm — but they've been getting notably less vociferous about the whole thing recently, and that charade is officially over. Of course he put his life in the hands of the Cuban medical system — a system so praised by Michael Moore and Sean Penn.
Chávez was also in the end an awful manager, who has left Venezuela in ruins. Mind you, Venezuela had long-since been enfeebled and obsessed by the curse of nationalized oil and corrupt governments, so it was already in terrible shape when Chávez took over. But he pushed his nation far deeper into indolence and dependency. He never grasped that wealth emerges from labor productivity, not from the ground, and after blowing a trillion dollars in oil windfalls like a personal charity/slush fund, he has left Venezuela much poorer. For the destitute and deeply uneducated Venezuelans who live on hunger wages and handouts, Chávez must have seemed like some sort of angel elevated from among their own — and he practically was. That was the best thing about him. The worst was that in the long run, he has left Venezuela's poor, and their progeny, most ruined of all.
During his 14 years in power, Chávez made a career out of trashing capitalism and the United States along with fomenting unrest and chaos throughout South America. He polarized Venezuela through divisiveness and fear mongering and ascended to power using a brew of boorishness, thuggery, racism and class envy cloaked in nationalistic and socialist rhetoric. Throughout his reign, 'El Comandante' pursued his dream of a socialist United States of South America, to be ruled, presumably, by him. He idolized Fidel Castro and sought to emulate every leftist dictator since Lenin by casting himself as the noble David in opposition to the United States as the world's capitalist Goliath. While his sycophants hyperbolized him as the most gifted in a long line of Latin American revolutionaries, he cloaked himself in the typical trappings of a grandiose dictator. His image and slogans are plastered all over Venezuela and he carefully and ruthlessly placed himself at the center of a Hitlerian personality cult, often declaring, ”I am Venezuela,” and delighting when his followers chanted “I am Chávez.” Chávez was a master at promoting deadly sins such as greed, anger and jealousy as badges of honor to be worn proudly by 'the people' in their struggle against the specter of capitalism
So, what's next for Venezuela now that their corrupt, destructive, America-hating, socialist leader is no more? Either Vice President Nicolas Maduro (a former bus driver) or National Assembly leader Diosdado Cabello will become interim president for thirty days while the country engineers a special election — and without Chávez to figurehead his 'Chavismo' movement, the outcome isn't necessarily a sure thing. Be prepared for a “Venezuelan Spring”.