What Was Life Really Like Under Hugo Chavez? We Show You the Brutally Honest Facts

Yesterday saw the passing of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s longtime president (or “dictator” as many would say), following a lengthy battle with cancer. Ironically enough, yesterday was also the 60th anniversary of the death of Josef Stalin, arguably a fitting date, given that many of Chavez’s critics saw more than a little of Stalin (albeit on a much smaller scale) in the political ideology and behavior of the Venezuelan leader. Some Leftists, meanwhile, celebrated Chavez as an egalitarian reformer during his lifetime, and some (including at least one sitting member of Congress) appear prepared to do so now that he is dead.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez looks towards a crowd of supporters during a ceremony marking Simon Bolivar’s 219th birthday, in Caracas 24 July, 2002. (Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Naturally, most of Chavez’s critics came from the Right, and his defenders came from the Left. However, this fact obscures a wider point: namely, that while Chavez was uniformly despised on the Right, he was far from universally loved on the Left. Indeed, barely a day after his death, liberals have kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism, including (in some cases) representatives of very prominent liberal institutions. ThinkProgress, for instance, published a blog post today titled “Why Democrats Shouldn’t Eulogize Hugo Chavez,” and even Oliver Willis of Media Matters described pro-Chavez liberals as “derpy” (ie “awkward or embarrassing”) on Twitter for thinking Chavez was “a good guy”:

Willis’ tweet raises an important question: Just how bad was Chavez? Conservatives like Charles Krauthammer have described Chavez as a vile, anti-democratic thug, and a representative of everything venal and ugly about socialism, if not outright communism in the mold of Fidel Castro:

Leftist apologists for the South American dictator, meanwhile — such as the antisemitic Member of Parliament George Galloway — have protested that Chavez’s critics are ignorant at best, and actively deceptive at worst, and have described Chavez as a noble, misunderstood reformer of Venezuelan society, whose only crime was taking on entrenched class interests. For a sample of this sort of argument, see the following video of Galloway at the Oxford Union:

And this from the far Left progressive web show The Young Turks:

So is Willis right? Was Chavez something better than “South American Hitler,” if still not “a good guy?” Is Krauthammer right? Was Chavez a vicious thug in the mold of Castro? Or is Galloway right, and is Chavez’s career being misrepresented by venal representatives of a reactionary social order? More to the point, what was life actually like under Chavez? TheBlaze did some digging through the evidence, and what we found may interest you.

Chavez’s Agenda

Throughout his career as president of Venezuela, Chavez could be described as single-mindedly pursuing one particular ideal: The ideal of social (particularly economic) equality. Everyone from Chavez’s critics to his supporters has written something to this effect. Bloomberg Businessweek, for instance, wrote this in its obituary:

 Chávez’s most enduring and positive legacy is his shattering of Venezuela’s peaceful coexistence with poverty, inequality, and social exclusion. He was not the first political leader who placed the poor at the center of the national conversation. Nor was he the first to use a spike in oil revenue to help the poor. But none of his predecessors did it so aggressively and with such a passionate sense of urgency as Chávez did. And no one was more successful in planting this priority into the nation’s psyche and even exporting it to neighboring countries and beyond. Moreover, his ability to make the poor feel that one of them was in charge has no precedent.

CNN was even more blatant in its news story on Chavez’s death, describing Chavez’s legacy as leaving the Venezuelan economy “more equal [and] less stable”:

Unlike other dictators, Chavez had an easier time trying to push this particular agenda, given that his economy came tailor made with a source of revenue to support a socialist government – specifically, Venezuela’s oil industry. Fortunately for Chavez, this industry has been nationalized in Venezuela since 1976, thus allowing him access to all its money, rather than having to tax private companies. He also was spared most political pressure from his dominant industry, which no doubt made his reign less complicated.

Thus, Chavez was left free to enact his redistributionist, welfare state-expanding, centrally planned economic agenda more or less free of trouble. He created worker-owned “cooperatives” to act as a substitute for corporations, which he relentlessly propped up with government funding. He started grocery stores that would deliberately sell food below market value so as to run capitalist alternatives out of business. Eventually, he set price controls on food. He seized land belonging to rich Venezuelans and redistributed it to poor ones. He nationalized telephone companies, electricity companies, cement production, food plants (even those owned by foreign entities), coffee plants, rice fields and banks. He pulled Venezuela out of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, accusing both entities of exploitation. He even seized control of the media. And he did all this while pushing a fierce brand of socialist rhetoric (one of his slogans was “Motherland, socialism or death”) and attacking capitalist powers (as when he described smelling sulfur in the presence of former President George W. Bush).

Did it work?

Chavez’s agenda was obviously highly ambitious. In fact, it was almost certainly too ambitious. Why? Because while the lot of the poor did improve by some metrics under Chavez, even those inclined to be ideologically sympathetic to him believe he left Venezuela worse than he found it, even for the poor. From ThinkProgress’s warning not to eulogize Chavez:

While even Chavez’s critics admit that he did attempt to address the plight of Venezuela’s poorest, the decline in economic inequality in Venezuela reflected a broader egalitarian trend in Latin America, and can’t be fully credited to Chavez’s policies. However, Chavez’ policies harmed Venezuela’s poorest in other ways: the value of the Venezuelan currency dropped while prices soared, making it harder for people to buy basic necessities, and crime skyrocketed.

This, as it turns out, is putting it mildly.  ABC Univision put together a devastating article titled “5 Ways Hugo Chavez Has Destroyed the Venezuelan Economy” shortly after Chavez’s death, and the list would embarrass any politician, let alone one who held power for over 10 years. In short, the article accuses Chavez of reducing the Venezuelan economy to a one trick pony dependent on oil, of crippling private business with its extensive nationalizations and other regulations, of destroying Venezuela’s currency, of allowing prices to skyrocket, and of permitting a drastic increase in crime.

The statistics more than back up all of these accusations. Prior to Chavez’s rise to power, oil exports accounted for 77 percent of Venezuela’s exports. Now, that number is just shy of 100 percent. In other words, without oil, Venezuela has essentially nothing worth selling. This is especially problematic when you consider that, according to the Venezuelan news site La Patilla, Venezuela’s debt has ballooned from $34 billion to $150 billion under Chavez.

La Patilla also offers a bevy of even worse statistics – for instance, the fact that between 2007 and 2010 alone, private investment in the Venezuelan economy dropped by 43 percent. The Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, is down 66 percent in value since 2008. Inflation has been at a stunning 23 percent during Chavez’s reign. Worst of all, the murder rate has practically doubled since Chavez took office.

And then there is the matter of Venezuela’s health care system. As BBC News notes:

The specialist kidney unit at El Algodonal hospital in a suburb of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, is completely empty. So empty, you could hear a pin drop.

Despite boasting four dialysis machines, doctors here have been turning patients away since the hospital’s water treatment plant broke down several months ago.[…]

Over the last few months, as President Hugo Chavez shuttled back and forth to Cuba for cancer treatment, the spotlight has been on health services in Venezuela.

Crumbling public hospitals are struggling to treat patients who often face long waits.

Doctors and nurses have held strikes to draw attention to their working conditions and the lack of basic supplies.

And as the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2008:

Inaugurated nationwide in 2003, Barrio Adentro initially was so popular with the poor that it helped Chavez win a crucial 2004 referendum and hold on to power. It has brought basic healthcare to the barrios, providing free exams and medicine as well as eye operations that have saved the sight of thousands.

But the system siphons resources and equipment away from the public hospitals, which have four-fifths of the nation’s 45,000 hospital beds and where the public still goes for emergency and maternity care, as well as for most major and elective surgeries.

The finances and organization of Barrio Adentro are “a black box and not transparent, so it’s impossible to analyze it for efficiency,” said Dr. Marino Gonzalez, professor of public policy at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, the capital.

In other words, Chavez’s concern for the poor and desire to pay off his political supporters has actually not created an optimal health care system. Rather, his ambition led him to neglect the systematic problems in Venezuela’s existing health care system so that he could create a new, equally inefficient one.

Matched against this, what can Chavez’s defenders point to? In some cases, as in the case of the Nation’s Greg Gandin, they point to Chavez’s political reforms (specifically his reinvigoration of political activism in Venezuela, and his enfranchisement of the poor) as de facto evidence that Chavez has been a positive force on the national stage, while lamenting that he simply wasn’t authoritarian enough to fix the larger issues. To quote Grandin:

Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether Chavismo’s social-welfare programs will endure now that Chávez is gone and shelve the left-wing hope that out of rank-and-file activism a new, sustainable way of organizing society will emerge. The participatory democracy that took place in barrios, in workplaces and in the countryside over the last fourteen years was a value in itself, even if it doesn’t lead to a better world.

There’s been great work done on the ground by scholars such as Alejandro Velasco, Sujatha Fernandes, Naomi Schiller and George Ciccariello-Maher on these social movements that, taken together, lead to the conclusion that Venezuela might be the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere. One study found that organized Chavistas held to “liberal conceptions of democracy and held pluralistic norms,” believed in peaceful methods of conflict resolution and worked to ensure that their organizations functioned with high levels of “horizontal or non-hierarchical” democracy. What political scientists would criticize as a hyper dependency on a strongman, Venezuelan activists understand as mutual reliance, as well as an acute awareness of the limits and shortcomings of this reliance.[…]

Chávez was a strongman. He packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances. But I’ll be perverse and argue that the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.

Needless to say, this is a defense that would be unlikely to persuade anyone but the already converted that Chavez was a decent ruler. And indeed, one can see this problem in the reaction by David Frum acolyte Justin Green to Grandin’s apologia, to say nothing of the reaction by conservative pundit John Podhoretz, who mockingly wrote on Twitter:



Fortunately for Chavez’s defenders, there is another defense, which ThinkProgress hints at without endorsing: specifically, the fact that under Chavez, the lot of the poor did get better in at least one sense. To quote the progressive website Left Foot Forward:

Under Chavez’s rule, wealth was redistributed and the living standards of the country’s poorest were raised to an extent previously unknown. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) found thatfrom 2002 to 2010, poverty in Venezuela was reduced by 20.8 percent, dropping from 48.6 percent to 27.8 percent, while extreme poverty decreased from 22.2 percent to 10.7 percent.

Chavez also made impressive inroads in terms of closing the gap between Venezuela’s rich and poor. According to the ECLAC report, Venezuela has Latin America’s lowest Gini coefficient at 0.394. The closer the Gini coefficient is to zero, the closer a country is to total socio-economic equality.

Of course, there is a problem with even this milder apologia, which ThinkProgress itself points out – namely, that most of the good effects on the poor during Chavez’s reign can be attributed to broader economic and political trends in Latin America, rather than to Chavez’s own policies. Moreover, neither Left Foot Forward nor ThinkProgress undertakes to defend Chavez completely the way Grandin does, and there is a clear reason. Because even setting aside his apparent economic failure and tepid improvements to the life of his country’s poorest residents, Chavez’s political system has been anything but a participatory democracy.

The antisemitic, autocratic Chavista regime

When it comes to the regime Hugo Chavez put in place, perhaps the kindest thing that has been said about it (with the exception of the moral equivalence employed by Chavez’s defenders) is that it was so poorly managed by Chavez himself that its political flaws were irrelevant. That is the case made by New York Times op-ed contributor Rory Carroll in his obituary of Chavez:

 The endless debate about whether Mr. Chávez was a dictator or democrat — he was in fact a hybrid, an elected autocrat — distracted attention, at home and abroad, from the more prosaic issue of competence. Mr. Chávez was a brilliant politician and a disastrous ruler. He leaves Venezuela a ruin, and his death plunges its roughly 30 million citizens into profound uncertainty.[…]

Underinvestment and ineptitude hit hydropower stations and the electricity grid, causing weekly blackouts that continue to darken cities, fry electrical equipment, silence machinery and require de facto rationing. The government has no shortage of scapegoats: its own workers, the C.I.A. and even cable-gnawing possums.

Reckless money printing and fiscal policies triggered soaring inflation, so much so that the currency, the bolívar, lost 90 percent of its value since Mr. Chávez took office, and was devalued five times over a decade. In another delusion, the currency had been renamed “el bolívar fuerte,” the strong bolívar — an Orwellian touch.[…]

His elections were not fair — Mr. Chávez rigged rules in his favor, hijacked state resources, disqualified some opponents, emasculated others — but they were free.[…]

The comandante, as he was known to loyalists, used his extraordinary energy and charisma to dominate airwaves with marathon speeches (four hours was short). He might blow kisses, mobilize troops, denounce the United States, ride a bike, a tank, a helicopter — anything to keep attention focused on him, not his performance.

In other words, Chavez was no dictatorial monster, merely a brutal incompetent. This may be an accurate read, but it overlooks the form that Chavez’s brutality took. Specifically, he spitefully and repeatedly intimidated and silenced critics, and endorsed a paranoid style of politics that made a scapegoat not just of his political opponents, but of ethnic minorities — specifically, Jews. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have meticulously documented the  manner in which Chavez targeted his critics, both in opposition parties and in the media, even going so far as to censor and prosecute media critics in the court system. Human Rights Watch released a 133 page report on this topic, which is well worth-reading in total here. Amnesty International cites two incidents, meanwhile, that are illustrative:

  • In May, after publicly criticizing military officials, Rocío San Miguel, President of the civil society organization Citizen Control, was followed by two unidentified men in an unmarked car and was later told that there had been an attempt to issue her with an arrest warrant.
  • In July, Víctor Martínez was beaten in the street by an unidentified man while distributing flyers in which he alleged that the police had been involved in the death of his son, Mijail Martínez, in 2009. No one had been brought to justice for the killing of Mijail Martínez or the attack against Víctor Martínez by the end of the year.

Chavez’s mistreatment of Jews, meanwhile, has been documented in a study by the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University. According to the study, Chavez relentlessly relied on conspiratorial fears of Jewish influence over banks, played on anti-semitism in the election against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski and even warned his people, “Don’t let yourselves be poisoned by those wandering Jews.”

Does this make Chavez the “South American Hitler?” Given that there is no evidence that he pursued genocide against Jews, almost certainly not. But it, and the other evidence against Chavez’s regime, does show that whatever the nobility of his motives, his reign over Venezuela was tainted by any number of problematic elements, which his defenders have either refused to acknowledge, or tried to explain away with moral equivalence and ad hominem attacks against his critics.

Moreover, his economic record is nowhere near the messianic success which would have arguably been necessary to justify the drastic measures that Chavez took. Even according to his Leftmost critics, his reign was at best incompetent and at worst actively malicious, demagogic and racist.

That is hardly an obituary that a political leader can be proud of.