The tragedy of Chávez

Ten years in, a capitalist elite has merely been replaced by a quasi-socialist elite with little regard for Venezuelans.

When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1999, I was very optimistic. After all, I had watched this oil-rich nation's tragic economic collapse first hand for more than a decade and I felt – like many Venezuelans – that Mr. Chávez's promised revolution was the only thing that could turn this country around.

Ten years later I am less optimistic.

Despite Chávez's undisputed control of the three branches of government and windfall profits from the 2003-08 oil boom, his record is remarkably poor. Inflation is running at over 30 percent, the homicide rate has more than doubled since he took office, and food shortages abound.

At the same time, synagogues are attacked or raided by police, reporters are threatened, and human rights workers are summarily expelled. In recent weeks, government officials have seized foreign oil company assets, and threatened to shut down Globovision, an opposition-aligned news network.

This is the true tragedy of "Chavismo," because there is no reason why socialism shouldn't work in oil-rich Venezuela. It doesn't, because the government is so shortsighted and corrupt. Oil production – the country's main source of wealth and the fuel for its socialist revolution – is well below where it was when Chávez rose to power.

While much has been made of the similarities between Chávez and longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, it is actually wiser, given Chávez's decade in power, to look at the differences.

Like Mr. Castro, Chávez has invested heavily in healthcare and literacy, but while Fidel Castro's programs have benefited millions, Chávez's programs have had limited impact because they are motivated by short-term political gain and not long-term betterment of the nation.

In 1961 Castro was able to increase Cuba's literacy rate from 77 to 96 percent in a single year – an amazing program that employed every sector of society. In contrast, Chávez's much touted initiative increased literacy by only 1 percent and was largely superfluous – the country already had a 92 percent literacy rate, one of the highest in Latin America. Curiously, the program was launched during Chávez's attempt to defeat a recall referendum in 2004 and offered generous grants to those who joined his political party. Not surprisingly, when Chávez won the referendum, the program was immediately shut down.

His healthcare initiatives have been similarly motivated by political opportunism. While the president's Barrio Adentro program has brought healthcare to the poor in many areas, other areas are worse off than ever. Most telling is that although Venezuela's gross domestic product dwarfs Cuba's, Venezuela's infant mortality rate is still three times higher. Clearly the national wealth is not making it to those who need it most.

Some have gained from Chávez's reign. They are known as "Boligarchs" – the new elite born of Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution, self-professed socialists with Hummers and yachts. The excesses of Castro's apparatchiks during the cold war pale in comparison to the invidious exploits of the Boligarchs.

It is a little difficult to believe Chávez when he warns that "capitalism will lead to the destruction of humanity" when his mother appears in the papers wearing designer sunglasses and a cumbersome amount of gold jewelry. The Boligarchs epitomize the hypocrisy of Chávez's socialism and show how little has changed. A capitalist elite has merely been replaced by a quasi-socialist elite that enjoy the nation's oil wealth while the masses remain neglected and impoverished.

Chávez has repeatedly said he wants to rule until 2050 – a tenure that would rival Castro's. With the president's recent changes to the Constitution there is very little that can stop him. We can only hope that, for the sake of the Venezuelan people, he figures out a way to create the egalitarian society that he so vociferously claims he has already made.

Brian A. Nelson is the author of a new book about the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez, "The Silence and the Scorpion."

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