Posted by: Paula Delgado-Kling | March 7, 2013

For long-term view, take heed, U.S.: the caudillo Hugo Chavez rose to power as a result of income inequality.

Ding Dong! The Dictator is dead. Which dictator? The Corrupt Dictator. Ding Dong! The Corrupt Dictator is dead. Wake up — sleepy U.S. — sleepy head, get out of bed, work on income inequality. Because the lesson from Venezuela is: for a long-term view, take heed, U.S. — the caudillo Hugo Chavez rose to power as a result of income inequality, and income inequality is on the rise in the U.S.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, 58, passed away March 5, and his legacy is one of horror.

For the region, and especially for Colombia, Chavez was a dangerous fellow. There was a history of collaboration between the FARC and Chavez officials. To prove that FARC = FARV (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Venezuela), Colombia displayed aerial photographs of what are identified as FARC camps inside Venezuela, as well as photos and videos of FARC leaders, which according to former FARC who recently surrendered to the Colombian government, were taken at camps inside Venezuela.

Chavez left his own country with record murder rates: in 2012, there were 73 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 67 in 2011. This means there are more murders in Venezuela than in the U.S. and the 27 countries of the European Union combined.

Chavez also left Venezuela a crumbled democracy. According to a July 2012 Human Rights Watch report, “the accumulation of power in the executive, the removal of institutional safeguards, and the erosion of human rights guarantees have given the Chávez government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticize the president or thwart his political agenda.”

Venezuela sits on the world’s second-largest oil reserves. But under Chavez, there was much mismanagement in the oil sector, and consequently, despite the sustained increase in oil prices, Venezuela has the lowest cumulative rate of economic growth among the seven largest economies in South America since 1999, according to data from the United Nations.

A CNN report concluded, “the nation will need to dismantle the policies, structures, and rhetoric that have made investing in Venezuela a fool’s errand.” (Related: A destabilized Venezuela is good for Colombia’s foreign investment in the oil sector.)

Chavez would have dismissed such facts as, “Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation. Only socialism can create a genuine society,” as he told Time magazine.

But, if socialism were the answer, Commander Chavez, what of the food shortages that are rampant in Venezuela? And the hospitals that lack medical supplies and whose workers have to go with unpaid wages and benefits?

Chavez may have answered by saying, “That is a stupid question. I cannot answer a stupid question because whoever tries to answer a stupid question would sound stupid.” This is what Chavez responded to the BBC’s John Sweeney when Sweeney asked him, Why does Venezuela not spend its money in Venezuela?

Sweeney was referring to Chavez’s policy of spreading his Bolivarian revolution to other countries, to Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, by subsidizing them, and helping to mold its leaders.

To Sweeney, Chavez added only “someone stupid would ask such a stupid question.”

Yes, Chavez was not the classiest guy. He described his diarrhea on national television. (Related: Chavez: More American Idol than Che Guevarra.)

But the lesson from Chavez is that in 1999, when he was democratically elected, he managed to topple a corrupt two-party system that had ruled Venezuela for decades, and which had excluded and marginalized much of poverty-struck Venezuelans who did not feel they were part of a democratic system.

The murals of Chavez in the slums of Caracas and the crowds of red-clad mourners who were tear-struck as his casket was paraded through Caracas are evidence that Chavez changed the way Venezuelans think about themselves and their country. His supporters have learned that their vote counts, and democracy can indeed work in their favor.

The outpour of grief from Chavistas is reminiscent of the death of Argentina’s Eva Peron; soon there will be altars to Santo Hugo just as there are altars to Santa Evita throughout Argentina.

Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group, told the New York Times that poor, excluded and marginalized people feeling included “hasn’t happened in very many countries. If you look at the United States, poor people don’t feel like they’re very much a part of the system, and he (Chavez) did that.”

In the U.S., income inequality is on the rise. As Adam Isacson, analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, pointed out, the U.S. takes eleventh place in world income inequality — behind Costa Rica and ahead of Colombia, and several spots below its southern neighbor Mexico.

The lesson here is: for a longterm view, take heed, U.S. — the caudillo Hugo Chavez is the result of income inequality, and many in the U.S. are feeling excluded and marginalized.


Shannon K. O’Neil, a Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, speaks with the New York Times.

Washington Office on Latin America: Q & A on Venezuelan Transition.

Pro-Chavez Child Soldiers in Venezuela.

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