Having lived and worked in Venezuela for seven years during my foreign service career, I’m very interested in what happens next in that unfortunate, but very beautiful, country following the death of Socialist (Marxist) dictator wannabe/president, Hugo Chavez.
I’d like to write something nice about Chavez but I can’t because he wrecked Venezuela’s economy and squandered the country’s oil wealth during his 14 years in office. He took office after I left Venezuela for the last time 1990, and things quickly went downhill as he nationalized private businesses and clamped down on the democratic opposition. Then he cozied up to several international pariahs including Cuba’s Castro brothers and another dictator wannabe, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Cuban President Raul Castro and Ahmadinejad were at last weekend’s huge funeral service for Chavez along with several American fellow travelers, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. — whose troubled son, former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., stole more than $750,000 from campaign contributors — and Hollywood lefties Sean Penn and Oliver Stone. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
During my two tours of duty in Caracas, 1968-70 and 1986-90, I came to love Venezuela and the Venezuelans, but was well aware of the income disparities that led to Col. Chavez’s attempted coup in 1992 and his election as president in 1999. Before then, Venezuelan oligarchs raked in the petro-dollars while ignoring the basic needs of the poorest of the poor. I remember sitting by the pool at the Caracas Hilton and looking up at the miserable “ranchitos” (little ranches), squalid hovels and shacks that covered nearby hillsides. It was a stark contrast between rich and poor, a ticking time bomb that was eventually detonated by Col. Chavez and his followers.
According to the Venezuelan Constitution, Acting President Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver who was Chavez’s vice president and designated successor, had to call an election within 30 days. On April 14 he’ll run against businessman Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez last fall by ten percentage points. Although Maduro will probably defeat Capriles next month, there’s hope for the opposition with the Venezuelan economy in shambles and one of the highest inflation rates in the world.
“Since his youth, Mr. Maduro has been a client of the of the Castro regime in Cuba,” the liberal Washington Post observed, “but he appears to be more thuggish and less politically adept” than Chavez. Maduro and his followers frequently scapegoat the U.S. for Venezuela’s economic problems and even blamed us for causing the cancer that took the late president’s life.
You might wonder how the Venezuelan economy could be in such bad shape in a country with trillion-dollar oil revenues — it’s our fourth largest oil supplier — and a population of less than 30 million people. Chavez managed to destroy his country’s economy with his extravagant giveaway programs. Before he died he promised poor Venezuelans a huge giveaway of apartments and home appliances, sort of like the “free” stuff the Obama administration is offering to low-income voters.
It isn’t fair to compare Obama to Chavez, but there is a similarity in the rich vs. poor rhetoric that both of them have employed to remain in office. Fortunately, however, that’s where the comparison ends. I hope my Venezuelan friends will see the light before it’s too late.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a retired diplomat.