HUGO Chávez, the late President of Venezuela and Comandante of the Bolivarian Socialist Revolution, is to join a select club: his mummified body is to be put on permanent display.
“Just like Lenin, just like Mao Zedong,” said Nicolas Maduro, ex-bus driver, illegal interim president and anointed successor of Chávez, announcing this waxen apotheosis. It is an established custom that the iconic leaders of progressive humanity should be idolised in this way.
‘The Doll’, as Muscovites irreverently refer to the corpse of Lenin still polluting Red Square, is routinely spruced-up twice a week; Stalin, who formerly lay alongside him, was relegated to the grave in 1961 when he fell out of favour. For Chávez this ending is appropriate: he stuffed Venezuela for 14 years and now the nation is returning the compliment. It is only a temporary arrangement, however: the Comandante’s close ally President Ahmedinejad of Iran has declared that Chávez will return in glory alongside Christ and the 12th Imam of the Shia tradition.
With the Comandante in the hands of the taxidermists, his legacy is not an enviable one for his successors to conserve. Chávez was the classic “Latin-American idiot”, in the phrase coined by Alvaro Vargas Llosa for the unreconstructed Latin Left, who demonstrated that the infallible equation “socialism equals incompetence and impoverishment” holds as good today as in the days of the Comandante’s fellow dummies Lenin and Mao. In solidarity with the red-shirted, clench-fisted Caracas mob, the usual suspects are inconsolable. Michael Moore is in mourning, Sean Penn hailed Chávez as a “great friend America never knew it had”, the life-support machine that rules Cuba ordered flags to half-mast and the BBC apparatchiks are depressed. The Dianafication of Chávez is well under way in Caracas; other parts of Venezuela are in discreetly celebratory mood.
This “Bolivarian” buffoon has turned a country with global wealth potential into a police state and economic basket case. All the institutions of state have been Stalinised. Last year Human Rights Watch said “the accumulation of power in the executive and the erosion of human rights protections have allowed the Chávez government to intimidate, censor and prosecute critics and perceived opponents in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media and civil society”. All opposition broadcasting stations were closed down. When Chávez lost a referendum in which he had demanded the right to enjoy repeated terms as president, he held another 14 months later on which he spent $12 billion and which his corrupt state apparatus enabled him to win, after which he announced his intention of retaining power until 2049.
The propagandist canard that he lavished public spending on the poor – free healthcare, welfare, college education – obscures the fact that, in the long term, his rule has been a disaster for Venezuela’s poor. During his time in power inflation averaged 22 per cent annually – the ultimate tax on the poor as the prices of food and basic necessities rocketed; when he imposed price controls the results were food shortages. This leading energy nation was so afflicted with power cuts that Chávez appointed a Minister for Electricity Shortages. His grandiose schemes were predicated on an oil price of $200 a barrel, more than twice the current price. Oil production fell from 3.2 million barrels a day to 2.5 million. National external debt was $28bn when he came to power; it is now $90bn.
Under Chávez’ regime of “21st-century socialism” the middle-class wealth creators were termed the “Squalid Ones”: Miliband “One Nation” socialism this was not. Chávez seized more than 1,000 businesses, rural and urban property, frequently without compensation. Today the stock market capitalisation of companies on the Caracas Stock Exchange is a derisory 1.6 per cent of GDP. The crime rate is the worst in the world, with 21,700 homicides last year. Even the accession to power of Chávez’ successor already represents an act of illegality: according to the constitution the president of the National Assembly, not Maduro, should be the interim head of government.
The election is a foregone conclusion with most officials being agents of the regime, supported by the strongly Chavist armed forces, 120,000 leftist militiamen and gangs of violent “colectivos”. Yet, even in this unfavourable climate, the opposition leader Henrique Capriles managed to gain 44 per cent of the vote at last year’s elections. He will not win this time, but without the unifying presence of Chávez the leftist factions will soon fall out. The downfall of Marxism in Venezuela will occur long before the 25-year interval has elapsed after which Chávez is permitted to be laid beside that other scoundrel Simon Bolivar in the national pantheon. Realism dictates, though, that the transition from Marxist La-La Land to mature free-market state could well be bloody.