The Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was the latest and most successful embodiments of a brand of Latin American Left-wing politics that blends redistributional economics with showmanship. With his death and the retirement of Fidel Castro in Cuba, also thanks to illness, there is no clear heir to this throne. There is no shortage of possibilities. Bolivia, Ecuador and to some extent Argentina have leaders who bear the stamp of Chavez and other Latino populists. Chavez and his ilk are a direct consequence of the fact that Latin American nations have unusually high levels of social inequality.
What made Chavez different were three factors. One, he upheld a traditional leftwing rhetoric, filled with talk of revolution and fighting imperialism, when much of the world had abandoned even lip service to such themes following the Soviet collapse. Two, he put money where his mouth was thanks to a steadily rising global oil price, the foundation of his country’s economy. Though Chavez mismanaged his oil sector so much that production halved during his 14 years in office, his coffers remained buoyant because the price rose eightfold during the same period. Venezuela could thus afford to spend billions holding up the economies of an ailing Cuba and Nicaragua. Finally, Chavez never completely lost a sense of pragmatism however overblown his language might have been. Even while he denounced Washington, he made sure Venezuela positioned itself as among the most dependable of oil suppliers of the US.
Chavez did wonders to Venezuela’s welfare system, pouring money into poverty alleviation programmes, providing public amenities and health services, and otherwise giving his country’s underclass a deservedly greater share of the pie. But the real test of any leader is whether the institutions he builds survive him. Unfortunately, this is unlikely.
The oil boom that allowed him to ignore the rules of economics is coming to an end. His failure to invest sensibly in Venezuela’s oil and gas sector will mean financial hardship in the years ahead. Chavez was slowly increasing political repression and drumming up class polarisation to compensate for the sagging economy. Curiously, his early death will allow his legend to live because the fallacies of Chavez’s petroleum-fueled revolution will now be blamed on his successors rather than him.