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Sunday 11 March 2013

Shed tears not for Chavez, but for the land he ruined

The Venezuelan leader was an instinctive despot and an economic illiterate, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'He was invincible," said Cuban president Raul Castro of Hugo Chavez. "He left victorious and no one can take that away. It is fixed in history." Venezuela's 'Chavistas' will do their damnedest to keep that image alive by embalming their dead leader and promising that -- like Lenin and Mao -- Chavez will be shown to the public "for eternity".In death, as in life, Chavez is lined up with ruthless totalitarians and self-appointed messiahs of the Left, which -- like having millions of people filing past his coffin -- would make him happy. His own psychiatrist described him as "a narcissist ... impulsive, temperamental, hypersensitive to criticism" and needing "to be idolised".

Christopher Hitchens described Chavez as a politicised necrophiliac, obsessed with Simon Bolivar, a key figure in the successful early-19th-century South American struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire.

Chavez called the followers -- with whom he unsuccessfully attempted a coup in 1002 -- the "Bolivarian Movement".

He renamed his country the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" and sometimes left a chair for Bolivar's shade at the cabinet table.

In 2010, he had Bolivar exhumed, chatted with his bones and had every TV station in Venezuela showing his skeleton and historical images alongside those of Chavez himself.

In his disturbed psyche, Chavez was Bolivar reincarnated, which made his critics seem like critics of Bolivar and of Venezuelan history.

Bolivar's legacy was well worth stealing, remarked Hitchens, recommending reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel The General In His Labyrinth to understand "the combination of heroic and tragic qualities that keep his memory alive to this day".

In the bloody independence struggle, wrote Hitchens, "Bolivar cut a considerable figure, as he did in his other capacities as double-dealer, war criminal and serial fornicator, also lovingly portrayed by Marquez."

Marquez took Chavez seriously, writing after meeting him: "I was speaking to two very distinctive men in one person. One to whom destiny gives the possibility of saving his country; the other, who is capable of going down in history as a despot."

Chavez failed to live up to the first possibility but would probably have achieved the second, had he not been felled by cancer aged 58 on March 5.

One of six children of two schoolteachers of the mixed Indian, Spanish and African descent common to most Venezuelans, Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954 and claimed to have learned from his devout Catholic grandmother about "the injustices of this world".

His high school was named after Daniel O'Leary, a Corkman who became one of Bolivar's aides-de-camp and a brigadier-general.

There, Chavez won a baseball scholarship to the Academy of Military Sciences. By 1992, when he and his fellow-revolutionaries in the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR-200) tried to overthrow the corrupt, incompetent government of President Carlos Perez, which was trying to deal with anti-austerity riots by widespread shootings, he was a lieutenant-colonel and commander of a parachute regiment.

While Chavez was in jail, Perez was impeached. The following year, Chavez was pardoned and -- wearing military fatigues -- he roamed the country on behalf of his new political party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), making incendiary demagogic speeches promising justice for the poor and punishment of the corrupt.

His charisma and his promise of a "Bolivarian revolution" secured him a spectacular victory in the presidential election of 1998, the new constitution approved by the electorate in 1999 greatly strengthened the powers of the government and in 2000 Chavez was returned with an even bigger majority. He would win again in 2006 and December 2012, when he was dying.

While he spent vast amounts of the country's soaring oil revenues on education, health, housing and social welfare, Chavez was economically illiterate and incoherent and did nothing to create jobs, redistribute income or control corruption, inefficiency or waste.

Gradually, inflation would reach devastating levels. He did nothing to deal with the galloping increase in killings. Pre-Chavez, there were around 4,500 murders annually: in his first decade as president, there were more than 120,000, higher than almost any other country in the world.

"Killings have become a way of executing property crimes, a mechanism to resolve personal conflicts and a way to apply private justice," said a crime-monitoring NGO.

Through his virulent attacks on all groups not under his control, Chavez had made enemies of business, religious and trade-union leaders. At every opportunity he increased his own powers, culminating in his winning a plebiscite that enabled him to stand for re-election as often as he liked, and clamping down on the press.

He was no Mao, but his instincts were despotic.

Abroad, he grandstanded. America was Satan and all its enemies were his friends, be they Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Gaddafi in Libya, the Castros in Cuba, Ahmedinejad in Iran and Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

He described Lukashenko's poor, oppressed, miserable Belarus as "a model social state of the kind that we are trying to create".

Chavez picked fights with neighbours like Colombia, Peru and Mexico, who were denounced as American stooges and threatened with his expensive armoury.

Although the cult of Chavez kept the support of many of the Venezuelan poor, his authoritarianism and rampant narcissism -- most notably demonstrated in the interminable rambling speeches on television every couple of days -- assisted the development of a polit-ical opposition which may be in with a chance at the imminent election but will most likely be defeated by sentiment.

Had Chavez had the humility to learn from such a successful left-of-centre Latin American politician as President Lula of Brazil, he could have left a fine legacy in the form of a sound economy and a peaceful country.

But his arrogance and narcissism triumphed and, though his desire to help the unfortunate was genuine, he favoured style over substance and rhetoric over achievement.

With the majority still mired in poverty and petrified by street violence, with little to show for oil revenues worth a trillion or so dollars and massive loans from China except the highest inflation in the region, thinking Venezuelans should be wondering if it is reasonable for the Chavistas to expect them to sob over their dead leader's corpse.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards