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The world is thankfully rid of Hugo Chávez, the president and strongman demagogue of Venezuela. But it is not rid of the problems he exploited—and often created—nor of the morally shameless individuals who pimped for him in the United States.
After a failed military coup in 1992, Chávez came to power through election in 1999 intending to transform his country into a socialist regime. He wanted to be the next Fidel Castro.
His first weapon of choice was demagoguery. Venezuela had a democratic tradition, however imperfect. And democracies have been prone to demagogues since the first ones whipped up angry mobs in ancient Athens. The tyrants of North Korea, by contrast, are not demagogues since the people are thoroughly under the heel of the government.
Chávez fanned the flames of class hatred, appealing to envy, naming as villains the “rich” and the bourgeoisie who he proposed to loot in the name of the poor. Of course, Venezuela, like most Latin American regimes, does not have true free markets that allow individuals to prosper only by producing goods and services with which to trade with their fellows. Rather, most Latin American countries are to some degree “corporatist,” meaning that politically-connected individuals, businesses, labor unions, or government elites prosper by getting special favors from government. So Chávez offered himself as the thug at the top doling out the goodies.
Yet there was a difference between Chávez and other such strongmen. He worked to limit further what liberty people in his country did have. When he came to power his country had an Index of Economic Freedom score of 56.1 out of 100. By 2013 its score had plummeted to 36.1. It is now ranked 174th out of 177 countries in economic liberty, the next to the worst in the Western Hemisphere, just above Cuba.
And, predictably, the economy began to suffer as a result. His policies have led to shortages of electricity and water and thus a surplus of misery for the Venezuelan people. Price controls led to shortages of food and other goods. And despite having one of the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela's oil production has fallen by about a quarter since Chávez came to power.
Of course, many Venezuelans weren’t buying this. So Chávez reacted to the thousands who opposed him, who marched in the streets, and who went on strike with typical strongman tactics—with intimidation, demagoguery, and even bullets. He had the country’s largest independent television station shut down for opposing him and for failing to broadcast his political propaganda. He worked to eliminate the two-term limit so he could remain in office as long as he could rig himself into reelection.
In the end Chávez didn’t help the poor but he certainly helped himself. After his death it was revealed that Chávez had a fortune, certainly stolen or extorted from Venezuelans.
Chávez also needed external enemies as a focus of hatred. Following in Castro’s jackboot-steps his target was America. He welcomed America’s enemies to his country—most notably Iran’s Islamist leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—, praised terrorists, and formed alliances with such types against the United States. He made deals to purchase military equipment from the Russians.
And he was a paranoid nut. The late Christopher Hitchens visited Chávez, along with Chávez acolyte Sean Penn, and reported that Chávez:
essentially doubted the existence of al-Qaida, let alone reports of its attacks on the enemy to the north. "I don't know anything about Osama Bin Laden that doesn't come to me through the filter of the West and its propaganda." To this, Penn replied that surely Bin Laden had provided quite a number of his very own broadcasts and videos. I was again impressed by the way that Chávez rejected this proffered lucid-interval lifeline. All of this so-called evidence, too, was a mere product of imperialist television. After all, "there is film of the Americans landing on the moon," he scoffed. "Does that mean the moon shot really happened? In the film, the Yanqui flag is flying straight out. So, is there wind on the moon?" As Chávez beamed with triumph at this logic, an awkwardness descended on my comrades, and on the conversation.
As disgusting as Chávez ‘s legacy is, perhaps more disgusting is the support he has received from America’s homegrown America-haters. The aforementioned actor Sean Penn made himself a personal friend of Venezuela’s top thug. And professional America-hating filmmakers Michael Moore had only good things to say about Hugo. Of course, one might note that few take moral mutants like Moore and Penn seriously.
More loathsome is Joseph Kennedy Jr., the son of the late senator Robert Kennedy and nephew of JFK. Since 2006 he has been pimping for Chávez in TV commercials for the oil company Citgo. We see poor Americans complaining about the high costs of heating their homes and fears of freezing or going hungry. Kennedy then announces heating oil discounts for such folks “from our friends in Venezuela at Citgo.” And in the latest version of the commercial, broadcast the week before Chávez’s death, Kennedy thanks Chávez by name.
Citgo is owned by Venezuela’s government-owned oil company, PVSA. In the past it has operated to some extent above politics, with Americans holding many top executive positions. But because of opposition within PVSA to his communist policies, Chávez replaced the company’s leaders with his own cronies. PVSA's revenues as well as its leadership fueled Chávez and his authoritarian regime, and the company is collapsing due to his depredations.
After Chávez’s death, American flags at the Houston headquarters of Citgo flew at half mast.
It is good that Chávez is gone. But freedom-loving Venezuelans still have quite a fight ahead of them. And here in America we must recognize that the elements we saw in Chávez can also be seen in the current occupant of the White House. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of freedom.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.