Louis Rolf writes from the UN, New York: It had to happen and it did. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez is dead. He probably died a few days ago but his people only worked out how to say so last night. That’s the way the whole Chavez act worked – never a dull moment.
The Americans hated him. Most of the Latin American states loved him because he handed out cash to them from Venezuela’s oil wealth – the seemingly bottomless well of black gold, of which, as irony would have it, one third ended in the hated US.
At home Chavez used oil revenues to make life better for the hungry and the lame of his country. But for every barrel of crude he put to good use, another ten barrels were wasted on some stupid populist projects. In all honesty, Chavez could have done so much better for his people.
Sometimes the biggest hand-outs went to other Latinos, especially the Castros in Cuba, who have for years relied on Chavez’s support. But in spite of the image of a big man with a big heart and mighty socialist ambitions, Chavez had to tread carefully. And it’s probably worth remembering that in spite of what he did for medical care in his own land, he eventually had to go to Cuba of all places for treatment in his battle with cancer.
There was, of course, a good reason to go to Cuba: Chavez felt safer there. At home, someone would always be tempted to turn off the oxygen supply. Not in Cuba. Doing that would have turned off the cheap oil supply.
Moreover, Chavez the charismatic leader – or Chavez the socialist basket case as Washington saw him – was no liberal saint. Just the opposite. Forget the votes and the runaway victory last October for another 6 years in power. Forget also the democracy slogans. Chavez was effectively an elected dictator. And that’s the problem for his country now: where to go from here?
Chavez wanted his vice-president, or Yes Man as Washington saw him, Nicolas Maduro, to succeed him. Henrique Capriles, the man Chavez beat in October, still has grand ideas. Maybe the poor and have-nots will be caught up in the great wail and woe that bursts on a nation when their hero goes, and that won’t do Snr Maduro any harm at all. But watch out for the long knives.
The complex politics Chavez leaves behind includes a den of so-called socialist intellectuals and some hardened business leaders. The socialists want more Chavez politics without the theatrics. Big business wants a country that they can turn into a profit.
Then there’s the inevitable steely-eyed generals, ever waiting in the wings to take charge, if whatever follows doesn’t suit them. The Americans here say they want democracy to succeed but maybe the generals could hold the ring while democracy gets its breath back. These mixed messages are wrapped in the legacy of Chavez: always on the run, keep moving, keep everyone from the White House to downtown Caracas guessing and anticipating.
Like him or loathe him Chavez was the only man who could really wind up the White House since Fidel Castro went into his decline. In a world bored silly by its dull and grey politicians: for that alone we should probably be grateful to Chavez. Not to mention that unlike all other oil despots he never toyed with the idea of getting his hands on nukes. And that matters nowadays.
Still, they could have announced his death when he actually kicked the bucket. Would have looked better on their CVs in these troubled times.