Friday, March 8, 2013

On the Death of Hugo Chavez

I've been trying to get back into blogging for months now. I've got a veritable wasteland of incomplete posts and the like, from economics, to personal updates, to good movies, and more, and yet nothing clicks. Why this particular subject ended up being the first is a bit odd, but nonetheless...

With Hugo Chavez' recent passing, the future of two countries has been thrown a dramatic curveball. Outside of those two countries most affected by his passing - Venezuela, obviously, and Cuba - many try to clarify what his legacy is and was to both his own country and the international community.

One thing that has somewhat irked me has little to do with Chavez himself, but how some of the more extreme leftists/progressives have upheld him as an ultimate role model. If Chavez is the greatest example of socialism, then socialism has a ways to go before it can be truly lauded. While Chavez' anti-imperialism and ability to withstand the US - which has had a long history of war crimes and supporting murderous dictators in Central and South America - were both commendable, his economic programs at home were erratic at best, and marked by both strong successes and strong failures. Under 14 years of Chavez' rule, university enrollment doubled, GDP doubled, poverty was cut dramatically - extreme poverty even more so - infant mortality and unemployment decreased, and literacy rates increased. It needs mentioning that all of these things were improvements also seen in other countries around the world, especially oil-rich ones, but Chavez' economic numbers when compared regionally are largely indicative of successful welfare programs. Sadly, inequality has spiked among Venezuelans with the difference in wealth between the rich and poor, and the violent crime and murder rate have also been spiraling out of control. Blackouts are still somewhat common, and access to safe drinking water is a bit hit-and-miss. His expensive programs and high deficits leave whoever takes over in a difficult position of deciding what subsidies and safety nets to continue, and what to axe. Perhaps his biggest deficiencies, however, were in civil liberties, where Chavez strong-armed his way into a president for life position and gerrymandered the country to make opposition difficult, and upheld rigorous censorship laws and regulations. The prison system is dangerous and unkempt, and police abuses are widespread.

But Hugo Chavez' death also means potential changes for Cuba. Cuba has long provided doctors and health practitioners to Venezuela, while Venezuela has provided heavily discounted oil in return, and very large amounts, at that. Chavez was an extremely close friend of Castro, and was able to use his personality at home to continue to dissuade questioning of the cheap oil to Cuba. With the aforementioned high deficits and a new leader for Venezuela impending, it is expected that these oil deals may be some of the first on the chopping block, as they do little for the average Venezuelan. This has a large effect on the Cuban economy, which is stagnant and struggling right now, and heavily relies on the Venezuelan oil subsidies to stay afloat. Without them, Cuba could very possibly enter a strong recession or even depression economically.

Internationally, Chavez' death represents the passing of another iconic anti-American leader. And perhaps that will be what is most remembered of him. He presented a different option to the imperialism, banana republics, and Pinochets that saw direct western involvement and/or support. The differences in opinions on him continue to drive further apart as neither side agrees; the right calls him a brutal dictator, which is probably a bit unfair, and the left seems to idolize him as a socialist vision of perfection, which is probably an exaggeration. What Chavez was is complicated by confounding statistics, national fervor that reveals both deep love and strong distaste; the latter in particular on an international level. Perhaps, like some other iconic national leaders around the world, we simply have to consider him a flawed individual, prone to both success and failure, a thirst for power, and a strong sense of personal justice. In that sense, maybe he was an everyman, but it remains up for debate whether he truly did the best for every man.