The Petro-State’s Magician Passes On

There will be a lot of assessments in the next few days of the unlikely career of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who died yesterday of cancer at the age of 58. Few of these obituaries will be neutral.

But as it happens, the new issue of the Washington Monthly includes Daniel Kurtz-Phelan’s review of a new book on Chavez by Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll, that appropriately appreciates the Comandante’s political skills and genuine devotion to the poor without harboring any illusions about underyling conditions in Venezuela.

Carroll refers to Chavez’s particular form of charisma as “magical realism,” and chronicles its sometimes uncanny power.

[F]or Carroll, this appreciation only heightens the tragedy of what Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” has wrought: “Here was a sublimely gifted politician with empathy for the poor and the power of Croesus—and the result, fiasco.”

The first step in understanding Chavez’s regime and legacy is not based on his rhetoric of “twenty-first century socialism,” but on Venezuela’s oil-based economy, which fed the parasitical elites Chavez overthrew but has also cursed (even as it financed) his revolution:

Chavez’s populist touch would hardly be enough if he didn’t also have the enviable luck of presiding over the country with the world’s largest oil reserves at a time of skyrocketing energy prices. Political scientists Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold have documented just how closely Chavez’s popularity has tracked with growth in oil-fueled public spending. Still, as Carroll points out, many of Chavez’s predecessors in the Venezuelan political elite have had similarly enviable luck and haven’t always used it to the same advantage. “When he accused [them] of looting the nation’s oil wealth,” Carroll writes, “he was essentially correct.” Chavez hasn’t shown the foresight to direct the windfall toward building a diversified modern economy—oil now accounts for 96 percent of Venezuela’s exports, up from an already-dismaying 80 percent—but the patronage of the petro-state has at least helped allay extreme poverty. The revolution’s social “missions,” which provide, among other things, health care and subsidized food to slum dwellers, are popular enough that Chavez’s savvier opponents have promised to maintain and even expand them.

There’s no telling what will happen next in Venezuela now that its great polarizing figure is gone:

In December, Chavez anointed Nicolas Maduro, a union leader turned foreign minister, as his successor. But Maduro represents only one of many factions and interests: Castroite socialists, military men, street militia chiefs, Boligarchs who have grown fat and prosperous on the fruits of twenty-first-century socialism. When Chavez is gone, the knives will come out as they fight to protect the spoils and take up the mantle of the revolution, knowing well that for years, the fundamental question of Venezuelan politics will be, What would Chavez have done?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.