O’Grady: Chávez ‘The Redeemer’
Even as his rule dimmed their future, Venezuela’s poor clung to the belief that he cared for them.
Barack Obama’s first term was not kind to many Americans. Yet when a presidential-election exit poll in November asked voters which candidate “cares about people like me,” President Obama beat Mitt Romney by a staggering 81% to 18%.
You can blame that on Mr. Romney, but I think it has mostly to do with the cult of personality. And it was something to bear in mind last week as tens of thousands of Venezuelans in the streets of Caracas tearfully mourned the death of Hugo Chávez. Many of the poor may authentically believe that the dictator cared for them. But that doesn’t mean that he made them better off. He didn’t.
The results of the U.S. exit poll seemed highly illogical. Americans had endured four years of stubbornly high unemployment, stagnant wage growth, and rising gas and food prices. Yet Mr. Obama remained connected with the voters, as the exit poll and election outcome demonstrated.
Many Venezuelans seem to experience a similar disconnect between their idealism and reality. I suspect that the hysteria witnessed last week on the part of poor Venezuelans has to do with what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, the frustration and anxiety that one feels when holding two conflicting beliefs.
On the one hand, Chávez connected with the downtrodden in ways that previous presidents haven’t, starting with the fact that, like many of them, he is a mixed-race Venezuelan from humble origins. He first came on the political scene as an outsider promising to put an end to corruption, and to channel the country’s vast oil wealth to the disenfranchised.
This paternalism and his personal story struck a chord. He became a father figure in a country where many children grow up fatherless.
Chávez was a skilled orator with keen Machiavellian instincts. He mastered both the art of propaganda and the science of censorship. Most Venezuelans lost access to objective news reporting over his 14-year rule and were forced to absorb nothing but his indoctrination. He gave handouts to the poor, which, though meager, were better than anything they had received from earlier governments. Little wonder that by the time he died he had become a symbol of revenge for the marginalized, a champion of their cause.
On the other hand, they live in the real world, and it is likely on some level that most Venezuelans—rich, middle class or poor—understand that they are worse off today. Living standards are deteriorating, and the future is even less promising than it was in 1998 when Chávez was first elected.
One of Chávez’s more destructive economic schemes was the transfer of central-bank reserves to an off-budget government fund for infrastructure investments. He started in 2003 by arguing that he only wanted “a little billion.” Total transfers have now reached $49 billion, and the fund has no independent supervision.
The central bank has also been bailing out the state-owned oil company PdVSA and the state-owned mining and industrial conglomerate known as CVG. All these transfers are destroying the value of the bolívar. Some economists are forecasting a consumer-price inflation rate for 2013 of more than 30% and zero gross-domestic-product growth.
In 2012, according to Venezuelan economist Pedro Palma, the government’s fiscal deficit (which is never easy to calculate because of the many government enterprises) was 16%-18% of GDP. With oil prices at the upper end of historical levels, this can only mean that government spending is spinning out of control and that without a reconciliation of the budget Venezuela will go broke.
Economic hardship isn’t the only heavy burden that Chávez’s constituents bear. The official murder rate in 2012 was 73 per 100,000 inhabitants and the killing is happening mostly in low-income neighborhoods. Families of crime victims have no hope of getting justice for their loved ones.
Will any of this tarnish Chávez’s memory? Probably not. In his 2011 book “Redeemers,” Mexican historian Enrique Krauze traces the history of “ideas and power in Latin America” over the course of the 20th century through the biographies of some of the region’s most well-known messianic figures. Most of his subjects enjoyed the adulation of the masses, even as their utopian promises went bust. Those in power often employed brutal repression to keep it. Fittingly, Chávez is the final profile in that book.
The military government also has good reason to deify the late comandante. If his memory is sacred, so too must be the system he built. Last week interim President Nicolás Maduro announced that Chávez will be embalmed “so he can be eternally open” for public viewing: “Just like Ho Chi Minh, like Lenin, how Mao Zedong is.”
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com