Hugo Chavez: Not a Mandela but a Mugabe

In later years, already gravely ill, Hugo Chavez delivered himself and his country into the hands of the Cuban government, surrendering to Cuban advisors sensitive areas of public administration.

By Gustavo Coronel | March 11, 2013

Hugo Chavez could have been another Nelson Mandela but turned out to be a Robert Mugabe. Chavez was elected president of Venezuela in December 1998. He rose to power as the result of two main factors: one, the growing disenchantment of the Venezuelan people with a long-standing, two-party democracy that had significant early successes but eventually became ineffective. The other factor is the cultural and ethnic identification of the majority of Venezuelans with his candidacy. The first factor allowed him to capitalize on the desire of Venezuelans to see a radical change at the top. The second made it possible for him to be adopted by large popular majorities as being “one of theirs.”

In retrospect, it is now easy to see that the other strong candidate in the presidential election of 1998, blue-eyed, aristocratic Henrique Salas Romer, had no chance of winning the presidency in a country where 75% of the population does not look like or behave like this. What happened later would show many Venezuelans that Salas Romer would have, in fact, done a much better job and that change is not always for the better. But in 1998 the majority did not think so.

Since becoming president, Hugo Chavez began a systematic dismantling of the Venezuelan nation’s democratic institutions. He dissolved Congress, violated the old and the new Constitution with the help of co-opted institutions, persecuted and humiliated adversaries and concentrated power in the presidency thereby eliminating the separation of powers that is characteristic of a true democracy. He replaced structural programs in health, education and infrastructure with a massive policy of handouts to the poorer sectors of the population including, free food, free education, cheap health care and heavily subsidized transport, all of very low quality. This earned him enormous popularity, although it did not represent a solution for poverty, merely provided a temporary sense of well-being among the poor and making them increasingly dependent on the prodigal president. As in the Chinese proverb he gave a fish a day but did not teach the poor how to fish.

Chavez started to intervene in the political life of Latin American countries in an effort to create a regional following and financed ideologically friendly presidential candidates in order to become the leader of a hemispheric anti-U.S. coalition. No less than $150 billion of Venezuelan oil money went to support allies all over the planet, from Cuba to Belarus. Cuba has received close to 300 million barrels of Venezuelan oil during the last 8 years at highly subsidized prices, to be paid back, if at all, in services of doubtful value. During his almost 15 years in power Hugo Chavez received some $1.6 trillion in national income, although the country has little to show for this huge amount of money in terms of new highways, hospitals, universities or other capital investment. The money was distributed among friends at home and abroad. Enormous personal fortunes were made. A recent report by an investigative U.S. firm, Criminal Justice International Associates, CJIA, estimates the net worth of the Chavez family at some $2 billion.

Beyond this tragic misappropriation of national income to serve his political agenda, Hugo Chavez’s worst offense was sowing hatred among the Venezuelan people. He utilized racial and economic language to promote the division of the country between the lighter skinned middle class and the poorer mestizo population and systematically asked the masses, using violent rhetoric, for the political and social harassment and exclusion of the more educated bourgeoisie. In death, he leaves a country deeply divided by a cultural and attitudinal abyss that will take a long time, if ever, to be effectively bridged.

In later years, already gravely ill, Hugo Chavez delivered himself and his country into the hands of the Cuban government, surrendering to Cuban advisors sensitive areas of public administration, such as ports, airports, military training, security and matters of individual identity (ID cards), agriculture and electricity. Cuba developed such an ascendancy over Venezuelan national matters that it is no exaggeration to define it as a tutorial or even colonial relationship. Currently there are no less than 50,000 Cubans in Venezuela, some of them armed military personnel.

The legacy of Hugo Chavez can also be expressed in quantitative terms. This is comparatively illustrated by diverse statistics from 1998, the last year before Chavez’s election, and 2012, the last year of his presidency. For example, although literacy among Venezuelans was already high, Chavez erroneously claimed to have wiped out illiteracy. These statistics are derived from multiple sources, such as the Venezuelan Central Bank information, annual reports of the state oil company and published articles and reports in the Venezuelan and international press.

1998 2012
Oil as percentage of total exports 77% 96%
Oil sold at commercial prices, % 85% 50%
National debt, in billion dollars 34 150
Oil production, million barrels/day 3.3 2.6
Imports of gasoline and diesel, b/d none 80,000
Employees of state oil company 32,000 115,000
Private companies active 14,000 9,000
Employees in private industry 840,000 540,000
Expropriated private companies none 100 +
Imports per year, billions of dollars 17 50
Steel production, million tons/year 3.2 1.7
Number of ministers in cabinet 16 28
Public employees, millions 1.4 2.4
Violent deaths, crimes 3,200 18,000
Literacy rate, % 93% 93%

It is evident from these figures that the country declined significantly during the 14 year tenure of the man who recently died, the man who pretended to be a Mandela but turned out to be a Mugabe, who has presided over the systematic destruction of the nation and people of Venezuela.

Gustavo Coronel, who served on the board of directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), has had a long and distinguished career in the international petroleum industry, including in the USA, Europe, Venezuela and Indonesia. He is an author, public policy expert and contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.