Political Animal


March 06, 2013 10:31 AM The Petro-State’s Magician Passes On

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on March 06, 2013 11:00 AM:

    Genuine concern for the poor, and workers, and the unemployed, goes a long way in politics.
    Even if it doesn't bring success in helping them.

    Today, our Republicans want to punish the poor, and workers, and the unemployed, as if the cause of our economic downfall was their/our fault, and not over a quarter of a century of stupid and evil Conservative economic and social policies.

    And to be honest, our Democrats need a lot of work in that area, as well.
    Too often, they're more allied with Wall Street, than Main Street.

    R.I.P.: Hugo Chavez.
    At least you TRIED to do good!
    Even if you didn't succeed as much as you, and your nation, wish you had.

  • Raenelle on March 06, 2013 11:07 AM:

    The only thing I know about Chavez is that people whose opinions I detest, for whose values I have no respect, whose judgments are inferior in their rationality and sinister in their effect--those people hate Chavez. I know a broken clock is right twice a day, but look at the odds on that one.

  • Rod Hoffman on March 06, 2013 11:30 AM:

    Chavez has proved to be both generous and savy in my neck of the woods - Massachusetts.

    Heating with oil is common here. For many years, a company called Citizens Oil has provided discount heating oil to folks who can't afford the cost of market price heating oil. Citizens Oil is headed by Joe Kennedy III- yes, THAT Joe Kennedy.

    In every ad for the program, JKIII thanks the people of Venezuela, Citgo (the marketing arm of the Venezuelan state oil company) and Hugo Chavez for their generosity in discounting oil. Savy.

    Citgo also recently refurbished its iconic sigh that overlooks Fenway Park, even though Citgo is not a signiciant presence in the area. Very savy.

  • Rod Hoffman on March 06, 2013 12:00 PM:


    I got my Kennedys confused (You can tell I'm not from here.) The oil guy is JKII. The new Congressman is JKIII.

  • bdop4 on March 06, 2013 12:47 PM:

    It is extremely hard, if not impossible, to point out any positive contribution by Chavez without being demonized. David Sirota at Salon penned an article pointing out some economic achievements by the Chavez administration. The article was replete with many caveats concerning the negative aspects of Chavez's legacy, but people ignored it all and branded Sirota as naive.

    To them, but for the oil, Chavez wouldn't have accomplished anything. That may be true, but he did something other than loot the reserves as his predessors had done. Another astute writer also pointed out that the U.S. has experienced an oil boom of sorts, from which its citizenry has recieved practically NOTHING.

    Bottom line: some form of wealth redistribution, whether it be a higher minimum wage, a resurgence in unions or other movement, is absolutely necessary for the survival of this country as we know it.

  • Fritz Strand on March 07, 2013 9:47 AM:

    If we ever elected another FDR he would be guaranteed to get 'the full Chavez treatment' by our MSM.