The Havana Times heralded Hugo Chavez as “Fidel Castro’s Lost Heir”.
I suppose in some select circles, that statement would be considered quite the compliment.
And even though the Cuban media outlet intended it as praise, critics and admirers could agree that the two were largely cut from the same olive drab cloth, down to their military strongman wardrobe.
Both were dictators who cracked down on their people’s freedoms under the guise of “protecting the revolution”. After all, providing greater benefits to the masses was too serious of a business to be jeopardized by unfavorable hiccups of democracy and misguided free speech.
And both became international political celebrities through their constant railing against the United States, defining themselves to the world through their defiance to the great imperial power to the north.
There were differences between “father” and “son”.
The image self-conscious Castro was careful to avoid sounding like a buffoon; the temperamental, rambling Chavez ran Venezuela with the same level-headedness that the Queen of Hearts administered her realm in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.
Chavez not infrequently came off as drunk from his own oil, calling brother dictator Muammar Gaddafi “Liberator of Libya”, accused the Jews of plundering the riches of the world and infamously remarking at the United Nations that President George W. Bush was the devil and that the odor of sulphur was still present.
Chavez had another insult for the 43rd president, the meaning of which might be lost in translation, when her referred to President Bush as “Mr. Danger”, which sounds like a villain from an Inspector Gadget cartoon.
Possessing an active imagination and a convenient memory, Chavez saw himself as a latter-day Simon Bolivar with the goal of diminishing yankee influence in Central and South America, yet the US remained his country’s top oil customer despite his vituperative rhetoric, sending north over 900,000 barrels per day while importing from the United States almost 200,000 barrels per day of refined petroleum products.
While America was helping float his government through petroleum purchases, Chavez regularly blamed the US and the CIA for practically anything that went wrong, even if the fault was due to local incompetence and not foreign spies.
One wonders how many beard hairs Castro lost reading transcripts of his understudy’s latest tirade.
And then there was Venezuela’s oil wealth. When the subsidies from Moscow stopped sailing in, Cuba’s role as a middle man in spreading socialist revolution drew to a close. Castro switched his focus from changing regimes to preserving his own.
While Chavez may have lacked credibility, that he governed a country with proven oil reserves of almost 300 billion barrels made him relevant and the envy of the world’s impoverished Third World dictators.
Chavez picked up the tattered red banner as military assistance from Venezuela poured across the jungle border to Marxist FARC rebels in Colombia and cash and oil flowed to brother socialist leaders in Latin America.
Venezuela also became a larger conduit for narcotics to the US under Chavez’s watch.
Despite his country’s vast mineral wealth, Venezuela under Chavez was hardly a socialist paradise, with high crime, high inflation and electricity and gasoline rationing.
Chavez ran Venezuela with the same acumen your typical lotto winner handles his windfall.
The question now facing Venezuela is whether Chavez’s governing style and administrative system can outlive the man.
While creating and maintaining a personality cult is an effective way to charm the masses into going against their better judgment, an abrupt disconnection through the subject of adulation’s death can snap people out of the trance and see things as they actually are.
Chavez’s successor Vice-President Nicolas Maduro has a big red beret to fill and his hold on power will be tested in the upcoming election and thereafter through popular unrest if the election is deemed illegitimate.
The ripple effect from the collapse of the current pro-Chavez government will be felt in other leftist-led Latin American countries that benefited from his munificence.
As a Christian, it’s not my place to speculate about the probability of Chavez’s eternal soul being exiled to a place considerably warmer than Caracas in April. That judgment will be rendered by a being even more powerful than the 9th circuit.
However, as a reasonable person who objected to “El Comandante’s” petrolatarian regime, I can say without hesitation that the world he left is now a better place without him.