Dallas Morning News
When Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez ended his military career in 1992 with a failed coup attempt, he found a new career as Venezuela’s master of illusion. During his 14 years as president, Chavez fooled Venezuelans into believing he would improve their lives and strengthen their democratic powers. In reality, he accomplished exactly the opposite.
Chavez died of cancer Tuesday at age 58. Venezuelans now have an opportunity to dismantle the Chavez myth and assess where their oil-rich nation stands, independent of the bluster and bullying that enabled his government to keep its iron grip on power. Without Chavez’s charismatic leadership, Venezuelans are unlikely to continue tolerating the abuses of his Bolivarian socialist revolution. Nor should they.
Chavez was diagnosed in 2011 with pelvic cancer. The fact that the exact nature of his illness was never revealed to the public exemplified the lack of transparency and accountability that surrounded his presidency.
By hiding the seriousness of his illness, Chavez was able to win re-election last year and manufacture a legally dubious inauguration from his hospital bed in Cuba. Documents bearing his apparently forged signature also emerged from the hospital bed. All part of the Chavez illusion.
While Chavez claimed to be fighting for Venezuela’s poor, he used the nation’s oil wealth to divert attention from the serious damage his inept policies were doing to the economic infrastructure. Inflation is soaring out of control. The murder rate is among the world’s highest. Crime is rampant. The currency is plummeting in value despite the windfall that the country should be enjoying from high world oil prices. Chavez squandered his nation’s vast oil wealth on socialist gimmickry.
A great irony of Chavez’s rule was his defiant criticism of the United States, epitomized by his appearance before the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 immediately after a speech by President George W. Bush. Chavez mimicked disgust, alluded to the presence of Satan at the lectern and complained of a lingering odor of burning sulfur.
At home, his political survival and his country’s economy depended heavily on the sale of Venezuelan oil in U.S. markets, particularly through government-owned Citgo gas stations. Venezuela has steadily ranked as one of the top five suppliers of imported U.S. oil.
Chavez used Venezuela’s long democratic tradition to serve his own selfish ends. He was a dictator at heart, having used his military position in 1992 to organize a bloody coup against a democratically elected government. He eventually won a presidential pardon.
In 1998, Venezuelans elected Chavez president. After taking office, he dissolved the legislature, replaced the Supreme Court and set about rewriting the constitution to give himself virtually unchecked power.
With his death, it is time for Venezuelans to reclaim their democracy.