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The scene outside the hospital in Caracas, Venezuela where Hugo Chavez, 58, the country's president, died on March 6, 2013.

Ariana Cubillos , AP

Hugo Chavez leaves Venezuela in ruins

  • Article by: RORY CARROLL
  • New York Times
  • March 6, 2013 - 7:22 PM

In Caracas, Venezuela, you could tell a summit meeting mattered to Hugo Chavez when government workers touched up the city’s rubble. Before dignitaries arrived, teams with buckets and brushes would paint bright yellow lines along the route from the airport into the capital, trying to compensate for the roads’ dilapidation with flashes of color.

For really big events -- say, a visit by Russia’s president -- workers would make an extra effort, by also painting the rocks and debris that filled potholes.

Seated in their armor-plated cars with tinted windows, the Russians might not have noticed the glistening golden nuggets, but they would surely have recognized the idea of the Potemkin village.

After oil wealth, theatrical flair was the greatest asset of Chavez, the president of Venezuela since 1999, who died Tuesday from cancer. His dramatic sense of his own significance helped bring him to power as the reincarnation of the liberator Simon Bolivar -- he even renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

That same dramatic flair deeply divided Venezuelans as he postured on the world stage and talked of restoring equilibrium between the rich countries and the rest of the world. It now obscures his real legacy, which is far less dramatic than he would have hoped. In fact, it’s mundane. Chavez, in the final analysis, was an awful manager.

The legacy of his 14-year “socialist revolution” is apparent across Venezuela: the decay, dysfunction and blight that afflict the economy and every state institution.

The endless debate about whether Chavez was a dictator or democrat -- he was in fact a hybrid, an elected autocrat -- distracted attention, at home and abroad, from the more prosaic issue of competence. Chavez was a brilliant politician and a disastrous ruler. He leaves Venezuela a ruin, and his death plunges its roughly 30 million citizens into profound uncertainty.

Chavez’s failures did more damage than ideology, which was never as extremist as he or his detractors made out, something all too evident in the Venezuela he bequeaths.

The once mighty factories of Ciudad Guayana, an industrial hub by the Orinoco River that M.I.T. and Harvard architects planned in the 1960s, are rusting and wheezing, some shut, others at half-capacity. “The world economic crisis hit us,” Rada Gamluch, the director of the aluminum plant Venalum, and a loyal chavista, told me on his balcony overlooking the decay. He corrected himself. “The capitalist crisis hit us.”

Actually, it was bungling by Chavez-appointed business directors who tried to impose pseudo-Marxist principles, only to be later replaced by opportunists and crooks, that hit Ciudad Guayana.

Underinvestment and ineptitude hit hydropower stations and the electricity grid, causing weekly blackouts that continue to darken cities, fry electrical equipment, silence machinery and require de facto rationing. The government has no shortage of scapegoats: its own workers, the CIA and even cable-gnawing possums.

Reckless money printing and fiscal policies triggered soaring inflation, so much so that the currency, the bolvar, lost 90 percent of its value since Chavez took office, and was devalued five times over a decade. In another delusion, the currency had been renamed “el bolivar fuerte,” the strong bolvar -- an Orwellian touch.

Harassment of privately owned farms and chaotic administration of state-backed agricultural cooperatives hit food production, compelling extensive imports, which stacked up so fast thousands of tons rotted at the ports. Chavez called it “food sovereignty.”

Politicization and neglect crippled the state-run oil company PDVSA’s core task -- drilling -- so that production slumped. “It’s a pity no one took 20 minutes to explain macroeconomics to him with a pen and paper,” Baldo Sanso, a senior executive told me. “Chavez doesn’t know how to manage.”

Populist subsidies reduced the cost of gasoline to $1 a tank, perhaps the world’s lowest price of petrol, but cost the state untold billions in revenue while worsening traffic congestion and air pollution.

Bureaucratic malaise and corruption were so severe that murders tripled to nearly 20,000 a year, while gangs brazenly kidnapped victims from bus stops and highways.

A new elite with government connections, the “boligarchs,” manipulated government contracts and the web of price and currency controls to finance their lavish lifestyles. “It’s a big deal here when a girl turns 15,” a Caracas designer, Giovanni Scutaro, told me. “If the father is with the revolution, he doesn’t care about the fabric as long as it’s in red. Something simple, $3,000 -- more elaborate, $250,000.”

Chavez summoned journalists to Miraflores, the presidential palace, to extol his achievements. But even the building betrayed the nation’s anomie, with its cracked facade, missing tiles, a whiff of urine from the gardens. The president’s private elevator, a minister confided, leaked when it rained.

Chavez’s political genius was to turn this record into a stage from which to mount four more election victories. An unprecedented oil bounty -- $1 trillion -- made him chief patron amid withering nongovernment alternatives.

He spent extravagantly on health clinics, schools, subsidies and giveaways, including entirely new houses. Those employed in multiplying bureaucracies -- officials lost track of fleeting ministries -- voted for him to secure their jobs.

His elections were not fair -- Chavez rigged rules in his favor, hijacked state resources, disqualified some opponents, emasculated others -- but they were free.

As Venezuela atrophied, he found some refuge in blaming others, notably the “squealing pigs” and “vampires” of the private sector whom he accused of hoarding and speculating. Soldiers arrested butchers for overpricing.

His own supporters increasingly blamed those around him: By 2011 you could see graffiti with the slogan “bajo el gobierno, viva Chavez” -- “down with the government, long live Chavez.”

The comandante, as he was known to loyalists, used his extraordinary energy and charisma to dominate airwaves with marathon speeches (four hours was short). He might blow kisses, mobilize troops, denounce the United States, ride a bike, a tank, a helicopter -- anything to keep attention focused on him, not his performance.

Distraction came in numerous forms: denouncing assassination plots; a farcical nuclear deal with Russia (eventually abandoned); exhuming Bolvar’s remains to see if he was murdered; praising or assailing guests.

I experienced the power of his performance firsthand in 2007 when, as The Guardian’s Latin America correspondent, I appeared on his weekly show, “Alo Presidente,” in an episode held on a beach. Invited to ask a question, I asked whether abolishing term limits risked authoritarianism.

The host paused and glowered before casting the impertinence out to sea and making it a pretext to lambaste European hypocrisy, media, monarchy, the Royal Navy, slavery, genocide and colonialism.

“In the name of the Latin American people I demand that the British government return the Malvinas Islands to the Argentine people,” he exclaimed. Then, after another riff on colonialism: “It is better to die fighting than to be a slave!”

On and on it went. Christopher Columbus. Queen Elizabeth. George Bush. In vain I responded that I was Irish and republican, and that European monarchy was irrelevant to my question, which he had dodged. This provoked another tirade.

It was theater. As the cameras were packed away, and we all prepared to return to Caracas, the president shook my hand, shrugged and smiled. I had been a useful fall guy. No hard feelings. It was just a show.

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Rory Carroll, a correspondent for The Guardian, is the author of “Comandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.”

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