What Chavez Hath Wrought

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 7, 2010

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Behold Venezuela. It’s nothing to write home about:

The system’s inefficiency and incompetence became humiliatingly apparent when food-aid shipped to Haiti was recently returned to Caracas because it had passed its sell-by date – as had 100,000 tonnes of rotting food discovered earlier in state-owned warehouses. “US-backed fascist oligarchs” were the cause, fumed Mr Chávez, who rarely misses a chance to blame others for the country’s problems. (His latest example was the exhumation of Simón Bolívar, Mr Chávez’s hero, to test if the Liberator was poisoned 180 years ago by treacherous “oligarchs” in Colombia, which recently accused Venezuela again of sheltering Marxist guerrillas. Mr Chávez said Bogotá suffered from García-Márquez-esque fantasies.)

The state’s incompetence is also apparent in economic policy. This is not an ideological point but rather a simple observation that during the oil price boom Venezuela spent as if there were no tomorrow. But now tomorrow has arrived, oil prices have fallen and the economy is mired in a stiff recession with fewer funds to cushion the downturn. Much like Mr Chávez’s rhetoric, the country’s economic policy is pro-cyclical.

Incompetence even helps explain the closeness of Venezuelan ties with Cuba. Two of the few state functions that do work reasonably well are Mr Chávez’s intelligence service and the social missions that deliver basic healthcare to Venezuela’s poor. Both, though, are primarily delivered not by Venezuelans but by Cubans, working in the country as doctors and attachés, in return for cheap oil.

As a European diplomat explained, whenever he has wanted to finesse a tricky point with the Venezuelan government he has often run it past the Cuban attachés first, because they could explain it in terms Venezuelans might accept and understand. “The Cubans are diplomatic adepts, and know which battles to fight,” he said. “The Venezuelans … see enemies behind every tree.” Because of this, Cuba might even have found itself a new global strategic role: Venezuela’s interlocutor to the rest of the world.

Amazing that some people in the United States seem to think that Hugo Chavez is some kind of national savior. All of the evidence points to him as being someone with a reverse Midas touch.

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