HE was lionised as a hero by the Western Left, of course, but it would be hard to find a leader in recent history who more comprehensively betrayed the wellbeing of his country than Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. He was driven by an irrational, demagogic and self-defeating antagonism towards Washington that blinded him to his nation’s best interests.
He was prepared to align oil-rich Venezuela and his socialist revolution with the most odious regimes on the planet, such as those of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korea’s Kim dynasty, Cuba’s Castro family and, previously, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, both of whom he proclaimed “brothers”.
Squandering Venezuela’s vast oil wealth should have been challenging. But Mr Chavez was more than equal to the task — his populist economics creating inflation now running at 22 per cent, massive corruption, a bloated public sector and a crippled private sector that has seen the number of private companies drop from 14,000 to 9000. Even China, which has lent Venezuela $US39 billion against future oil sales, gave up on him, sending his Foreign Minister scurrying back to Caracas empty-handed shortly before Mr Chavez’s death.
Many Venezuelans saw Mr Chavez as a Robin Hood figure. Some aspects of what he did were worthwhile: poverty was significantly reduced, infant mortality fell by a third and death from malnutrition was reduced by half. But at the same time Mr Chavez ruthlessly cracked down on the opposition, shackled the media, re-wrote the constitution and undermined the rule of law. Crime statistics bear testimony to his failure: 21,692 murders last year in a country of 29 million.
Yet the Left has remained unmoved in its loyalty — an attitude that has much to do with Mr Chavez’s loathing of Washington and particularly his hostility to former president George W Bush. Actor Sean Penn said “poor people around the world have lost a champion”. He would know, of course, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mr Chavez was a ruthless autocrat who led Venezuelans up a blind alley. Thumbing your nose at Washington and aligning your country with the world’s worst dictatorships is a recipe for disaster. Those who come after Mr Chavez should see that and change course.