Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s death will most likely mark the beginning of the end of Venezuela’s political clout in Latin America, but his influence inside Venezuela is likely to last for many decades.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom in the international media that Chávez was the political heir of Cuba’s guerrilla leader-turned-president Fidel Castro, the late Venezuelan president will probably go down in history as a political phenomenon closer to that of late Argentine strongman Juan D. Perón.
Like Perón, Chávez was a military officer and coup plotter who first flirted with fascism, later turned to the left, and once in power gave millions to the poor thanks to a boom in world commodity prices, which set him apart from previous Venezuelan presidents who had only paid lip service to the country’s poverty-stricken masses. And like Perón, Chávez was a narcissist — he once used the word “I” 489 times in just one speech, on Jan 15, 2011 — who built a personality cult around himself, and impulsively gave away billions of dollars at home and abroad without any accountability, at the expense of destroying his country’s institutions and much of the economy.
Chávez’s influence in Latin America during his 13 years in power grew in direct proportion to world oil prices.
When he took office in 1999, oil prices hovered around $9 a gallon. When oil prices started rising gradually to more than $80 a barrel in the years that followed, Chávez started bankrolling loyalist politicians in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other Latin American countries, and ultimately built his ALBA bloc of Latin American allies that followed his narcissist-Leninist model.
By 2006, Chávez was giving away up to $3.7 billion a year in Latin America — compared to the Bush administration’s $1.2 billion — to buy political influence as he was drumming up support for his unsuccessful bid for a Venezuela seat at the United Nations Security Council.
Many of his grandiose money pledges never materialized — like a pipeline that was supposed to go from Caracas to Buenos Aires, which skeptics at the time branded the “Hugoduct” — and some of his pledges for huge infrastructure projects in Africa and Asia drew criticism at home, where roads and bridges were crumbling.
But Chávez’s influence abroad began after oil prices reached a record $146 a barrel in 2008. Since then, and especially after Chávez was diagnosed with a never-revealed form of cancer in mid-2011 and oil prices fell further, Chávez’s petro-dollar generosity has been confined to Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and a few Caribbean countries.
Now, with Venezuela’s economy in near chaos, a 30 percent inflation rate and oil prices unlikely to reach their previous records in the near future, Venezuela will have to give up its regional ambitions, for the simple reason that it has run out of money.
And regardless of who will run Venezuela in the future, the days of oil-based populist megalomania are likely over because of global trends in the energy industry.
According to most forecasts, the United States will replace Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer in five years, which will cause a reduction in U.S. oil imports and a decline in world oil prices. This will make it hard for Chávez’s successors to keep bankrolling Venezuela’s radical populist allies in the region.