A Decade of Hugo Chávez

SAN JOSE – We should have known that something was amiss when, during President Hugo Chávez’s inauguration on February 2, 1999, he swore on Venezuela’s 40-year-old Constitution by declaring it “moribund.”

Under “the moribund,” as the Constitution came to be known, Venezuela not only had eight peaceful presidential transitions, but also enjoyed the fruits of democratic pluralism and strong civil and political liberties. Of course, during this period Venezuela produced as much corruption and political irresponsibility as it did barrels of oil. Nonetheless, Venezuela fared far better than the average Latin American country. It wasn’t Switzerland, but, by anyone’s measure, it was a genuine democracy.

Not anymore. Elections are still held, but the legacy of Chávez’s decade in power consists, first and foremost, in the demolition of democratic institutions. Elected in a landslide to clean up the political vices of the previous establishment, Chávez chose to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The previous regime, including its system of checks and balances and its tradition of political tolerance, did disappear, but its vices – particularly graft and demagoguery – became worse than ever. Pretty much like 10 years ago, Venezuela, once a destination for immigrants from around the world, remains under-developed.

More fundamentally, Chávez represents ideas that have long stifled Latin America’s political and economic growth. This includes the notion that social justice can be achieved only by abandoning the path of reform and rejecting “bourgeois” democratic forms in favor of “real” democracy, born of revolutionary purity and the leader’s millenarian dreams. That’s simply false. Though the Chávez revolution has made progress against poverty and inequality, it is hardly sustainable and reeks of patronage.