x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Chavez's legacy includes a habit to foster enmity

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who died Tuesday, helped the poor, but left his country weaker. As his ally Iran is also learning, fist-shaking leadership is rarely rewarding.

As president of Venezuela for 14 tumultuous years, Hugo Chavez used the power of the state as vigorously as almost any leader on Earth. His death on Tuesday from cancer, at age 58, leaves behind results both brilliant and disastrous, reflected in large, spontaneous crowds of mourners in poor neighbourhoods and in overt jubilation in Caracas's business district.

Born to a poor family, Mr Chavez dedicated his "Bolivarian socialist revolution" to using oil revenue for the working class, and he delivered: the poorest strata of Venezuela's 29 million people are significantly better-fed, better-educated and healthier than when he took office.

But public administration is a shambles, democracy diminished, the deficit ballooning, foreign investment a memory, inflation at 18 per cent, the judiciary intimidated, the press muzzled, infrastructure crumbling and oil production declining. Transparency International calls the country the world's 10th most corrupt. And because power has been so centralised, the succession struggle threatens to be ruthless.

Mr Chavez's belligerent personal style required an enemy, and he found his in the United States. Aiming to be a "Third World" leader, he forged close ties with Iran and Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, and provided generous subsidies to Cuba and to a new wave of South American regimes that shared, to varying degrees, his radical approach.

Like Iran, Venezuela under Mr Chavez seemed to cultivate truculent suspicion of the world. This can reach the level of absurdity, as this week when Nicolas Maduro, the vice president, blamed "imperialist enemies" for delivering the hospital infection that killed the weakened leader.

That level of fist-shaking paranoia sounds downright Iranian, and not by coincidence: in 2009, Mr Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, declared an "axis of unity"; since then Venezuela has consistently helped Iran evade and cope with international sanctions. In both countries, the role of international outcast may serve leaders well, but is needlessly damaging to their countries.

Mr Maduro, like his late boss, has close connections with Iran, but Venezuela's pressing problems may now lead him, or any other new leader, away from the axis of unity. Venezuela has much to gain by abandoning its outsider stance internationally, and by restoring stability and growth at home. If a new leader can do those things while maintaining and augmenting the social gains Mr Chavez brought the poor, the late president's legacy can, in time, come to be seen as positive for his country.