“I call petroleum the devil’s excrement. It brings trouble…Look at this locura—waste, corruption, consumption, our public services falling apart. And debt, debt we shall have for years.” —JUAN PABLO PEREZ ALFONSO, a founder of OPEC, in 1975
Venezuela—owner of a very large pool of oil and, thus, the curse of an oil economy—is set to choose whether Hugo Chavez gets to be President for Life or not come December 2. Chavez, for those of you who don’t know, is El Presidente of Venezuela, petro-dollar fueled caudillo and current object of bootlicking by dipshit celebrity leftists like Sean Penn and Naomi Campbell, along with tepid support from the likes of Noam Chomsky (whom Chavez seems to think is dead).
“He who draws his sword against his prince should throw away the scabbard.” —ALESSANDRO FARNESE, Third Duke of Parma
TORANAGA: There is no mitigating factor for rebellion against your liege lord.
BLACKTHORNE: Unless you win.
TORANAGA: Very well, you may have named the one mitigating factor. —JAMES CLAVELL, Shogun
All this could have been avoided. Back in 1992, then Teniente Coronel (Lieutenant Colonel) Hugo Chavez led a failed “colonel’s” coup against the government of Venezuela. The government of Venezuela, led by then-President Carlos Andres Perez, didn’t listen to the corollary of the advice of the Duke of Parma. I’m sure that the good Duke would have thought it was so obvious it went without saying. Updated for modern times, the reward due to all who attempt a coup and fail is, in order:
- A night to make peace with the maker of your choice (optional);
- A nice meal (optional);
- A cigarette (optional);
- A blindfold (optional);
- Several high velocity rifle rounds to the chest (not optional, though a stout length of rope around the neck or a sharp blade are acceptable substitutions);
- A hollow point to the head (if needed).
Failure to follow this obvious advice is not a recipe for long-term survival of a government and, indeed, a profound sign of its weakness. Think, for instance, of the savings had Adolf Hitler received his justified reward for the Beer Hall Putsch rather than several months in jail, which he used to write Mein Kampf and catch up on his sleep for his soon-to-come European tour.
Given the nature of Venezuela as a petro-state, weakness is almost guaranteed, which is why Chavez has been able to win in slow motion since 1992. Post-World War II, Venezuela developed an odd system of planned party alternation known as puntofijismo, in which two political parties agreed, starting in 1958, to swap back and forth who got the presidency. Venezuela was beset by outsiders wanting to intervene, e.g., Cuban-backed revolutionaries and rightwingers financed by Dominican dictator Trujillo, and had recently come out of its own caudillo past. So at the time getting some political stability probably made sense, but as time went on, the system got more and more corrupt, creakier and creakier, until Chavez made his move in 1992, pushing himself up from nobody in the army to the center stage, kicking down the puntofijismo to allow in third parties. By that he meant, of course, his party.
While many like to think that petroleum (or any other expensive commodity) is a Godsend to a poor country, petro-states are widely known to have severe weaknesses, corruption, serious lack of broad-based economic development, and the accompanying political corrosion. They rarely do well over the long term, instead going through major boom-and-bust cycles as oil prices go up and down. Right now, oil is up. In the ’80s, oil was down, way down, which is why Chavez was able to stage his coup. It won’t be up forever, most likely being replaced as a diverse basket of bio-fuels, solar, etc. While Venezuela could be a participant in the development of modern energy (and hence a modern economy), rather than spending the money on future investments, Chavez is busy spending it on a giant planned city in currently uninhabited hills, oil subsidies to the Mid-Atlantic states and New England, petro-swaps to Cuba for doctors (rather than, oh, trying to grow some of your own), lots more guns to protect against a coming “Yanqui” invasion, six hour workdays, etc. And, of course, he buys off the legions of Venezuelan poor—those who don’t benefit from the oil bucks that are stolen by Bolivarian apparatchik cronies, competed away, or diverted into the coffers of international companies, just like in basically any other petro-state, but have to suffer through the boom-and-bust of a commodity economy. Chavez’ behavior, in short, reminds me of the kind of thing I’d expect of a lottery winner elevated up from the trailer park to the realm of multi-millionaire, only writ large. Sure, he’s putting his friends’ kids through college and paying mom’s medical bills, but he’s also supporting a deadbeat uncle with six kids and doesn’t realize his stash is, in fact, limited, and needs to be grown for the future.
“All great historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” —KARL MARX, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
In 1994, Chavez was let out of jail. In 1998 he ran for President, running as a “Bolivarian,” more or less meaning “socialist.” Over the last decade, he’s been gradually undermining the democratic state of Venezuela—flawed as it was—using the playbook of dictators such as Louis Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, etc., a playbook first written by the original “man on horseback”, Gaius Julius Caesar. These include:
- Widespread use of rule by decree and emergency powers of highly dubious legal grounds.
- Ignoring international bodies (in this case the OAS) when it suits his purposes.
- Whipping up populist fury by constantly playing the nationalist and the xenophobic “they’re out to get us!” card, e.g., by conveniently cutting ties with Colombia right before an election.
- Engaging in a my way or the highway foreign policy based on chumming up with lackwits like Mahmood Ahmadinijad.
- Siccing jackbooted thugs on his Jewish countrymen (where have we heard that one before?)
Since being elected president in 1998, Chavez is busy actually doing a lot of the stuff that gives Dick Cheney major wood when he’s in his undisclosed location and not busy shooting hunting companions in the face. Add to that plenty of stuff that Cheney wouldn’t ever countenance, too. If Hugo wasn’t constantly giving Uncle Sam the middle finger and, let’s face it, they weren’t so f—ing stupid, Hollywood Leftists and my home boy Radical Jack would be slamming him for what he really is. Now, he’s completing the process of autogolpe, “self-coup,” or so he hopes. He may well have over-played his hand.
Why, may you ask, has the US done nothing? Well, first of all, the US does not have the power that the wildest dreams of Latin American conspiracy theorists believe it to have in general and certainly not in the case of Venezuela. Simply put, Chavez has us—mutually—by the cojones. The US obtains 15%+ of its oil from Venezuela. Remember all those refineries forced to shut down by Hurricane Katrina? They’re set up to refine the very tarry Venezuelan oil. Oil, you see, is only fungible up to a point, since it varies greatly in its characteristics. US refineries are set up to receive Venezuelan oil. Most other refineries aren’t. Refineries are not easy or quick to build. You do the math.
Unfortunately, Chavez is very, very good at playing the anti-American populist card. Also unfortunately, much of American foreign policy is designed for domestic consumption (or as bureaucratic grandstanding). Backroom channels, supporting the locals, letting the locals own initiatives, etc., don’t look sexy to the American voter and thus often lose out to more active policies that often breed long-term resentment. So it is with Chavez. Two examples spring to mind:
- Pat Robertson’s loose lips calling for Chavez’ assassination. While most people in the US think Robertson is a lunatic (not enough, however, to keep him off the air entirely), abroad he’s perceived as a non-governmental figure who is close to the current administration.
- In 2002 there was a coup attempt to overthrow Chavez, who by that time was a democratically-elected president. Whatever really happened, the US government was seen to be giving tacit support to the coup. While Chavez himself attempted a coup, he doesn’t much like the notion of it happening to him (duh) and, more importantly, is quite willing to use the event rhetorically forever.
Chavez’ idol Simon Bolivar ended his life as a dictator and was about to go into exile, but he died of consumption first. The people of Venezuela will, alas, probably not be so fortunate since I’m quite sure that Chavez has the best Cuban doctors his petro-dollars can buy…. Morphing from “leftist hero” to “right wing oppressor” is really not at all hard to manage. Mussolini started as a socialist “man of the people.” Juan Peron was similar. Indeed, we should not forget that the “socialism” in National Socialism was there for a reason.
Let’s hope the people of Venezuela on Sunday finally realize that giving ultimate power to one man is a road best not traveled… though, of course, it may be too late.
Update: It looks like Venezuelans decided that Chavez for life was too much for them. Let’s see if Chavez actually has any democratic bones in his body and actually accepts the verdict of a loss, which is, in my view, the key test. Of course, just because Chavez himself won’t be in office doesn’t mean he won’t pull a Vladimir Putin, unarguably the most successful of the petro-state presidents. Lest we forget, the fall of the Soviet Union was, in no small part, due to the drop in the price of oil in the late ’80s, and chaos in Russia in the ’90s was also maintained by the drop in oil price. Next time the price goes down….