Chavez, the self-proclaimed revolutionary, actually gained power legally through the 1998 elections. He may have won the Presidency by popular vote, but much of what was passed during his 13 years in office was done through decree, as allowed by the new constitution put into effect following his election in 1999. The new sweeping powers instilled in the Venezuelan President gave Chavez the opportunity to introduce his new brand of twenty-first century socialism, taking control of all aspects of the state.
He first used his new sweeping powers to his own advantage and remove his opponents. After the failed coup to usurp him in 2002, Chavez made it a priority to neutralize any potential rivals. He filled the government, courts and armed forces with those loyal to him, and stripped local government and the National Assembly of much of their powers.
Chavez used his presidential powers ruthlessly to strengthen his own position in government, weakening his opponents, but his period in office was largely shaped and buoyed by the rise in the world price of oil. Despite there being a drop in oil output after 2000, oil revenues between 2000 and 2012 were more than two and a half times greater than the 13 years leading up to Chavez. The Venezuelan oil industry was nationalized, and the money made was put toward financing government initiatives. Oil during this period was Venezuela’s premiere export, accounting for nearly all their export earnings.
Much of the money from this unprecedented oil boom was spent on new programmes designed to improve education and health care. Chavez used his links with Cuba, for example, to bring over thousands of doctors, all in return for oil. As the price of oil soared, Chavez used the funds to buy the people’s support. Poverty levels fell significantly in the Venezuela under Chavez’s tenure, in great part due to the significant increase in the number of people employed in the public sector.
Chavez may have been a man for the people, sent to help the poor, but Chavez squandered the chance to significantly improve Venezuela’s central infrastructure. Most of these new government programmes were only skin deep, and enormous sums were wasted on creating a 125,000 strong militia, answerable only to Chavez, and arms deals worth some $15 billion.
Moreover, poverty may have fallen fast in Venezuela, but this was an ongoing trend emulated across the nations of Latin America. The poverty rate dropped between 2002 and 2011, falling from 49 percent to 30 percent of the population, but the country still lags behind the Latin American average.
The bolivar, the Venezuelan currency, has been struggling too. The economy is slowing, and there is a shortage of goods and currency. Although commodity prices may not be falling, they are not rising at the rate the once did in the early 2000s. Most of Latin America was able to swiftly recover from the effects of the world economic slowdown, but Venezuela struggled to deal with recession as commodity revenues sank. Furthermore, a fiscal deficit of 8.5% of the national GDP was posted at the end of 2012 after excessive government spending prior to last year’s elections. As such, the currency was further devalued by 32 percent last month.
Expectations in Venezuela are high, so high they will almost certainly be shattered. Chavez’s reign was built on the wave of oil money that flooded the nation, but this money was not well spent and the source is running dry. Chavez may have been a man for the people, but his rule was corrupt, ill advised and poorly managed. No doubt whoever wins the election next month will be burdened with these failings, and will have to clean up the mess that will be Chavez’s legacy.