From time to time I have featured articles from here and there that I think have some bearing on the situation in Zimbabwe, or some parallels with it.
I have followed the progression of Hugo Chavez since he became president of Venezuela with great interest. He rode into power on a wave of widespread support from the country’s marginalised indigenous majority, making a significant psychological break with the past, and causing high expectations of quick change in the material conditions of the poor.
Chavez was lucky to have come into power at a time of record high oil prices. So he has been able to back up a lot of his populist rhetoric with voter-pleasing subsidies of various kinds from the country’s oil revenues. That populism includes taking regular pot-shots at US president George Bush, almost always guaranteed to win plaudits in a South America with very mixed feelings towards its dominant, not always benign northern neighbour. Both out of conviction and to further thumb his nose at the US, Chavez goes out of his way to show his coziness with ailing long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Naturally he and Robert Mugabe consider each other kindred spirits, both fighting for the rights to self-assertion of their respective long-discriminated against, robbed and impoverished people. The two leaders who revel in their notoriety in the West and bask in the admiration of many poor country admirers have been shown clasping hands and hugging with obvious mutual admiration. Both are stinging in their rebuttals of opponents and critics, and both are eloquent and fearless in their attacks against their respective “neo-colonialists.”
Mugabe of course still retains the populist rhetoric, but the shine on him faded long ago as he failed to turn his rhetoric and his people’s early high hopes for his reign into improved standards of life. While Venezuela may still be enjoying a relative golden age as a result of the oil revenues, Zimbabwe has been on a steep, painful slide of many years.
But even if oil prices stay high for a while, we all know how difficult subsidies are to sustain in the long term, no matter how popular and well-intentioned they are. Zimbabwe, like many other countries, has gone through this. Lack of attention to the long term and to the issue of sustainability have shown how easy it is to wipe out hard-won socio-economic gains in a very short time.
Recent and previous price controls have caused further economic and business contraction, in addition to the problems that caused them to be put in place initially in Zimbabwe. In Venezuela they have not had anywhere near the same effect because the overall situation there is so vastly different from that in Zimbabwe, but shortages as a result of those popular price controls have been reported.
Chavez has been tinkering with the constitution to give himself more power, weaken his opponents and to make it very difficult to depose him democratically. Like the Venezuelans today, we cheered the then popular Mugabe as he similarly consolidated his power at the expense of the people’s. Chavez sees more “enemies of the people” hiding under every bed everyday, and a coup attempt he survived gives him useful ammunition to claim to be limiting freedoms and democratic space in the name of “protecting the people’s revolution.” Mugabe over many years went from seeking the accolades and adoration of the whole world to seeing real and imagined conspiracies and enemies everywhere he looks now. “Enemies” out to “confuse the people” has been the pretext for closing down a critical broadcasting operation in Venezuela, as it has been for all kinds of repressive measures in Zimbabwe over the years.
Chavéz has clearly done well in many areas, which has only given him the latitude to do as he likes in more controversial ways. The State is building new clinics and hospitals, many poor communities are getting access to amenities like clean water for the first time. University education is being made more widely available and formerly corrupt local councils are being made more democratic, even as democratic space at the national top narrows.
Chàvez’s dramatically-enacted, forcible takeovers of the stakes of multi-national oil interests have naturally been wildly popular at home, assuring more state revenues and greater powers of patronage. Whether the required investments for maintenance and growth will be done, or the oil wealth frittered away on populist projects until infrastructure begins to break down and make translating buried oil into real money difficult remains to be seen. But if Chàvez’s Venezuela is indeed following the model of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, then we all know how this seemingly presently happy story eventually ends!
In all these actions he has largely continued to enjoy the support of the people of Venezuela. Left-leaning foreign sympathizers of various kinds are also gushing in their praise of the revolution, pointing out the many signs of progress and of breaking with a not so rosy past. As they once did with Mugabe in Harare, they flock to Venezuela to lend their support and be pictured with the “revolutionary populist” of the moment, seemingly oblivious to how a still living, still ruling older model of the same ilk and the same trajectory has turned out. There is not just healthy respect for Chavez, but the kind of childish, uncritical adoration that is bound to turn even a good man bad and megalomaniac.
As as long as the economy remains flush with petro dollars which Chavez puts to popular causes, no one is too worried about his increasingly Mugabe-like progression and tendencies. As in the “good old days” of early post-independence Zimbabwe, worrying signs of a monster-in-creation can easily be overlooked and explained away.
But when things are no longer so economically rosy and the one-time populist increasingly turns vicious dictator, Venezuelans and Chavez’s foreign fan club of American entertainers and various armchair revolutionaries from all over the world may rue over-looking the gradual erosion of freedoms and the creeping introduction of a command economy. They may find that when they get over their rock-star like adoration of the one-time charismatic populist, he may have changed into a hard-hearted despot willing to do everything to stay on. And there may no longer be the economic benefits to salve and excuse the loss of freedoms.
This is the lesson of Zimbabwe for Venezuela. But if human history is any guide, they are not paying attention and will several years down the line be crying, “but why didn’t you warn us?!”
Knowing the progression of Mugabe and Zimbabwe since 1980, I fear for Venezuela as it appears to walk in Zimbabwe’s exact footsteps. How I would love to be proven wrong, for the sake of preventing another promising country whose people have high hopes of recovering from a painful, oppressive past to a more wrenching, modern-day oppression and penury.
All those worried about oppression and economic devastation in Zimbabwe today, look to the Venezuela of tomorrow with worry!