Dr Jay Dubashi
DICTATORS come in all sizes and shapes, and one dictator is different from other. Some are short, others tall. Some tend to be fat, others lean and thin. Some, like Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler kill people in thousands, may be millions, without batting an eyelid. Others, like Indira Gandhi, wouldn’t hurt an ant. Then there are comic characters like Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco, who were not dictators at all, but frightened old men posing as dictators. And there are murderers like Mao Zedong who have no hesitation in slaughtering millions in the name of cultural revolution, while they themselves gorge on chop suey and mushrooms.
What kind of dictator was Hugo Chavez, the strongman of Venezuela, who died of cancer a few days ago? He said he was a genuinely elected president – which he was, just like Chinese president – and not a dictator, which, according to him, was another qualification Chavez ruled for 14 years which is technically true, but he had amassed so much power that he was as good, or as bad as a dictator in his own right. The Americans, he said, didn’t like him, which, according to him, was another qualification. Chavez ruled for 14 years which is longer than Hitler did, but he died in a hospital with his family around him, unlike Hitler, who committed suicide in a dirty little bunker beneath the sewers of Berlin. That too is a qualification.
That the westerners did not much care for him is well known and so are the reasons for their displeasure. Very few went to his funeral in Caracas, and those who did, did not stay long, as if they were in a hurry not to be seen with him, and were not quite sure he was dead. Western newspapers did not like him either, but the bad feeling was mutual; Chavez did not like them either. His real friends – some might say, only friends – were presidents of Iran, Cuba, North Korea and, of course, China, who were his buddies, and who, like him, were persona non grata with the west.
It is said that Chavez, who fancied himself as a liberator in the image of his idol, Simon Bolivar, who freed most of Latin America from Spain and other colonizers, was a kind of a liberator himself. He liberated Venezuela from the United States. There is no doubt at all that he did so. Almost the first thing he did after assuming power was to get rid of US oil companies who had controlled oil business in his country, as they had done in Iran and also Cuba, and takeover the profitable business himself.
He thus took control of the vast oil revenues and ran the business. This was actually the main bone of contention between him and the United States, but that did not bother him, just as it did not bother Iran.
The west was never very happy about this, and also about the fact that some of the oil was used to keep Cuba in good humour, for Cuba provided medical and other services in exchange for oil. It is said that Chavez frittered away billions of dollars of money from oil and used them so badly that his people were poorer at the end of his reign than when he started. This is just not true. When Chavez died, hundreds of thousands of his countrymen mourned his death and attended his funeral, far more than those at the funeral of any US president. The poor people of Venezuela had special reason to mourn him, as he had given them free houses, free food, free scholarships to attend schools and universities, something very few so-called democratic governments had done in the west.
One magazine, published from London, characterised his reign as rotten, which is rather strange, considering that he had done so much for his people, and succeeded in bringing down the poverty levels from 50 per cent in 2001 to 30 per cent in 2011, a remarkable achievement for a dirt-poor country in Latin America. These are UN figures, not cooked up by the Venezuelan government. It is said that this was possible because of the windfall of oil revenues, which shot up from 20 billion US dollars in 2001, a few years after Chavez came to power, to 120 billion dollars, a six-fold increase in less than 10 years. This is certainly true, but it is also true that a substantial part of these revenues was used in helping the poor. This is the reason why they are so grateful to him, and his administration. For the sake of record, petrol in Venezuela in sold at two or three cents a gallon, which is about 50 paise a litre!
What really irked the Westerners was the fact that Hugo Chavez was a populist, and even worse, a nationalist. Westerners hate nationalists, which is why, many of them run down the so-called Hindu nationalists. They prefer boot-licking men like Dr Manmohan Singh, who sing their praises day in and day out and adopt capitalistic measures in the name of liberal economics. Chavez was a nationalist, which means you have to be prepared to incur the wrath of westerners who are always after your resources, and your markets. Venezuela may have suffered losses because of its policies, but it is to its credit that it used its resources to help the poor, rather than the fat-bellied multinational oil companies always breathing down your neck.
What would have happened had he handed over the oil industry, with its huge revenues, to US multinationals? They would have certainly run the industry much better than Chavez did, but the would have almost certainly taken over not only the industry but the entire government, as they did in other countries, including Iran. It would have been a capitalist takeover and Chavez and his government would have been brought down. Most of the revenues would have gone out as dividends and other fees, including, of course, fat salaries to managers. The whole character of the Venezuelan economy would have been transformed, with the country’s government eating out of the hands of foreign multinationals.
I don’t like dictators, even relatively benevolent ones like Chavez, but I don’t like multinationals either. Not a cent out of the oil industry would have gone into the pockets of the poor – not a school or college would have been built, no houses for them, and not much food either. Most of the cash would have wound up into the pockets of fat cats on Wall Street, and, of course, the oil moghuls, with their mansions in south of France and Panama, and their mistresses in Hollywood. Chavez had every right to control his country’s resources for the benefit of his people, because they belonged to them and had first claim on the profits.
As regards the second point, viz. the refusal of Chavez to kowtow to America, I don’t see why he should have kowtowed in the first place. He was perfectly justified in striking his own course – he was, after all, the country’s president – and using the resources as he deemed best, which he did, though he may not have been very efficient in doing it. Chavez could have done certainly better, particularly with Venezuela’s huge oil revenues, but that is a different story.
It would be interesting to see how America deals with the new incoming president who will replace Chavez, but the man was nominated by Chavez himself before he died and who had been a member of his Cabinet for a number of years. The Americans must be watching the scene very carefully, for they have had their eye on Venezuelan oil for a long time, and if they succeed in getting the new man on their side, they would have killed two birds with one stone, get Venezuelan oil and at the same time checkmate Cuba, which gets oil from Venezuela at throwaway prices, and which continues to be a thorn in America’s side. It is an interesting scenario which Indian diplomats in Delhi should watch carefully!