Experience has shown that Western democracies often have difficulty dealing with dictators. We suggest a simple formula:
When a dictator poses a threat to regional stability (such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran) or is responsible for a great number of human rights violations (such as Muammar Qaddafi of Libya), the West should react strongly. But if the dictator does neither of these things, then ignoring him may be the best way to weaken him.
That has been the case with Hugo Chavez, the leader of Venezuela, who thrives on confrontation with the U.S. A look back at Western dealings with Chavez over the past decade shows the benefits of benign neglect.
Since being elected president in 1999, Chavez has ranted on radio and television against the Venezuelan elite and the U.S. Wrapping himself in the legacy of Simon Bolivar, the revered liberator of much of Latin America, he started the Bolivarian Revolution, placing political power in a strong presidency and preventing the Venezuelan Congress, news media and civil society from stopping his disastrous policies. As a result, Venezuela can no longer realistically be considered a democracy.
Internationally, Chavez has sought to unite Latin America in opposition to the U.S., going so far as to refer to former President George W. Bush as the devil during a 2006 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
The Bush administration often felt a need to respond. This gave voice to American outrage, but it also elevated Chavez’s importance, allowing him to focus attention on the history of U.S. policy toward the region, rather than his own conduct. By ignoring Chavez and working closely with more constructive Latin American leaders such as the presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Brazil, the Obama administration has made Chavez, not the U.S., the subject of debate.
Representative Connie Mack, the chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee recently issued a statement that Obama “continues to coddle this ruthless dictator.” But ignoring Chavez is not the same as coddling him. By ignoring him, Obama has contributed to the decline of Chavez’s popularity.
Latin Americans have increasingly grown tired of Chavez’s act. Because Venezuela’s oil company PDVSA was once a center of opposition to Chavez’s revolution, he made political loyalty, not technical expertise, a requirement for employment there. As a result, oil production has declined and Venezuela’s economy has contracted -- by 3.3 percent in 2009 and 1.6 percent in 2010.
Venezuela’s crime rate has recently risen steeply, fueled by drug violence and Chavez’s class warfare, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported last month. The murder rate in Venezuela is now more than 10 times that of the U.S.
Many Latin Americans see Brazil’s form of democracy, with its pragmatic populism and high economic growth, as a more attractive model. Chavez is now the second least popular Latin American leader, after Fidel Castro, according to a 2010 report by the Chilean policy analysts Latinobarometro.
In Bolivia and Argentina -- countries that have close relations with Venezuela -- less than 35 percent of those polled had a positive view of Chavez. Even Ollanta Humala, Peru’s leftist president-elect, has downplayed his ties to Chavez.
Although poor Venezuelans continue to support Chavez, his approval ratings at home hover a little over 40 percent. If the fractured opposition can coalesce around a single candidate, next year’s presidential election might be very close.
Chavez, who was recently treated for cancer in Cuba, is still a master showman. His July 4 “surprise” return to Venezuela with a welcoming crowd in place was brilliant political theater. But his ability to entertain does not obscure the damage he has done to Venezuela’s economy and democratic institutions.
Obama is wise to let this dictator’s record speak for itself.
To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at email@example.com.