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Venezuela and the C'bean after Chavez

Friday, March 08, 2013

Readers of these columns are well aware that we have always been critical of the undemocratic actions of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. For we hold firmly to the view that democracy demands the co-existence of opposing views, and people should not be punished for dissent.

No one can deny that President Chavez is loved by Venezuela's poor and working class because his wealth redistribution policies have helped many of them.

The upshot, though, is that many of the rich have fled the country, triggering a deceleration of private sector economic activity.

Our main problem with Mr Chavez, though, was his checkered record in dealing with people opposed to his policies.

For instance, in 2007, he pushed one television station off the air simply because it had been strident in its criticism of his presidency.

He was able to do so because his Administration passed laws that give the State power to arbitrarily suspend media houses and websites, as well as increase penalties for speech that offends Government officials.

Of course, in defence of these backward policies, President Chavez claimed that they were necessary to democratise Venezuela.

We recall, as well, that in 2010 the Venezuelan National Assembly, which is dominated by Chavez loyalists, expanded his powers, allowing him to impose laws by decree for 18 months; change tax or financial laws; act on national security, defence or international co-operation; impose laws altering Venezuela's socio-economic system; and declare banks to be of "public utility", a move designed to speed up the process if he decided to nationalise more of them.

His fiercely nationalist orientation chaffed at the dominance of the United States in Latin America and the Caribbean. His rhetoric was pointedly and unnecessarily anti-American, but the US refused to be provoked, taking a benign approach given Washington's preoccupation with the Middle East and Asia.

Regionally, though, he was a friend in "deed" through the PetroCaribe programme.

Whether for political or altruistic motives PetroCaribe was invaluable to Antigua, The Bahamas, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, St Kitts, St Vincent, St Lucia, and Suriname.

The big question in those countries, now that President Chavez has passed, is the future of PetroCaribe.

If Vice-President Nicolás Maduro wins the election, which the Constitution mandates must be held in 30 days, it is doubtful that he will be able to preserve Chavez's legacy of socialism in domestic policy.

There is likely to be some moderation in foreign policy and a reduction in resources for friendly governments. We could also see the phasing out of PetroCaribe or the introduction of less generous terms which, no doubt, would have devastating repercussions for the Caribbean already struggling to survive the global economic crisis.

If, however, Mr Maduro loses the vote, we would not be surprised to see a rapid dismantling of Mr Chavez's programmes, a move that could spark political instability in that deeply polarised society and could even prompt the army to intervene with no guarantee of what type of ruler would emerge.

It is against that background that we hope for a peaceful and democratic political transition and the continuation of the traditional friendly relations between Jamaica and Venezuela.

We extend our condolences to President Chavez's family and the Venezuelan people.