The blog is a view of life, science, politics and education from an engineering perspective. As engineers, we are taught to view the world objectively. We can hope, believe and calculate a particular outcome, but natural laws are inflexible and pay no heed to who we are or what we believe. We must approach the objective dispassionately, while compensating for our own distorted perceptions. Balance is also a key element; balancing between the ideal and the pragmatic, balancing cost and functionality, balancing analysis with action, etc.
Scheduling routine critical self-analysis is the foundation to objectivity. If we do not fully understand and compensate for our own failures, tendencies, habits and skewed thought processes, we will not see the world as it is. Without a regular critical self-analysis we will see the world as we are and then fall prey to self-delusion.
Failure is a great teacher. When failure is coupled with perseverance, it produces the fruit of patience and humility. An engineer, fresh out of engineering school is typically set up for failure early and often. The failure breaks the new engineer of any ideas of self-importance, arrogance and book smarts. Only then can the new engineer be formed and molded into a productive element in the industry.
Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez died March 4th at 4:25 p.m. at a military hospital in Caracas, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on state television. Hugo Chávez died at the age of 58 after struggling with cancer for 2 years.
The media response to his death provides very different accounts of his life and legacy. On one hand, Cristina Kirchner gave Chávez a eulogy that compared him favorably to God. At the opposite end are many Venezuelan dissidents and refugees in the Miami area who claim that Chávez was the devil. Can both accounts of Chávez be accurate?
What type of legacy does Chávez leave in Venezuela and the world?
1. Was Chavez a dictator?
Publications from around the world, including the London Telegraph, New York Times, Huffington Post, etc, all asked the same question in the lead story on Chávez; “Was Chávez a dictator?” The answer is complex. He certainly had qualities that pointed towards him being a dictator, but he also allowed some dissention and opposition. Nor did he get to change the Constitution to his liking.
Chavez did not seem to mind good stiff opposition. In fact, he relished it. He needed an opponent to attack and vilify, however, he did stack the deck. In his presidential campaign in 2012, his campaign consumed 9.5 hours per day of programming on the public TV stations, while his opponent was allowed only 3 minutes. Chávez also uses the national chain of grocery stores, gas stations, schools, medical facilities as campaign tools. His picture is plastered everywhere to let the people know who was providing for their needs. On 7 October 2012, Chávez won election as president for a fourth time by defeating Henrique Capriles with 54% of the votes. Henrique ran a spirited campaign, but in the end Chávez had the full weight of the media and treasury behind him; far too much for Henrique to overcome.
In the 2006 Presidential campaign, one TV station gave his opponent more than 3 minutes of air time in one day and their license was revoked. As a result the media is very conscience of Chávez’s demands. Once a media outlet license is revoked, there is no recourse. All of judges are sympathetic to Chávez and no lawyer will take up the cause that they are bound to lose. Chavez and his National Assembly had the power to appoint and remove judges; a power that was often used.
Chávez had full control of the courts, economy, health care system, monetary supply, media, education, military and oil exports. He did not tolerate much diversity of opinion. There was no balance to his authority and no checks to his power. But Chavez was benevolent and tried self-restraint in some areas.
New York Times contributor Rory Carroll in his obituary of Chavez provides the best answer to the question:
The endless debate about whether Mr. Chávez was a dictator or democrat — he was in fact a hybrid, an elected autocrat — distracted attention, at home and abroad, from the more prosaic issue of competence. Mr. Chávez was a brilliant politician and a disastrous ruler. He leaves Venezuela a ruin, and his death plunges its roughly 30 million citizens into profound uncertainty.
Underinvestment and ineptitude hit hydropower stations and the electricity grid, causing weekly blackouts that continue to darken cities, fry electrical equipment, silence machinery and require de facto rationing. The government has no shortage of scapegoats: its own workers, the C.I.A. and even cable-gnawing possums.
Reckless money printing and fiscal policies triggered soaring inflation, so much so that the currency, the bolívar, lost 90 percent of its value since Mr. Chávez took office, and was devalued five times over a decade. In another delusion, the currency had been renamed “el bolívar fuerte,” the strong bolívar — an Orwellian touch.
His elections were not fair — Mr. Chávez rigged rules in his favor, hijacked state resources, disqualified some opponents, emasculated others — but they were free.
The comandante, as he was known to loyalists, used his extraordinary energy and charisma to dominate airwaves with marathon speeches (four hours was short). He might blow kisses, mobilize troops, denounce the United States, ride a bike, a tank, a helicopter — anything to keep attention focused on him, not his performance.
2. Champion of the poor
As part of his strategy of food security Chávez started a national chain of supermarkets, the Mercal network, which had 16,600 outlets and 85,000 employees that distributed food at highly discounted prices, and ran 6000 soup kitchens throughout the country.
The worker-owned Mercal Network acted as a substitute for corporations, which he relentlessly propped up with government funding. The grocery stores would deliberately sell food below market value so as to run capitalist alternatives out of business.
In 2010, Chávez supported the construction of 184 communes, housing thousands of families, with $23 million in government funding.
Chávez built schools and hospitals (Barrio Adentro, a chain of medical facilities) around the country. Inaugurated nationwide in 2003, Barrio Adentro initially was so popular with the poor that it helped Chavez win a crucial 2004 referendum and hold on to power. It has brought basic healthcare to the barrios, providing free exams and medicine as well as eye operations that have saved the sight of thousands.
But the system siphons resources and equipment away from the poorest public hospitals, which have four-fifths of the nation’s 45,000 hospital beds and where the public still goes for emergency and maternity care, as well as for most major and elective surgeries.
The finances and organization of Barrio Adentro are “a black box and not transparent, so it’s impossible to analyze it for efficiency,” said Dr. Marino Gonzalez, professor of public policy at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas, the capital.
The specialist kidney unit at El Algodonal hospital in a suburb of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, is completely empty. There are no patients, no staff…just nothing.
Despite boasting four dialysis machines, doctors here have been turning patients away since the hospital’s water treatment plant broke down. Without running water the hospital was forced to shut down.
As President Hugo Chávez was shuttled back and forth to Cuba for cancer treatment, the spotlight has been on health services in Venezuela.
Crumbling public hospitals are struggling to treat patients who often face long waits.
Doctors and nurses have held strikes to draw attention to their working conditions and the lack of basic supplies.
Chávez had built the hospitals but did not provide infrastructure to feed the hospitals with electricity, sanitation and water. Many hospitals became monuments to his simplistic vision of care.
A national chain of gas station was created by the administration with the mandate to sell gasoline at $.18 per gallon.
Chavez used oil to as a ‘Good Will’ directive. He distributed low cost or free oil to Cuba and Nicaragua; also sold substantially discounted oil to London, Argentina and anywhere that poor people need help.
Teresa A. Meade, wrote that Chávez's popularity "rests squarely on the lower classes who have benefited from these health initiatives, low cost energy and similar policies poverty rates fell from 42 to 34 percent from 2000 to 2006.
Bloomberg news praised Chávez’s efforts to help the poor, “Chávez’s most enduring and positive legacy is his shattering of Venezuela’s peaceful coexistence with poverty, inequality, and social exclusion. He was not the first political leader who placed the poor at the center of the national conversation. Nor was he the first to use a spike in oil revenue to help the poor. But none of his predecessors did it so aggressively and with such a passionate sense of urgency as Chávez did. And no one was more successful in planting this priority into the nation’s psyche and even exporting it to neighboring countries and beyond. Moreover, his ability to make the poor feel that one of them was in charge has no precedent.”
3. Family, friends and allies used the presidency for personal gain
Criminal Justice International Associates (CJIA), a risk assessment and global analysis firm in Miami, estimated in a recent report that the Chávez Frías family in Venezuela has “amassed a fortune” similar to that of the Castro brothers in Cuba.
According to Jerry Brewer, president of CJIA, “the personal fortune of the Castro brothers has been estimated at a combined value of around $2 billion.”
“The Chávez Frías family in Venezuela has amassed a great fortune since assuming the presidency in 1999,” said Brewer in an analysis published in their website. The family has accumulated significant assets in Venezuela and in foreign holdings.
Brewer said that Cuba is receiving about $5 billion per year from the Venezuelan treasury and in oil shipments and other resources.
“We believe that groups within the Chávez administration have extracted around $100 billion out of the nearly $1 trillion in oil income made by PDVSA since 1999.”
According to the ‘Economist’, “Although Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil exporter and has among the world’s largest proven reserves, Chávez’s slush fund has been fraying at the corners. It is staffed by political appointees and its payroll is bloated. PDVSA’s output has declined some thirty percent between 2002 and the present. Venezuela lacks the investment and technology to develop its offshore deposits, but international energy companies have been reluctant to invest in a Chávez -run Venezuela. Under Chávez, PDVSA has invested twice as much in social programs as in its energy-related businesses.”
A typical example of fraud was seen in the nationalization of Cargill, a US based food supplier.
Cargill, which is privately owned, has been doing business since 1986 in Venezuela, where its operations include oilseed processing, grain and oilseeds trading, animal feed, salt, and financial and risk management.
It had 2,000 employees in 22 locations in Venezuela, according to its Web site. The Cargill subsidy in Venezuela was headed by Lorenzo Mendoza at the time of the nationalization effort. Chávez said, "We will expropriate all the plants of Cargill. Mr. Mendoza, be alert. Because then you will go out and order your pricey lawyers and I don't know what to say that this is a violation of the constitution. Well, fine. If you want to fight with the government, brother, there you go.”
Of course, Lorenzo Mendoza fought the nationalization efforts by Chavez in the courts, but to no avail. In the end Cargill was found guilty by the courts of violating price controls and forced to turn control of operation over to the government.
Chávez placed a family member in the leadership position of the Cargill operations. Immediately, multiple highly paid positions were given to friends and acquaintances. Within 2 years, the Cargill plants needed government subsidies to remain solvent.
4. Masterful oratory skills
His skillful rhetoric, which filled supporters with utopian dreams, was used to justify the radical change of Venezuela’s democratic institutions and the free markets towards a government/crony run banana republic.
Hugo Chávez’s folksy charm and forceful personality made him an extraordinary politician. His enviable ability to win a mass following allowed him to build a powerful political machine.
Ever the showman, Chavez would jump from theology to jokes, and from Marxist rhetoric to baseball metaphors in building an almost cult-like devotion among followers.
His "Alo Presidente" ("Hello President") program on Sundays routinely lasted eight or nine hours or more, exhausting weary cabinet ministers sitting alongside him, as well as journalists and others who were required to sit through it and appear to be engaged.
5. Did not combat corruption
In 2003, after 4 years of presidency, the economic outlook in Venezuela was bleak. The economy had shrunk by 27% over the prior year, unemployment was at 20%, inflation was running at 30% per year and food shortages were common. Chávez began to institute price controls and started the nationalization drive which resulted in the acquiring of more than 1,000 companies or their assets.
His Bolivarian regime used the ‘acquired’ assets to reward supporters and punished opponents, giving rise to enormous corruption and the creation of a new class of greedy oligarchs with political connections.
The worst aspect of the Chávez years was the soaring crime rate. Venezuela has become one of the most violent countries in the world, with nearly 20,000 murders recorded in 2011 and a homicide rate that some experts say is four times greater than in the last year before Mr. Chávez took power.
But the prisons are filled; not with violent criminals but with political offenders.
Chavez just turned a blind eye to violent crime and corruption. It seemed to be low on his priority list.
6. Foreign diplomacy
Chávez had embraced rogue regimes, while being hostile to the US. Mr. Chávez eagerly accepted Fidel Castro as his mentor, providing Cuba with cut-rate oil. He strongly aligned himself with Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia. He set up the Union of South American nations and the Bank of the South.
Chávez sided with every country that showed signs of opposition to the US; most notably Iran. Iran declared a day of national mourning on Wednesday after the death of Hugo Chávez, who shared the Islamic Republic's loathing for U.S. "imperialism".
"Hugo Chávez is a name known to all nations. His name is a reminder of cleanliness and kindness, bravery, dedication and tireless efforts to serve the people, especially the poor and those scarred by colonialism and imperialism," Ahmadinejad said.
While Chávez, make close friends with Castro and Ahmadinejad, he had made enemies with surrounding countries including Columbia, Peru and Chile.
But most of all, he had a visceral hatred for the US. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in 2006 a day after then-U.S. President George Bush, he called Bush the "devil". "Yesterday the devil came here. Right here," Chávez said. "And it still smells of sulfur today."
Shortly after the UN speech he expelled the American ambassador to Venezuela, “Go to Hell; Yankee shit” he exclaimed on Venezuelan TV.
Chávez was not much kinder to President Obama, in 2011 he said; "You are a fraud, Obama. Go and ask many people in Africa, who might have believed in you because of the color of your skin, because your father was from Africa. You are an Afro-descendant, but you are the shame of all those people."
One political observer said that Chávez liked to use the US as the political straw dog. He told the people of Venezuela that the US was the root of all their problems; hunger, unemployment, illiteracy, poor healthcare, etc. He then attacked the US with great ferocity to demonstrate his commitment to the downtrodden; that he cared about them. But in the end, nothing really changed.
Israel was also on Chávez list of loathed countries. In a 2006 interview regarding the Palestinian plight and Israeli construction in the West Bank, he said, "Israel criticizes Hitler a lot, so do we, but they've done something very similar, even worse, than what the Nazis did."
Chavez’s mistreatment of Jews has been documented in a study by the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University. According to the study, Chavez relentlessly relied on conspiratorial fears of Jewish influence over banks, played on anti-semitism in the election against opposition candidate Henrique Capriles and even warned his people, “Don’t let yourselves be poisoned by those wandering Jews.”
England and Spain were also routine targets for Chávez; particularly Tony Blair.
7. The economist
Univision put together a devastating article titled “5 Ways Hugo Chávez Has Destroyed the Venezuelan Economy” shortly after Chávez’s death, and the list would embarrass any politician, let alone one who held power for over 10 years. In short, the article accuses Chávez of reducing the Venezuelan economy to a one trick pony dependent on oil, of crippling private business with its extensive nationalizations and other regulations, of destroying Venezuela’s currency, of allowing inflation to skyrocket, and of permitting a drastic increase in crime.
Between 2007 and 2010 alone, private investment in the Venezuelan economy dropped by 43 percent. The Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, is down 66 percent in value since 2008. Inflation has been at a stunning 23 percent during Chávez’s reign.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) reported that the GDP of the Venezuelan economy grew on average by 11.85% in the period 2004–2007. However, the growth in GDP did not translate to a steady improvement in the standard of living; mostly because of the high inflation rates.
Price controls were a key feature of the Chávez presidency. The harshest penalties and imprisonment were reserved for both who were attempting to utilize a ‘Capitalist’ system by selling products for more money than allowed.
In December 2002 Chávez fired more than 18,000 employees of Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state oil company, and replacing its board in response to a two-month general strike that paralyzed oil production. The strike was the culmination of many factors. The price controls, implemented by Chávez, forced management to cut the pay of its employees. Company management also did not like Chávez’s dictatorial style and resented cronies given high pay and high positions with no accountability.
But Chávez had some wins in the myriad of losses in attempting to get the economy moving.
8. Chavez and the Catholic Church
Chávez had a rocky relationship with the Cardinals and the Catholic Church. He claimed to be Catholic, wore a crucifix and spoke of Jesus and the Virgin Mary but he seemed to go out of his way to antagonize the church and church officials.
When Cardinal Ignacio Velasco died in 2003, the Venezuelan strongman declared the pro-democracy cleric was “in hell.”
“Every day we turn another cheek. I have no cheeks left because every day there is a new insult,” Velasco said of his nemesis the year before he died.
At Velasco’s wake, Chávez’s followers brandished pictures of the cardinal with devil horns and hurled stones while chanting Chavista slogans.
Carinal Velasco was succeeded in Caracas by Rosalio Castillo Lara, who was equally vilified by Chávez. Castillo Lara was once asked if he’d like to give Chavez a blessing. “More than a blessing,” the cardinal responded. “I’d give him an exorcism.”
In 2002, Chávez accused the Venezuelan bishops of being a “tumor” for his revolutionary goals and demanded that the Vatican not intervene in the internal affairs of the country.
Castillo Lara was succeeded by Cardinal Urosa in 2007. Chávez didn’t wait for the new cardinal to be installed before hurling the insults. “If Christ were still alive and physically present, I’m completely sure he’d take them out with whippings,” Chávez said of Urosa and other Church leaders.
“Now this cardinal comes out, because he has been sent here by the dirty ones, the little Yankees, to try to frighten the people by speaking of communism, that communism has arrived,” Chávez said of Urosa. “Listen, he’s a troglodyte.”
“On various occasions the president has offended me verbally, exposing me to public ridicule. I totally reject these aggressions that are unworthy of the one who carries them out,” Urosa said in an interview. “Instead of reflecting and pondering the arguments put forth and rectifying his line of conduct, he limits himself to insult and offend.”
The President’s relationship with Catholicism was a source of great debate in Venezuela, where a majority of the population identify themselves as Catholic. Some had claimed that Chávez’s religious overtones were merely a prop as part of his political campaign. Others believed that Chávez would not allow other people in Venezuela to receive reverence and praise. Cardinal Velasco was a well-liked priest and any good press about the Cardinal seemed to anger Chávez. Another thought was that Chávez was enraged over his inability to control the church and Cardinals. Chávez had almost complete control of all aspects of life in Venezuela. It was only the Catholic Church that was outside of his control or influence.
He surprised the press in April 2012 when he showed up at a Catholic church in his hometown of Barinas to attend Holy Week services. He wore a rosary around his neck and prayed for strength to fight his illness. Perhaps this was his attempt to make peace with the church.
9. Fundamentally transformed the country
Shortly after coming to office, Chávez modified the constitution, but not completely to his liking and aggressively set out to rig elections and stifle adversaries in the legislative branch and the courts. Hugo incrementally silenced the independent news media, eventually silencing most voices of opposition by bully tactics and economic intimidation.
The 2009 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders noted that "Venezuela is now among the region’s worst press freedom offenders."
Chávez was careful to steer the country towards a Cuban-style authoritarian regime. He started slow, but in his second term as president he abolished term limits and dramatically radicalized his agenda.
Chávez defended his "revolution" as a long-overdue crusade to close the gap between rich and poor in Venezuela, which combines huge oil wealth with grinding poverty and widespread unemployment.
Venezuela became extremely polarized during his tenure. Those who benefited from his politics loved him dearly, while those who lost their homes, businesses and careers to him or his henchmen, loathed him intensely. There was no middle ground regarding Chávez; either he was the messiah or he was the devil.
“There’s no doubt that Hugo Chávez transformed Venezuela,” said Robert Pastor, a former U.S. National Security Adviser for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter. “One can debate whether the policies he pursued actually helped the masses, but you cannot question the fact that the majority felt that he was a leader who cared about them.”
10. Famous quotations:
AFTER A FAILED COUP AS AN ARMY OFFICER, 1992
"For now, lamentably, the objectives we sought were not achieved. ... New situations will come and the country must definitively get on the path to a better destiny."
AS PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE, 1998
"Cuba is a dictatorship."
Nationalization plans? "No, absolutely nothing."
Hand over power in five years? "Of course, I am willing to give up power even earlier."
AFTER TAKING OFFICE, 1999
"I swear in front of my people, that over this moribund constitution, I will push forward the democratic transformations that are necessary."
11. Items of note:
- He led a failed coup in 1992 to overthrow the Venezuelan government. He was imprisoned for 2 years for his involvement in the coup.
- A baseball fan and amateur pitcher, he admired Nestor Isaias Chavez (no relation), a Venezuelan who pitched for the San Francisco Giants in the 1960s.
- Like Fidel Castro, he wanted to play professional ball in the U.S.
- During a 1999 visit to New York, he threw out the first pitch at a Mets game at Shea Stadium.
- He rang the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
- Embraces the doctrine of “Liberation Theology”.
- He claimed to be a ‘Trotskyite”.
- Loved to give long speeches, his longest was 9 hours and 42 minutes long.
Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez described the “two faces” of Hugo Chávez he had interviewed: “One to whom good luck had given the opportunity to save his nation and the other an illusionist who could go down in history as just another despot,” he wrote in the Colombian magazine Cambio.
12. My thoughts
Chávez will mostly be remembered for his anti-US rhetoric and his embrace of all things anti-American. He will be remembered as a demagogue with a silver tongue but failed to diversify a Venezuelan economy that earns 95 percent of its revenues from energy exports, curb the wasteful spending on patronage projects and public works, and avert importing most of Venezuela’s food in a country with abundant agricultural resources. Inflation has averaged over 25 percent in the last two years, and shortages of basic consumer goods are rampant.
But Chávez cared about the poor.
The most bizarre eulogy would have to go to Greg Grandin of the ‘Nation’ periodical.
Chávez cheerleader, Greg Grandin, eulogized, “Chávez was a strongman. He packed the courts, hounded the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances.
But I’ll be perverse and argue that the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough. It wasn’t too much control that was the problem but too little.”
The link below is a pretty fair assessment of the Chavez legacy; which is a mixed bag.