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By Global Public Square staff
For 14 years, Hugo Chavez has been a troubling global presence. He has been an avowed critic of American capitalism…and yet he has generated billions selling oil to the United States. He’s a populist, whom some revere but others despise. One thing's for sure, Venezuela’s president is a fighter: last year it seemed he had even defeated cancer.
But the cancer is back, and Chavez has been said to be seriously ill. So when he couldn’t attend his own swearing-in ceremony on Thursday, it sparked a natural set of questions in Venezuela and around the world: what's next?
Whoever inherits the presidency, Chavez will cast a long shadow.
Look at his record. On the one hand, the poorest are actually better off. According to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, poverty has declined by 50 percent since 2004. Extreme poverty has declined by 70 percent. Over the same period, college enrollment doubled, and millions of Venezuelans gained access to health care. Many are getting free housing – Chavez announced on public television last year he would build two million homes for the poor.
But look deeper, and you’ll see that the programs that created these gains are built on the oil boom, badly designed, and damaging the Venezuelan economy. The economy is in shambles: Barclays Research puts Venezuela's annual fiscal deficit at nearly 20 percent of GDP, one of the highest imbalances in the world. Total debt has more than doubled since 2008. And that’s despite the fact that Venezuela has the greatest proven reserves of oil in the world – more than Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Canada. When Hugo Chavez first came to power in 1999, oil was trading at just $11 a barrel. Today it is trading at $111 a barrel. Chavez has presided over the greatest windfall in his country's history. And yet Venezuela is probably the only petro-state in the world where people regularly suffer power outages. Infrastructure is crumbling. And public security is abysmal: Venezuela has one of the worst homicide rates in the world, worse even than Colombia, Honduras, or Mexico.
More from CNN: Uncertainty reigns in Venezuela
A recent Foreign Affairs essay pointed out that Venezuelan exports to the U.S. from the start of Chavez's rule through 2011 added up to nearly $350 billion. That is ironic for a presidency that marketed itself as anti-American. But even that trend may be reversing. According to a Financial Times report, for every 10 barrels of crude that are exported to the United States, Venezuela now needs to import two back, because it lacks refining capacity, which has been made worse by a recent explosion at a Venezuelan refinery. In other words, America is selling oil to Venezuela! Meanwhile Chavez continues to ship a reported 100,000 barrels of subsidized crude to Cuba, everyday.
Venezuela's people have gotten used to tall promises: free housing, essentially free gasoline. But increasingly, the state cannot afford it. It is popular to be anti-American, and yet the money has been coming from Washington. Cuba remains a staunch ally, but if it stops receiving cheap oil, it will pull out its tens of thousands of doctors from Venezuela, which will destroy Venezuela's healthcare system.
All these years, a popular Hugo Chavez has been masking all these fundamental flaws in his economy using oil wealth. But the problems are building. The next leader of Venezuela will face the buildup of all these problems, and probably without Chavez's charisma and guile.
If you think balancing the budget in Washington is difficult, spare a thought for what Caracas will have to do in the coming years.
Sly, don't be so ignorant. Chavez has helped the poor at the expense of the middle class. Destroying one class of people to help another makes sense to only to people like yourselves. Read some of the other posts from Venezuelans and you might get a real idea of how things are. And stop being so dramatically anti American, it's so passe.
Love the way American Corporate TV portrays any voice opposing the Empire as " troubling global presence". What about George Bush ? Sure he'd really happy to be called that, if we push it really hard. Instead of looking for "Vile Tirane" somewhere abroad, why don't you Yakees look inside your country. Give you a hint, look them affiliated to an elephant symbol party.
What comes after Chavez? The same guy that follows the the elephants in the circus parade. The guy with a garbage can on wheels and a shovel.
It has to be a commie. I would think it would be Obama.
You remember "The Boys from Brazil."
The left in America hopes it's the reanimated corpse of Lenin with a dash of Mao thrown in.
I am quoting you Fareed, about Venezuela: "poverty has declined by 50 percent since 2004. Extreme poverty has declined by 70 percent. Over the same period, college enrollment doubled, and millions of Venezuelans gained access to health care. Many are getting free housing – Chavez announced on public television last year he would build two million homes for the poor." I suppose you suggest there are better uses for the proceeds for an oil boom? The spending here was wasteful, or should have been directed elsewhere? Perhaps this should not have been the principal priority of the entire Chavez agenda or philosophy? Third world countries turn around altogether in 9 years, generally - particularly ones that are wealthy in natural resources - is that your experience? Is that what you are saying? I think Chavez's priorities were the obvious ethical ones - ones that are ignored in so many places, that get high grades from the Barclays of the world. The homicides are horrific, as they are neighboring Colombiia and Mexico. La Violencia has plaugued these regions for decades or centuries, as have sky high debt and inflation. Where else is poverty halved and extreme poverty reduce by 70% in a country of 24 million in 9 years? Really. Come on, high falutin', complicated critics - just suck it up, and say, thank God for the people of Venezuela, may other entrenched ancient problems of the region also reach resolution. This one was first. Get off your high horse, give credit where it is due. Your arm chair condecension doesn't fly here. Your analysis is generally excellent, but with all due respect you have zones of ideological prejudice, though I see a little improvement in this particular overage of Venezuela. In the past I heard potent stereotypes and incorrect information. Thank you for your work generally. NB Saudi Arabia is often cited for oil wealth linked to universal high standards of living. Well that may be true for the 1.5 million Saudis in that enormous land, but as you know, it is certainly not for the what –4 or 5 milion who work and live there without the privleges of citizenship.
Let's be honest. I think the American public doesn't really give a hoot about Chavez or Venezuela. They usually get attention with their reps for the Miss Universe pageant. That's about it, aside from their illegal immigrants that come here through the Mexican railways.
Who comes after Chavez? Obama, hopefully. Lean Forward, and South.
Whoever Chavez appoints, of course. That's the way dictators keep control.
Sounds like Putin-lite.
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The Global Public Square is where you can make sense of the world every day with insights and explanations from CNN's Fareed Zakaria, leading journalists at CNN, and other international thinkers. Join GPS editor Jason Miks and get informed about global issues, exposed to unique stories, and engaged with diverse and original perspectives.
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Obama as a foreign policy president?
Why Snowden should stand trial in U.S.
Hillary Clinton's truly hard choice
China's trapped transition
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