Hugo Chavez is dead. He leaves behind a country ruined by populist policies he referred to as “Socialism of the 21st Century.” Venezuela under 14 years of Chavez’s leadership benefited from about $1 trillion in revenues from the oil bonanza but has little to show for it. Instead, the country has largely followed the path described by economists Rudi Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards in their 1991 classic, The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America.
Again and again, in country after country, policymakers have embraced economic programs that rely heavily on the use of expansive fiscal and credit policies and overvalued currency to accelerate growth and redistribute income. In implementing these policies, there has usually been no concern for fiscal and foreign exchange constraints. After a short period of economic growth and recovery, bottlenecks develop provoking unsustainable macroeconomic pressures that, at the end, result in the plummeting of real wages and severe balance of payment difficulties. The final outcome of these experiments has generally been galloping inflation, crisis, and the collapse of the economic system.
Venezuela’s economy, kept afloat by the long commodity boom, has not yet collapsed. But it is headed for crisis. A devaluation of more than 30% this year brought the official exchange rate to 6.3 bolivars to the dollar. The black market exchange rate—about 26 bolivars to the dollar—shows how much further it has to go. Inflation in 2012 reached 20%. Uncontrolled spending, expropriations, price controls, monetary expansion, capital controls and other misguided policies have also led to scarcities of basic goods, recurrent power outages, water rationing, increased dependency on imports and on oil exports, and a rising public debt and fiscal deficit.
Chavez also centralized political power as he gained control of the main institutions of Venezuelan society—the military, the judiciary, the congress, the central bank, the electoral council, the most important broadcast media, etc.—and did so by trampling on due process and basic civil and political liberties.
The vast expansion of state power led to a neglect of traditional functions of government such as security or keeping up infrastructure, and to an increase in corruption. Crime under Chavez skyrocketed. When he came to power in 1999, the country experienced less than 6,000 homicides per year; in 2012 that number reached about 21,700. By 2012, Venezuela’s ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index fell to 165 out of 174 countries. The systematic corruption of the Chavez regime that Gustavo Coronel documented in a 2006 Cato study only got worse in subsequent years.
The economy did grow under Chavez and poverty was reduced as occurred through most of the region, but annual growth in Venezuela averaged 3.3 percent from 1999 to 2011, below the rates experienced by Chile, Peru or Colombia—all market democracies that didn’t sacrifice basic liberties in an attempt to achieve such progress. The complete economic record of Chavez’s rule will take into account the decline in wages and per capita income that result from any future crisis his policies engendered. Only then will Venezuelans be able to fully assess the extent to which the last 14 years were recklessly squandered, and hopefully move away from the state-dominated development model which has afflicted Venezuelan society for decades.