Inter-American Dialogue president Michael Shifter

An expert on South America, Shifter reflects on the legacy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chàvez and speculates on what may be next for the oil-rich country.

Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, DC-based policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs, and adjunct professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He previously directed the Latin American and Caribbean program at the National Endowment for Democracy and served as a representative at the Inter-American Foundation for Brazil program. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Shifter's articles on U.S.-Latin American relations have appeared in several major U.S. and Latin American publications, and he's frequently testified before Congress.


Tavis: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was called both a hero and a tyrant. He used the enormous profits from his country’s vast oil reserves to better the lives of Venezuela’s poor citizens, but he also infuriated many in this country when he ridiculed President George W. Bush in a now infamous speech at the U.N. and staunchly stood by Fidel Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I have some history with President Chavez. I met him first in Venezuela and then once again in New York City right after that speech at the U.N. where he denounced President George W. Bush as “the devil” – his words. During our conversation back then in 2006, Chavez insisted that, despite his choice of words, he wasn’t anti-American, prompting me to then ask him what he was against, and here’s what he said.

If then, Mr. President, you are not anti-American as some want to label you, if you are not anti-American, then what are you anti? If you’re not anti the American people, what are you anti?

Hugo Chavez: Anti-imperialist. I’m against any pretension of (inaudible) in the world. I’m against the capitalists in your liberal model that the U.S. elite wants to impose on the world based on weapons and bombs.

Joining me now from Washington to discuss this most polarizing figure is Georgetown professor Michael Shifter. He’s also the president of the Inter-American Dialog, a Washington-based policy forum on western hemisphere issues. Professor Shifter, good to have you on this program. Thanks for your time.

Michael Shifter: Thank you very much. A pleasure.

Tavis: This is an impossible question. I will ask it anyway, given that history is now starting to regard Hugo Chavez’s legacy. What’s your sense of where this historic journey will take us with regard to how he will be remembered and recalled?

Shifter: I think he’ll be remembered as somebody who had enormous promise, great charisma, a lot of money and ability to connect with Venezuelans and politically a real shrewd character, almost a genius. But because he had such a great appetite for power and concentrated all the power in his own hands and made all the decisions in Venezuela for 14 years, he ended up with a system that didn’t work very well and didn’t deliver results.

So I think really the bottom line is that this was a lost opportunity. There was great promise when he came in, but we see the problems today in Venezuela in terms of economics, the crime situation, highest inflation, debt, deficit, food shortages, deteriorating infrastructure. So Venezuela really could have been something different and he could have made it, but he squandered the opportunity.

Tavis: With all due respect, when you started running that list of all of the dysfunction, I thought you were talking about the United States of America. There literally was nothing on that list that you just ran that does not apply to our country, including budget problems and crumbling infrastructure, etc.

So my point here clearly is that every country has its own problems, but the numbers are clear that Chavez, whatever we think of him, was committed to trying to elevate the plight of the poor in his country, yes?

Shifter: I think there’s no question about it. He deserves a lot of credit and I think that’s his greatest contribution. He put his finger on legitimate grievance that Venezuelans and Latin Americans had about social injustice and social inequality and he’ll be remembered for that. The question is whether he was able to create an appealing alternative.

There’s nobody in Latin America, even in countries that were aligned with Venezuela, that looked to Venezuela after 14 years and said this is really an attractive model, this is an attractive system and want to be like Venezuela. And here was a country when oil was less than $10 a barrel when Chavez came in in 1999 when over well of $100 a barrel. He had all the resources in the world. People loved him and yet he really couldn’t deliver. So it really is what Venezuela could have become. It could have gone to a very, very different level.

I think that it’s certainly true that every country has its problems and I certainly recognize the United States does as well. But this was a real opportunity. This was quite a remarkable figure who could have done great things for the country and I think we see some really profound problems that a really going to be very, very difficult to undo.

Tavis: We’ll talk about Venezuela’s future here in just a second. In my conversation with President Chavez, since we’re talking about poverty, I had a chance to ask him specifically about the issue of poverty, the issue that he’s given the most credit for. I talked to him specifically about what he really thought he could do in his lifetime, in his tenure as president, to eradicate poverty in Venezuela. Here’s what he had to say.

Chavez: I could go into a basic guideline in which I believe profoundly. It is essential to get rid of poverty. We need to empower the poor, empower the poor, to transfer power to the poor because, themselves with that power, they will be the main actors in defeating poverty. That is a cross they are bearing and the first power to deliver, to give them, is knowledge, light, enlightenment, culture.

Jose Marti, the great Cuban revolutionary, said we need to be cultivated to be free, knowledge. Simon Bolivar, this great revolutionary, said a man without studies is an incomplete being. And then he said we have been dominated far more by ignorance than by force.

Tavis: Chavez was a voracious reader. As a matter of fact, he had a literacy program, a reading program, in his country where they gave out books. He would publish books in their native language and give them out free to citizens all across the country. You recall maybe a few years ago when he mentioned a book by Noam Chomsky. He single-handedly put Chomsky’s book back on the New York Times best-seller list after decades of the book not being there.

But, Michael, I’m coming to you now back in Washington specifically to talk about the fact that, if on demand, if by design, what you’re trying to do is to redistribute wealth and to raise the plight of the poor in your particular country, doesn’t that automatically put you up against a headwind when it comes to the elite in the country? Doesn’t that automatically make you a hated and reviled figure by at least certain people in the country?

Shifter: Well, it depends how you manage it. The problem is that Chavez had an opportunity to try to reach across and deal with the elite in his country with a professional and managerial and technical class. You have to remember, this is an oil-based economy. The only thing that Venezuela produces is oil. Everything else, they import.

So Chavez got into power, he polarized the country. He attacked the elites and they left the country. So the national oil company became completely politicized and it suffered from very low investment, declining production.

So the irony is that here is somebody who came in, had an opportunity to diversify the economy to make it a more broad-based basis for economic growth, and he’s more reliant on the oil sector than ever. He’s more reliant on the U.S. market than ever, even despite his attacks against the United States. So I think that is really the question. I think he could have – he clearly came in and he had to exercise control. He had to point the country in a different direction.

The country was in awful shape when he came in. The elites had failed the country. They were corrupt, they mismanaged, they stole a lot of money. Chavez came in and he was the great hope, but the problem is that he in turn antagonized the elites and he needed people with some professional technical capacity to sustain the economic course of the country and that’s what he lost.

Tavis: Chavez clearly inspired hope within the region and there’s a long list of leaders in that part of the world who came to power and have said very clearly they owed some of that to the charisma of Hugo Chavez. But Chavez also got a lot of heat and was very controversial for some of the figures he stood next to, people like Fidel Castro and the leader of Syria and Ahmadinejad in Iran.

I had a chance to ask him in our conversation how in fact the American people should view him when he stood next to the leader of Syria and made these kinds of comments and stood next to the leader of Iran and said we are brothers in the struggle together. How should the American people view your standing next to these figures? Here’s what President Chavez told me.

Chavez: I could ask the American people what Mr. Ahmadinejad did against the U.S. people. Nothing. He has done nothing against the American people. Many Americans, however, have been poisoned by the mainstream media and they repeat “he’s the devil; he’s the axis of evil”. They now consider that Chavez is an enemy, that Ahmadinejad is an enemy, that Fidel is an enemy. What did Fidel do against the American people? Nothing, nothing wrong. However, Americans, or the U.S. governments, they have done a lot of wrong against the Cuban people.

Tavis: Michael, whatever one thinks of President Chavez while Frank Sinatra sang the song, “I Did It My Way”, it can very well have been written by Hugo Chavez [laugh] because he did things his own way. But to his credit, I think of people like Nelson Mandela who we revere and we all famously recall Nelson Mandela giving Ted Koppel the business on “Nightline” when Koppel respectfully wanted to lecture Mr. Mandela about who his friends were.

And Mr. Mandela in that famous clip told Mr. Koppel, “You don’t tell us who our friends are. We make those decisions.” So if it’s okay for Mandela, why is it not okay for Chavez to have decided who his friends were? And whatever came his way, he was prepared to take that, but he did do things his own way, yes?

Shifter: Why, there’s no question about it. And he had the charisma and he had the money to do that. Money is important to understanding Hugo Chavez. And I also think he had the best aid program, cooperation program, in Latin America called Petrocaribe.

About 19 countries can subsidize oil in Latin America. They’re very much grateful to him. He was a generous benefactor, the most generous benefactor that Latin America has ever seen. He even gave home-heating oil to low income citizens in New York and Massachusetts and elsewhere.

So he strode the international stage, the global stage, with a lot of money, with a lot of confidence and he did exactly what he wanted to do. He defied the United States and he made his friends on the basis of those who were adversaries of the United States and that’s the way he operated.

Tavis: What happens next inside of Venezuela and, more broadly, we know what his impact was while he lived. What’s his impact, the impact of his death, that is, going to mean to Latin America, to the region?

Shifter: Well, I think in Venezuela there are elections scheduled now for April 14. The acting president, Nicolas Maduro, is the government candidate. There’s an opposition candidate, Henrique Caprilas, who lost to Chavez on October 7. Maduro has the edge. He’s riding a wave of enormous sympathy and compassion for Chavez. In Venezuela, the outpouring of grief has been really quite remarkable and quite stunning.

The opposition, after two electoral defeats, is not in very, very good shape, so the odds are that Maduro would be elected, so the regime will continue. The problem is, what happens in the medium term and the long term when the economic problems become more acute? That could be a recipe for some turmoil and turbulence in Venezuela down the road.

In the region, I think a lot of people are wondering if the support that Venezuela has provided them is going to continue. My sense is that it will continue in the short term. The new government is not going to want to cut off abruptly the aid to all of these countries. The support to Cuba will continue, but over the long term, given Venezuela’s economic problems, it’s going to be hard to sustain the current level of support that Venezuela has to many countries in the region.

Tavis: Is this a new opportunity to write a new chapter with regard to Venezuelan-U.S. relations? Or are we going to continue with business as usual?

Shifter: Oh, I think it is an opportunity because I think the Maduro government is going to need some political oxygen. He’s not going to be able to operate the way Chavez did. He doesn’t have his money, he doesn’t have his charisma, he doesn’t have his political astuteness, and that means he’s going to be looking for other ways to govern.

There, I think the United States could be helpful especially on the economy. He’s got to bring oil production back up. They need investment in the oil sector. The U.S. could be helpful and I think the U.S. should take advantage of that opportunity.

Tavis: Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialog joining us tonight from Washington. Michael, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your insights.

Shifter: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

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Last modified: March 15, 2013 at 1:06 am