Hugo Chávez: Popular, perhaps, but not much good at running a country
March 6, 2013 1 Comment
Why are commercial airline pilots so good at not crashing their airplanes, but the world’s politicians so adept at crashing their countries?
Part of the difference is attributable to training and structure. Commercial airline pilots work in a world where people and systems continually check, cross-check and re-check each other to the point that it becomes reflexive. They are drilled in how to raise and respond to dissenting voices in a free and frank manner without being inflammatory, and how to recognize and remedy hazards such as stress, fatigue and loss of situational awareness.
Because of this training and structure, errors still occur, but are more often than ever reversed before they can have catastrophic consequences.
These are difficult skills for even a diligent student to pick up in a world that doesn’t always make it easy to practice.
Politically, some countries have come closer to the ideal — the Scandinavian countries come to mind — but many local, regional and national governments cling to bad habits. Some countries are seriously deficient in checking, cross-checking and re-checking, leaving too much discretionary authority in one person or an unchallenged clique. Other political systems discourage doubt or dissent as harmful rather than potentially helpful things; or have become so overwhelmed by inflammatory rhetoric that the cross-checks have ceased to function.
Then there’s the political lifestyle, often filled with stress and fatigue. In some places, those who rise to the top are prone to loss of situational awareness by surrounding themselves with tight security that insulates them from the public, and aides who shelter them from bad news they need to hear.
There are systems that politicians can put in place to act as checks, cross-checks and re-checks, to catch and correct errors before they have catastrophic outcomes. These include strongly enforced limits to corruption, consultations before making major policy changes so that everyone knows what to expect and how to prepare, effective and autonomous regulatory agencies, and an independent judiciary and the rule of law.
One country that has not done well on this front over the past decade is Venezuela. That might seem strange, given the scenes shown on television today of mourners crying in response to President Hugo Chávez’s death yesterday.
Given an emotional outburst in Venezuela that would be unimaginable if Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper, Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt or New Zealand prime minister John Key died, one might think that Chávez had done a good job of running Venezuela.
The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators tell a different story. Since 1996, the World Bank has assessed countries around the world based on six indicators deemed vital for a stable and prosperous society: Control of Corruption, Government Effectiveness, Political Stability and the Absence of Violence/Terrorism, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, and Voice and Accountability.
Between 1996 and 2000 — Chávez having become Venezuela’s president in Feb. 1999 — Venezuela was generally considered better off than about 30 percent of the world’s countries, being strongest on Voice and Accountability.
The 2000s were a decade of decline for Venezuela. Between 2000 and 2010, Venezuela’s governance suffered across the board. In terms of Voice and Accountability, it went from being better off than almost half of the world’s countries to being in the bottom 25 percent. In Control of Corruption, Regulatory Quality and Rule of Law, Venezuela dropped down into the bottom 10 percent of the world’s countries.
Canada, by comparison, went through the decade being better off than 90 percent of the rest of the world except in Political Stability, where we were even at the worst of times (in 2005) still better off than 70 percent of the world, and better off than 80 to 90 percent of the rest of the world in the better years.
Hugo Chávez was, by all means, a skillful politician who knew how to please a crowd. But he turned out to be less skillful at establishing a solid foundation on which Venezuela could have transformed itself, thanks to its oil wealth, into a successful South American country with an open and honest government, an educated population, a strong scientific sector and a stable and prosperous society. If anyone, Chávez certainly had the political capital to make the needed changes.
Whether Chávez is a left-wing folk hero or a bogeyman — there are plenty of people around the world who felt strongly either way about him — the unfortunate conclusion is that Hugo Chávez’s presidency ended the same way most political careers do: in disappointment.