Hugo Chavez dies: What will Dominica do now?
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit can be excused for shedding tears when he addressed the nation live on television last week on the death of his mentor President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. After all, Chavez virtually propped up Dominica's feeble economy for many years with direct and indirect financial assistance. In fact, Caribbean islands from Cuba to Grenada have lost not only a friend in Chavez but their major aid donor.
It is certainly not an extravagance to say that since Chavez succumbed to cancer last Tuesday many Caribbean heads of government, who have imbibed in the sweetness of the Bolivarian crude, in all likelihood, are now having nightmares and wakeful nights. Will Venezuela's new president nullify Petro Caribe and claim payment for the loans provided to Caribbean countries on concessionary terms now that Chavez has died? Portia Simpson Miller the Prime Minister of Jamaica, for example, must be an extremely worried woman. Her country has been receiving more than half million barrels of oil per year from Venezuela. Under the terms of the Petro Caribe programme, when the price of oil goes beyond US$40 per barrel up to seventy percent of the value of the product becomes a loan from Venezuela that would not become due for up to 25 years. When the price falls below US$ 40 per barrel between five and 25% of the value is financed by Caracas for about 17 years at two percent interest. Jamaicans worry that if Petro Caribe is stopped anytime soon the country will have to cough up more than US$500 million in foreign exchange to purchase oil, a sum Jamaica's economy can ill-afford at this time. Most Caribbean countries share Jamaica's predicament.
In Dominica's case, the debt owed to Venezuela appears to be a state secret; not even the Auditor General reports on the Petro Caribe debt in the nation's annual statement of accounts; as well, the International Monetary Fund has been unable to quantify and analyse that debt. In other words, no one, with the probable exception of Skerrit, knows how much we owe Venezuela.
Cubans appear to be better off as far as an assessment of Venezuela's contribution to their economy is concerned; but, on the other hand, the Raul Castro Administration in Cuba is certainly worried sick about the uncertain future after Chavez's death. Almost singlehandedly, Chavez kept the Castros, Raul and Fidel, in power with Venezuelan largesse, valued at US$2.2 billion per year; thus Cuba's future is now intricately linked to the direction of Venezuelan politics. But Cuba is not alone. President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, for instance, whom Chavez resurrected, has probably seen the door to a secure future firmly slammed in his face. All in all, it would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall witnessing behind-the-scenes post-Chavez maneuvering in countries like Dominica.
But who was Hugo Chavez, really, and what did he accomplish in the 14 years he served as President of Venezuela? Describing Chavez is not easy. On the one hand, Chavez left that nation of 29 million in an economic and social mess. Yet, his regime reduced poverty by more than fifty percent though Venezuela is still an extremely poor country in spite of its vast oil wealth. In addition Chavistas can legitimately boast that millions of Venezuelans now have access to free health care and admittance to education has increased significantly (college enrolment has more than doubled in recent years) while the number of persons eligible for public pension has more than tripled. Additionally, over the last few years the government has built thousands of houses for the poor. That, in a nutshell, is the bright side Chavez's legacy.
On the dark side, at 18 percent annually, Venezuela's inflation is the worst in Latin America; Transparency International ranks the country at 165th on the Corruption Index, among the most corrupt regimes in the world; violent crime is soaring and oil is virtually the only engine of growth although production has not grown since 1999.
Unquestionably, Chavez has improved the standard of life of poor Venezuelans by diverting some the country's oil wealth. But Chavez, like his protégé Skerrit (who has adopted some level of Chavism in Dominica) was accused of gross wastage; he directly issued hand-outs to the poor instead of improving the economy so that, eventually, everyone can earn a decent living. Chavez's international philanthropy cost Venezuela more than US$30 billion; Chavez himself, who was born poor, was worth $1 billion at his death on March 5, 2013, according to the website Celebrity Networth.
While many praised Chavez for his generosity to Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Caribbean countries like Dominica, he is berated for his public and enthusiastic support of the bad boys of the world including Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Bashar Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Egypt, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe as well as many terrorist groups such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and FARC of Columbia.
Eventually, Venezuelans are in the best position to judge their beloved leader but when the dust settles in the post-Chavez period, we hope Venezuelans can take a balanced view of Chavez's legacy. As far as Roosevelt Skerrit and other Caribbean leaders are concerned, we hope they will review their policy of dependency on despots or charismatic dictators of oil rich countries. This is definitely not a sensible way to develop a region.