Hugo Chavez might have seemed, momentarily, to be a Latin American Park Chung Hee. He was a military officer and a coup leader with communist sympathies who promised to sweep away the post-colonial oligarchy and the vested interests that kept his country poor.
But there any similarity ends. Park was a doer, Chavez a talker. Within weeks of coming to power, Park locked up South Korea’s leading oligarchs, and did not let them out of detention until they agreed to cooperate in building a new Korea. He poured money into improving agricultural infrastructure and support services, so that the poor could feed themselves and generate an agricultural surplus.
Hugo Chavez was a populist who spent oil money to alleviate the immediate suffering of the poor. But he did not give peasants the means to generate their own wealth or create an industrial base that would turn Venezuela into a different kind of country. In China, he found a post-colonial ‘red buddy’ to build him roads and power stations, instead of having Venezuelans learn to do such things themselves.
And he talked. He talked to fellow third-world bullshitters like Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe. He occasionally brought in smart people from outside to advise on how economic development really works, but if they dared to talk he just talked even louder. He talked remorselessly against the United States and thereby brought upon himself the wrath of the world’s most powerful country. Unnecessarily and unhelpfully. In sum, he talked too much.
Park Chung Hee didn’t talk. As he wrote soon after coming to power in 1961: ‘‘We need wordless deeds and ambitious construction programmes.’ He liked Goethe’s maxim that genius is the crystallisation of perseverance.
More on Chavez and China:
Bloomberg details China’s loans for oil deals with Chavez.
This is a deeper analysis of Chavez’s relationship with his red buddy, but in Spanish.
There is also quite a bit on Chavez and China in this good new book about China’s main development bank.
Footage of Chavez talking:
Rory Carroll has a good short video of Chavez in action.