The modern political theory of democracy is viewed almost universally as an improvement on the systems that came before it, but there are some obvious problems.

Obviously, one of the problems is that clever demagogues can find a way to manipulate the system, and votes, to come to power. Many of the dictators in this book came to power through coups or revolutions, but a few were elected more or less legitimately, often by appealing to fears and hatreds of the masses.

Another problem with the democratic system is that it often places political leaders in positions that experts should hold.

To get votes, politicians will often profess to be experts on, or at least knowledgeable about, numerous subjects.

Politicians with a little more foresight will actually hire experts on particular topics to help them make more informed decisions, while those who tend toward authoritarianism and megalomania will make the decisions themselves.

Our last dictator is an example of demagogue and a politician thinking he’s an expert on things of which he has little knowledge.

Hugo Chavez was democratically elected as the President of Venezuela in 1998. He won the election through demagoguery, attacking rich Venezuelans and foreign investors, especially American companies. But to stay true to his word, Chavez made the crazy decision of trying to play economist.

And the results have been devastating.

The oil-rich Venezuela has always had money management problems, but as Chavez tried to micromanage the economy, things only got worse.

Due to his nationalization policies, foreign investments dried up but domestic spending continued. The answer was to print more money, which led to inflation and recession.

Seemingly oblivious to the economic disaster all around him, Chavez doubled down on the polices. By the time he died in 2013, Venezuela was experiencing growing inflation, which eventually grew to 1,000,000% by 2018.

Hugo Chavez made a lot of crazy decisions and said a lot of crazy things during his rule, but pretending to be an economist was certainly the worst.

Not Such a Poor Kid

Hugo Chavez liked to promote the idea that he grew up in poverty in the slums of Sabaneta, Venezuela. The reality is that he came from a middle-class family, but after Chavez became a committed socialist/Marxist, it was better for his followers to believe he had a background of poverty.

Chavez attended a military school, which is where he was introduced to Marxism. But unlike many theoretical Marxists who have historically populated university campuses around the world, Chavez also had a military background, giving him a unique perspective on leftist revolution.

He learned that theories were great, but that ultimately, power only came from a trigger. Chavez’s time in the military proved to be very productive, as he made many useful contacts and had time to better formulate his world view.

Then, as with pretty much all of our dictators in this book, fate stepped in to set Chavez’s life on a new course.

Chavez joined a leftist clique within the military that attempted a coup in 1992, which landed the socialist and many of his comrades in prison. As he languished in prison for nearly two years, the political tides in Venezuela changed again. As is so often the case when this occurs, this shift led to Chavez’s release from prison.

Upon his release, Chavez built a political movement that Venezuela’s poor flocked to join, catapulting him to the presidency. Chavez promised a “Bolivarian Revolution” that would transform Venezuela’s economy, making it more equitable for everyone.

He sure transformed the Venezuelan economy, but instead of raising the poor to the level of the middle-class, he brought everyone down to the level of the poor.

I’ll Just Print More Money

When you talk about Venezuela’s economy, it’s important to know that the country isn’t suffering from a resource problem. Venezuela is one of the world’s leading oil producers and is sixth among OPEC nations, so there should be plenty of wealth to go around.

No, Venezuela’s problem has historically been corruption and mismanagement.

When it came to Chavez and the Venezuelan economy, he promised a lot of things to his constituents that he just didn’t have the resources or knowledge to deliver.

As the Venezuelan economy descended into turmoil, Chavez was like a deer trapped in headlights. With backgrounds only in the military and socialism, the more Chavez tried to control the economy, the worse things got.

By the mid-2000s, Chavez was able to manipulate the government and economy to rule as a dictator. Of course, not everyone was happy.

Chavez’s opponents organized strikes in the all-important oil industry, to which Chavez responded by firing all the striking workers and replacing them with his own, unskilled workers. As a result, the once-lucrative oil reserves began to diminish.

Like many dictators have done in similar situations, Chavez’s answer was to simply print more money. By the time he died in 2013, the Venezuelan bolivar was essentially worthless, supermarket shelves were empty, and Venezuelans by the thousands were crossing the border into Colombia.

Hugo Chavez may have done a lot of crazy things during his presidency, but thinking he was an economist by far had the most devastating effects on the country.

Did You Know?

  • Another crazy thing Chavez did was to support the terrorist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The support placed Venezuela on various lists of state sponsors of terrorism and ruined relations with neighboring Colombia.
  • Hugo Chavez really liked to hear and see himself talk. He hosted a television show every Sunday called “Aló Presidente” on state TV. It was an unscripted show that could go on for hours, with Chavez discussing anything from Marxism to pop culture.
  • Chavez was married twice. He had three children with his first wife, Nancy, and one with his second wife, Marisabel.
  • Chavez was reported to only have slept two to three hours a day. He stayed awake by drinking up to 26 expressos a day and some said, chewing on coca leaves.
  • Another strange thing Chavez did was to move Venezuela’s time zone 30 minutes behind its normal time.