The looming problems raise the question of where Chávez got the money for all his spending to begin with. The answer is the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Chávez’s spending habits have been matched only by his selling habits. Between 1999 and 2011, Venezuelan exports to the United States, mostly oil and oil products, totaled $341 billion. This is an extraordinarily large sum for an anti-imperialist bastion of only 29.2 million people. Indeed, Venezuela is almost as dependent on oil sales to the United States today as it was before Chávez.
And that points to a final piece of the Chávez legacy. He wants to be remembered as the most anti-American leader the world has seen since Fidel Castro. In reality, Chávez broke with Fidel’s approach to the Yankee empire early on. To be sure, Chávez has enjoyed provoking the Americans, but only to a certain point, and never so much that the United States brought an embargo down on his head. So he has played his anti-Americanism conservatively: he has sided with the anti-imperialist FARC in Colombia, but has also managed to stay on good terms with the Colombian government. He has cooperated with Iran, but has also maintained good relations with the pro-American Saudis. He avoided nuclear weapons.
For a man who has spent so much of his time lambasting the United States, Chávez has done remarkably little to actually punish it. Going by his public chastisements of the United States, he has had plenty of opportunities to cut off oil and force the United States’ hand: to discourage the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which he opposed; to end the arms embargo on Venezuela; to keep the United States out of regional fight for the leadership of the Organization of American States; to stop the United States from siding with Colombia during its incursion into Ecuador in 2008; or to punish the United States for its passive approach to the 2009 coup in Honduras that ousted a pro-Venezuelan president. Yes, Chávez has talked a big game, but he has never followed that up with action other than expelling U.S. ambassadors and increasing oil sales to China in return for loans. All the while, oil never stopped flowing north to the United States.