Meles Zenawi Vs Hugo Chavez: A Comparison


By Daniel Berhane

In the days following the passing of Meles Zenawi, senior EPRDF officials stood firm in rejecting the conspiracy theories that were running wild in the streets. Although a public statement was not issued on the matter, as journalists did not raise the subject, the official reaction was firm during private discussions.

It even went as far as asking about the sources and intentions of the conspiracy theories. One may wonder why they bothered to reject it so firmly.

Quite to the contrary, was the approach in the Latin American country of Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, died last week, after months of being absent from the public eye, being treated for an undisclosed form of cancer. Chavez’s deputy, Nicolas Maduro, said, whilst announcing Chavez’s death, that there “is no doubt” Venzuela’s “historic enemies” have found a way to infect him with the disease. It was a reference to none other than the United States.

The difference is representative of the two leaders’ legacies, which are strikingly similar, bar the presence of a few contrasting areas, including public rhetoric.

Both leaders were Marxist at heart, though they hardly made an explicit endorsement of that ideology after assuming power. They may have been wary of the bad publicity of such an association and perhaps even hoped that they could work their way through the principles of market-economy, only to later recoil.

Chavez’s economic policies essentially relied on heavy state involvement, as well as the expansion of cooperatives, rather than the private sector. As the Venezuelan private sector was already too large before the assent of Chavez, he had to resort to nationalisation. Whereas his comrade in Addis only had to drag the privatisation and liberalisation process, with the exception of certain select sectors, which were opened up to lure foreign direct investment (FDI), as well as for geo-political reasons.

Their solution to food inflation, housing problems and other market failures were similar and taken from the socialist notebook – though both avoided the Soviet version.

Neither of them worked out the full details of their ideologies, however. Chavez’s Bolivarian Socialism and Meles’ Revolutionary Democracy are both said to be approaches with a maintained daily construction, as opposed to dogma.

They lifted millions out of poverty by experimenting with various economic models, of course, keeping an eye on avoiding neo-liberal prescriptions and Soviet style approaches.

They never believed the upper classes could partner their vision – more so after they saw its potential to reverse their works: Chavez in 2002/3 and Meles in 2005. That was when they stepped-up the scope and intensity of their efforts, in order to make their political project hegemonic; although they had been doing that, albeit at a slower pace, from the beginning. Their position on the foreign financing of non-governmental organisations (NGO) and electronic media, and their attempts to elevate participatory democracy above representation, are among such examples.

A careful analysis reveals that there is not much difference in the basic aspirations and visions of the two leaders, if it were not for differences in the setting they inherited from their predecessors, their resources and, indeed, their personal style. The last point was, in fact, pivotal in how the two leaders were perceived by the international left.

Chavez is remembered for calling the former United States’ President George W Bush the “devil”, at a United Nations general assembly in 2002. Whereas the western media associated Meles’ image with the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, which he embarked on against his best judgment; the 2005 election, which was misrepresented to the world by a supposedly socialist European Union (EU) parliamentarian; and the 2006/07 military intervention in Somalia, which was claimed to be Bush’s project – although this was disproved later by the Wikileaks cables.

These differences limited the potential contribution that the international left could have in expounding Ethiopia’s experiments and encouraging other Africans to take similar innovative moves, digressing from the Washington Consensus. Meles managed, however, to solicit endorsement from centrist and right-leaning scholars and politicians through personal charm, intellectual eloquence and achievements in pro-poor sectors.

He carefully cultivated himself as a regional stabiliser, and thereby financed his leftist policies with aids and loans that he received with the backing of right-leaning politicians in Western capitals.

With Meles’s death, however, one wonders how long Ethiopia will continue to digress from the neo-liberal economic prescriptions, unlike Venezuela, which has the financial, institutional and intellectual capital to persist with its Bolivarian revolution.

Indeed, Ethiopia has enough  momentum to keep itself on track. Its geo-political importance is unlikely to diminish in the next few years. Western aid agencies invest too much, politically and financially, to abandon or scale-back their support.

However, with each day, they pressurise for more and more ideological concessions. And, this is likely to influence aspiring politicians in Addis Abeba, where, historically, a good rating among foreign allies counts in one’s favour, at least, until one manages to make one’s self indispensable to both Western and Eastern allies, and thereby remain insulated from their pressures, as Meles did.

It is yet to be seen if the EPRDFites will continue resisting neo-liberal prescriptions and manage to compensate whatever limitations they may have with political advice from the Chinese and finance from emerging powers.

Perhaps, the tone of the rhetoric and the guest-list of their upcoming Congress will indicate the way forward.

About the Author: Daniel Berhane is a lawyer and a blogger based in Addis Ababa. For more info, see: