World Bank Chief Zoellick Says Chavez’s ‘Days Are Numbered’

World Bank President Robert Zoellick
Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

World Bank President Robert Zoellick said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s “days are numbered” economically and politically and that the region should prepare to move into a new era of democracy on his eventual exit.

Zoellick spoke last night at the Organization of American States in Washington where the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy analysis group, held a reception celebrating its 30th anniversary. He said countries dependent upon Venezuela’s aid like Nicaragua and Cuba will face difficulties if subsidies are cut, which may pave the way for rapid policy changes.

“Chavez’s days are numbered,” Zoellick said. “If his subsidies to Cuba and Nicaragua are cut, those regimes will be in trouble. There will be an opportunity to make the Western Hemisphere the first democratic hemisphere. Not a place of coups, caudillos, and cocaine -- but of democracy, development, and dignity.”

The Venezuelan leader will be challenged for the presidency in October by Henrique Capriles Radonski, a 39-year-old former governor of Miranda state who won a primary election by a landslide in February and has been endorsed by a group of opposition parties.

Chavez, a 57-year-old former paratrooper who is seeking to extend his 13-year rule until 2019, has undergone three operations in Cuba as part of his battle with cancer in the past year. The government has refused to say what type of cancer Chavez has or provide a prognosis, leading to speculation that his health may be worse than he has let on.

‘Necrophilic Right-Wing’

“Zoellick’s comments are an expression of the hatred from the necrophilic right-wing of the world,” Andres Izarra, Venezuela’s information minister said in an e-mail in response to requests for a comment. “The predatory capitalism that the World Bank promotes has numbered the days for all of humanity.”

Chavez often criticizes the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for being instruments of what he calls the U.S. “empire” and for dictating market-friendly policies that fail to improve the lives of the region’s poor.

Venezuela sends Cuba about 100,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for more than 20,000 doctors who work in state-run Venezuelan clinics. Nicaragua also receives oil from Venezuela, through the Petrocaribe agreement, which is repaid over as many as 25 years and can include food and textiles as payment.

Zoellick said that the Americas should look toward the future rather than bicker about past U.S. intervention in the region, echoing comments by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Arbitration Exit

Chavez said in January that he’s pulling Venezuela from the World Bank’s arbitration court -- the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, known as ICSID -- this year as investment dispute cases have mounted against the South American country after a wave of nationalizations. He also threatened to withdraw from the IMF in 2007.

Zoellick, whose term as World Bank president winds up at the end of this month, served as U.S. Trade Representative in the administration of former President George W. Bush.

The U.S. needs to deepen its commitment to free-trade agreements in the Americas as the country is “no longer leading the open trade agenda,” and “relies increasingly on defensive measures,” Zoellick said in the speech.

The World Bank chief said Latin American countries need to continue to pursue trade ties with Asia, develop capital markets in local currencies, invest in infrastructure, diversify away from commodity-dependent economies and to focus on maintaining productivity to achieve sustainable growth.

“Many developing economies make early rapid gains. But then productivity and growth tend to slow,” he said. “Many Latin American countries will need to translate the commodity boom into broader, more diversified economies. This region has lived through roller-coaster booms and busts before.”

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