The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the city of Detroit and I all share a common link.
Chavez and me? In my novel San Café, the would-be socialist strongman of fictional San Cristo, Jesús Garcia-Vega, idolizes Chavez. Both reject the accumulation of private wealth. Chavez redistributed much wealth to the poor. In doing so, he virtually eliminated illiteracy and vastly improved healthcare. Yet he left Venezuela’s oil-dependent economy in a shambles. And no leader who embraces Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will ever play a constructive role on the world stage.
Detroit and me? My youngest son Aaron spent his first year as a professional dancer there—in the suburbs. I made three trips to Detroit, including downtown visits and a pilgrimage to the old Motown studios on West Grand.
The Chavez-Detroit connection? Government can and should play a role in improving the lives of people left out of a nation’s economic advances. But government control on the scale of Venezuela’s can warp an economy and stunt its growth. Venezuela now faces a choice. It can use Chavez’ positive accomplishments as a platform for establishing a responsible market economy or it can continue carrying its people on the government’s back—and sink under its bloated weight.
Detroit also faces a choice. America’s poster child for failed cities is witnessing impressive changes. True, most of the city remains poor and blighted. Yet three of its four major league sports teams play downtown. The opera house draws crowds. The Big Three automakers are thriving. And Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, as well as ambitious entrepreneurs are buying run-down buildings, refurbishing them and filling them with businesses. They’re developing new living spaces, too. Enclave though it is, downtown is coming back even as Michigan governor Rick Snyder plans to appoint a manager over the city’s finances.
Critics decry the downtown surge. They say Detroit’s poor aren’t riding this economic wave. They’re right. But most productive jobs get created when companies and entrepreneurs identify markets, invest money and sweat then take on employees. In the process, they hire contractors and their subs, janitors, IT consultants and security personnel. More workers and residents boost sales at nearby restaurants, coffee houses, drugstores and dry cleaners.
Momentum builds. Enterprising individuals open new small businesses or seek work. The tax base expands. Optimism grows. Business, community and government organizations devote more resources to helping local residents acquire job skills. Give a man a fish and eats for a day, the saying goes. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.
Detroit won’t become an overnight success. But it can make progress—and ultimately spread it to neighborhoods—if citizens and politicians see downtown development not as a racial or class barrier but as a springboard to a better future. The marketplace is imperfect. But it offers more hope than a government-controlled economy that insists that “the people” all be equally poor.
Hugo Chavez would have been exactly the wrong mayor for the Motor City.
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