The Populist Socialist: Hugo Chávez and his Legacy

Chavismo might have stuttered, but it hasn’t had its day.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Credit: Wikipedia

“From the river Plate to the mouths of the Orinoco River, Latin America is no longer somebody else’s backyard.” Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, The Guardian, Mar 5, 2013.

The Economist, while not always kind to Hugo Chávez, got it right when it described the late Venezuelan leader as seemingly “indestructible,” with a figure like a tank, traveling incessantly, and holding those famous live television shows on Aló, Presidente that went for up to 12 hours.

But, chided the paper, he proved reckless with his health as, indeed, he had with the economy he presided over.

In a country that has, like other Latin American countries, seen military dictatorships and crippling poverty, an autocratic saviour couched in the liberation narrative of Simon Bolívar was surely an unsurprising phenomenon. With that autocracy came attempts, some successful, in creating a safety net for Venezuelan society, buttressed by oil revenues. Healthcare and literacy improved through the Social Missions.

Global problems, as Oscar Guardiola-Rivera suggested (Guardian, Mar 6), could be solved through local and regional interventions, a very Chávez formula. The poverty level in Venezuela fell from its 1995 level of 55 percent to 26.4 percent in 2009. Unemployment levels fell from 15 percent to 7.8 percent in June 2009.

What was so memorable about Chávez was not merely what he did but how he did it. He had an almost clownish irreverence and unpredictability, forming strategic partnerships with Iran and Ken Livingstone’s London (the so-called oil for brooms deal). He blustered and hectored opponents. He was not shy in describing former US President George Bush as “the devil.”

Any utopias, spearheaded by a cult, have the tendency to be ruinous

Chávez, and those who have followed him, were not immune. In the figure of a flawless saint, errors of judgment are bound to creep in. An over dependence on oil has placed the economy in a dangerously over reliant position.

Chávez had a tendency to ride roughshod with his executive rule. As he was dying, Vice President Nicolás Maduro accused “imperialist” enemies of infecting his boss with cancer. “We have no doubt that commander Chávez was attacked with this illness.” Maduro saw parallels with the death of Yasser Arafat, who is claimed to have been poisoned by Israeli agents.

While such accusations – at least those concerned with cancer – may have been far-fetched, the fears of internally hatched conspiracies never really went away. Countries such as Venezuela have form, succumbing to military juntas at the behest of US support. One should not forget that an effort at a pro-business coup d’état was foiled in 2002. On this occasion, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell rejected the “Venezuelan government’s claim that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government.”

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His last months in office were ones of speculation. Was he even alive? What exactly was he suffering from? He turned down treatment at a Brazilian hospital with a good track record of curing cancer – certainly for Latin American presidents.

Officials were hedging their bets. Their leader had been undergoing a regime of chemotherapy and operations that battered his depleted body. Then there were suggestions that he was facing “complications as a result of a severe lung infection” and “respiratory insufficiency.”

It would be foolish to ignore the context Chávez found himself when he first came to power

While the Christian Science Monitor (Mar 5) considered his legacy to be one of driving a wedge between the US and Latin America, the wedge was long overdue.

In December 1994, the first Summit of the Americas held in Miami was beating to the tom-toms of Washington. And the tone was distinctly that of “free” trade. Cuba was absent. But Chávez, with his model of socialist populism, charged in with boisterous conviction. Here was another model of development, and one disentangled from the US.

That conviction, and his ability to convince others, rode on oil revenues. With that, he managed to prop up Cuba, aid other Latin American countries, and repudiate the Washington agenda with his own Bolívarian alliance known as the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA).

Chavismo might have stuttered, but it hasn’t had its day. The opposition fared better in the last elections but did poorly in regional elections in December. It remains to be seen whether a figure such as Henrique Capriles will be able to garner any weight against Maduro. The shadow of Chávez looms large, with its combative style, not merely for his country, but for the region he did so much to shape.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.