The Significance of Hugo Chavez’s Passing
The news of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s passing on Tuesday at age 58 following a battle with cancer evoked strong reaction throughout the world. Just a sampling of the reaction on Twitter shows how his death was either lamented or celebrated. People in Venezuela and throughout the world are just coming to terms with what this loss means and what might happen in a post-Chavez Venezuela.
Chavez had been Venezuela’s president for 14 years, and he came to power riding a populist wave, promising to focus his efforts on the country’s poor. He nationalized several industries including the oil industry. The country possesses the largest oil reserves in the world (Saudi Arabia comes in at number two), which is one reason why people pay so much attention to what might happen there. Data shows that poverty levels and illiteracy have declined in Venezuela during Chavez’s tenure, but violent crime and inflation rose.
Isabel Lara, a Venezuelan-American living in Washington, D.C., told BlogHer that while she did live in Venezuela during the first few years of the Chavez administration, she could not live there anymore because of the crime and the basic disregard for the rule of law. By 2009, the number of murders in Venezuela for the year (19,133) had quadrupled from the number a decade earlier. In 2010, the country was cited for being “ .” Since crime soared when there was a heavy emphasis on poverty reducing programs and when oil wealth increased, many did not consider the Chavez government to be a model for development.
Freedom of the press eroded during the Chavez years. Intimidation by government officials was reported for media entities that were critical of Chavez policies. Some say that media manipulation was one of the big reasons why Hugo Chavez was able to be elected to high office for four terms and to win a referendum to lift term limits.
Andres Schmucke, a journalist living in Venezuela, offered this about Chavez’s legacy,
“I think he could have been a Mandela. He had all in his favor to unite the Venezuelan people and bring the country to an era of greatness, but he preferred to take a different route. I think his legacy could have been a great one if he had dedicated himself to bring people together instead of dividing them. President Chavez had an enormous control of the media. I believe his government used the media they own to manipulate a big part of the people and yes, during the fourteen years he was in power, freedom of speech was constantly threatened, and that threat is still on.”
In the context of international policy, Chavez may end up being remembered most for his criticism of the United States and his anti-imperialist rhetoric. The United States has a long history of interference in Latin America, including a reported Washington, D.C. supported coup attempt in 2002 in Venezuela to topple Chavez. President Chavez was instrumental in establishing the Union of South American Nations, an intergovernmental organization that could become a European Union for the continent, and The Bank of the South, a new lending institution unaffiliated with the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. Establishing regional agreements and institutions was one of the ways Chavez sought to limit U.S. influence.
In 2006 before the United Nations General Assembly, Chavez referred to former President George W. Bush as a “devil”, while helping to inspire the global movement against the Iraq War. His willingness to publicly call out a sitting President of the United States on U.S. soil demonstrated his boldness.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Cresencio Arcos, told BlogHer,
“He will long be remembered by the downtrodden in his country but also by the middle class and elites for his constant harassment. Chavez was no Somoza nor Batista nor Trujillo. He was a populist Bonapartista. Why? Because he insisted on mocking and ridiculing his enemies or perceived enemies.”
And Chavez’s willingness to publicly attack those who threatened him in a populist style was illustrative of his charisma. He could electrify supporters with his frank boldness, while at the same time offending his opponents.
Venezuela will hold elections within the next month, and Vice President Maduro, who is acting as the interim president, is likely to remain in office. Maduro was endorsed by Hugo Chavez at his last public address before emergency surgery. As for Chavez, his body will be embalmedand displayed permanently at a military museum near the presidential palace in Caracas.