JEFF SYBERTZ ’13
On Tuesday, March 5, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died after a long battle with cancer in his Caracas home. The socialist president had led Venezuela since 1999 and made a name for himself in the international community for his policies regarding the country’s vast oil fields and executive power, his confrontational views toward the United States, and his close relationship with controversial leaders such as Fidel Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Many Americans and middle and upper class Venezuelans regarded Chavez as a dictator. However, many Venezuelans and other Latin Americans see Chavez as a liberator and reformer who challenged American neoliberalist policies and represented the interests of the people of Venezuela. Although many have celebrated Chavez’s demise as the death of a tyrant, people should recognize the advancements he achieved and the legitimacy he held. Some of his policies were controversial and others were outright reprehensible but the man also won more elections during his time as president than any other elected official in the world. Chavez should be held accountable for his reprehensible actions but these policies should not be the defining aspects of his legacy. He should also be remembered for his representation of the marginalized members of Venezuelan society and his role in the creation of the movement throughout Latin America that stressed a more humane version of capitalism.
Hugo Chavez came to the forefront of Venezuelan and international politics as a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan army in 1992 when he was involved in an unsuccessful coup d’état attempt against then President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chavez was arrested, prosecuted, and eventually released. Seven years later, he was democratically elected President of the Republic.
Poverty and violence characterized much of Venezuela, specifically Caracas, in the 1990s. Neoliberalist economic policies and foreign oil companies made it difficult for the government to provide basic social services to its people and the homicide rates in some neighborhoods of Caracas were among the highest in the world. Tensions between the government and residents of Caracas, especially the working class, were always high and social movements that turned violent were all too common. This was the context in which Chavez was elected president in 1999.
During Chavez’s regime, he was accused of totalitarian tactics, corruption, state-sponsored violence, and the nationalization of private oil reserves. Shortly after he was elected, Chavez convened a constitutional assembly to create a new constitution that would allow the President to serve up to two terms, not counting the term he had just won. Once he was reelected for the third time in 2006, he supported a referendum that abolished presidential term limits. Although Chavez allowed the opposition to exist so that he could blame them for the country’s woes, he greatly restricted the media and often de-licensed and imprisoned leaders of opposition news networks. He also manipulated the judiciary to cover certain crime statistics and threatened judges with prison sentences if they acted independently of his wishes. Many businessmen, lawyers, bankers, and other upper-middle and upper class citizens have been forced to surrender large portions of their salaries and, in some cases, blatantly forced into exile in the United States or Europe.
Venezuela has the largest petroleum reserves in the Western Hemisphere and the US imports most of its oil from the South American country. Although the oil industry was nationalized in the 1970s, the extent of nationalization was not particularly strong and the industry was largely inefficient. However, once Chavez took office, he strengthened Venezuela’s ties to OPEC and “re-nationalized” the oil industry. These actions made it more difficult for the US to access cheap oil and Chavez was accused of violating the fundamentals of the free market.
Due to Chavez’s personality and his country’s oil reserves, he became an incredibly popular leader amongst other Latin American countries. However, this popularity also led to a phenomenon called “Chavismo” in which leaders, such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, have attempted to implement similar strong-arm tactics.
This Hugo Chavez is the one that most people bid farewell to this past Tuesday. However, there was another Hugo Chavez, the one who used his country’s vast oil reserves to reduce poverty and inequality, empower the majority, and help an entire continent survive the worst effects of economic imperialism. According to the World Bank, since 2004, poverty in Venezuela has been reduced by 50 percent and extreme poverty by 70 percent. University enrollment skyrocketed, and social services both strengthened and expanded.
According to the Gini coefficient, Venezuela has the lowest level of economic inequality in Latin America. Although many outside experts attribute Chavez’s sweeping elections victories to coercion, silencing of the opposition, and ballot manipulation, much of Chavez’s success at the polls is also due to the policies he has enacted to empower the majority. In a country that has a history of elite controlled democracy, the empowerment of the majority made Chavez an incredibly popular figure among the lower and working classes.
Chavez was also incredibly popular among the citizens and governments of other countries in the region. His overt criticisms of the United States helped other South American countries realize that the US-driven Washington Consensus was not the only way to economic development. Moreover, Chavez used his country’s oil revenue to help countries such as Bolivia and Argentina pay off the massive debts they amassed in the 1980s and 1990s. These funds enabled these governments to spend money on their citizens. He was instrumental in the establishment of the “new” Latin American left that has elected populist leaders that have stressed a more humane form of capitalism.
There is no doubt that Hugo Chavez manipulated, coerced, and corrupted certain aspects of Venezuelan society. Some of his actions regarding the creation of new constitutions and controlling the judiciary can be considered outright democratic. Silencing the opposition through coercion and the threat of violence is an example of corruption. These actions should neither be forgotten nor ignored in the wake of his death.
Whenever such a controversial figure dies, people always try to determine his/her legacy. In the week since his death, Chavez has been constantly portrayed as a radical dictator whose death will bring democracy back to Venezuela and re-open the country to foreign investment.
However, we must also recognize the significant accomplishments he achieved while he was in office. We must also remember that he was not a dictator, as he was democratically elected multiple times. The millions of Venezuelans and numerous Latin American heads of state that have turned out to mourn his death reinforce his support among the popular sector and show that his passing is not simply the death of a tyrant.