The United States’ biggest bogeyman dictator remaining, Hugo Chávez, has died of cancer at age 58. His status as our most feared repressive ruler says something about the state of the world today because by any reasonable accounts he was neither all that repressive nor that big of a challenge to the US. Even the amount he was feared was greatly exaggerated as a badge of honor by this man of the people. Yet his passing is extremely important in that it probably marks a new phase in the continuing progress of Latin America.
Why did we fear Chávez, if we did at all? What will come next? Most of it has been show so far, but in typical South American fashion it was a pretty good show. This one may have some lasting and even positive effects.
Hugo Chávez was always a man of the people in this nation unreasonably impoverished despite great wealth. His first attempt at a coup in 1992 landed him in jail, but his popularity saw him released from jail in 1994 and elected President in 1998. From there, he sought to re-make his nation as a truly socialist commonwealth, the Bolivaran Republic of Venezuela. The constitution was overhauled by 2000 and a system of social programs funded by massive oil exports (the fourth largest exporter to the US) was installed.
“After many readings, debates, discussions, travels around the world, etcetera, I am convinced — and I believe this conviction will be for the rest of my life — that the path to a new, better and possible world is not capitalism. The path is socialism!”
Chávez was not without his critics, of course. Opposition radio and television was routinely banned, and leaders who took him on were often targets of investigation on dubious charges. Even his supporters sometimes wondered where all the money was going, wondering why there was not more general improvement in conditions for the people of Venezuela. Part of the problem was that those with money routinely took it out of the country, depositing it in the US and often fleeing themselves – Miami developed an active anti- Chávez community during this time.
It is hard to call him a “dictator”, however, no matter how much power he concentrated in his own hands. A 2007 referendum that would have ceded absolute control to him failed handily and Chávez respected the results. He was only willing to go so far.
What mattered most, however, was the show and bluster – which had far more positive effect than most in the US will ever understand. Chávez, like his idol Simón Bolívar, stood for regional independence and cooperation. No longer did anyone have to take orders from Washington. That message resonated well and has at least partially defined leftist governments in Ecuador and, to a lesser extent, Brazil. The growing success of the region does owe some debt to Chávez. As Jimmy Carter said in a lengthy statement:
Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chávez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen. President Chávez will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment. During his 14-year tenure, Chávez joined other leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean to create new forms of integration.
That’s pretty strong praise for our biggest bogeyman. Yet for all the talk some kind of war with the US, we remained his largest trading partner and we kept our hands off his government. Hatred of Chávez was always tempered by the simple, practical realization that he did a lot of good both in Venezuela and the region.
For my own part, I have never known what to make of the man. The over-the-top abuse of the name of Bolívar bothered me as a deep admirer of this great man. I also wondered how it was in the interests of an impoverished nation to pull oil out of the ground and load it into ships for quick cash when there was so much value to be added – as plastics and the raw materials of many industries employing millions. The clear abuses of free speech and free assembly were simply wrong. But for all of that, something had to be done to organize South America and lift it up, and that did happen.
With his passing Chávez leaves behind a terrible power vacuum that could yet rip Venezuela apart. The long stifled opposition will certainly seize its chance and try to make something happen. We can all only hope that it is peaceful and democratic – and that the region as a whole comes together now that the polarizing force is gone.
Rest in peace, Hugo Chávez. Bless you all, Venezuela.