Dealing with Hugo Chavez’s Legacy

By Antoine Cerisier

Hero or Villain?

Hero or Villain?

On the evening of 5 March 2013, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the death of Hugo Chavez in Caracas. The President had been battling with cancer in Cuba and Venezuela for nearly two years. He came into office in 1999 as the first democratically elected leftwing leader in Latin America and remained President for over a decade. His funeral attracted more than 100,000 mourners, including many heads of state as well as American personalities such as Sean Penn and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Nicolas Maduro took over as interim President until an election is held on 14 April.

Two approaches have dominated the public debate on Hugo Chavez before and after his death. On the one hand, rightwing, neoliberal but also relatively moderate media demonised the former Venezuelan President as an evil Communist dictator with poor economic results; some zealous commentators even compared him to Stalin. Numerous newspapers and television channels have consistently overlooked Chavez’s record in poverty reduction and social justice. On the other hand, tearful accounts have praised him as an unprecedented Latin American hero; an inspiration for leftwing leaders across the globe; and a martyr for his country. My view is quite simple: both sides are wrong, although maybe not to equal extents. People often succumb to simplistic and Manichean reasoning with clear-cut categories – right and wrong, good and evil. However, I reject both interpretations as I think Hugo Chavez’s legacy must be demystified. To do so, we have to distinguish at least three separate areas of policymaking: politics and justice, economic policy and foreign affairs.

Chavez on 'Alo Presidente'

Chavez on ‘Alo Presidente’

A thorough assessment of the Chavez presidency reveals a nuanced picture. On justice and home affairs, the Venezuelan leader has often been criticised for undermining democracy and human rights. NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recently praised improvements in the treatment of women and indigenous people. Nonetheless, they also pointed to a flawed judicial system and frequent threats to freedom of expression. Political opponents were allegedly targeted by Hugo Chavez and his government. In 2010, Amnesty International claimed Venezuelan authorities “used the criminal justice system to punish criticism, producing an intimidating effect that extends to all of society”. Moreover, Chavez used the national media to promote his views and increase public support for the government. For instance, the President held long weekly talk shows called Aló Presidente to discuss his policies. But for all his flaws, the Venezuelan leader was democratically elected on several occasions between 1999 and 2012; most observers agreed the elections were free and fair. In short, Chavez’s Venezuela is a rather flawed democracy – but a democracy nonetheless – with a sometimes excessive cult of personality.

Venezuelan oil: A poisonous gift

Venezuelan oil: A poisonous gift

Hugo Chavez has a more positive record on the economy. Even his detractors have to acknowledge his government’s remarkable achievements in social justice. According to the United Nations, the poverty rate was halved in the course of his fourteen-year presidency. The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, dropped by 22 per cent to reach 0.39 in 2011. This is higher than most European countries but well below the United States and the Latin American average. Furthermore, malnutrition has fallen from 21 to 6 percent during Chavez’s presidency. The Venezuelan leader also spent more money on health and education than any of his predecessors, resulting in significant progress in healthcare and literacy. However, critics have pointed to several weaknesses of the Venezuelan economy in recent years. The country relies heavily on fossil fuels and produces more oil than Norway or Angola. This helped Venezuela achieve consistently high growth rates, especially in the years preceding the global economic downturn. Chavez has done well to nationalise natural resources and use oil dividends to fund his social programmes. Nevertheless, the country remains highly dependent on oil exports – hence its relatively slow recovery since the financial crisis, as opposed to some of its neighbours. Besides, the government has failed to diversify the economy and still relies on other Latin American states for foodstuff and manufactured products. The result is a more equal but highly unstable country with very high inflation rates. Finally, violence and insecurity persist despite apparent social progress. Caracas has become the world’s most dangerous capital city with a homicide rate surpassing 200 per 100,000 inhabitants; this figure was only 23 in Bogota and 14 in São Paulo, both known for their crime problems.

Dangerous Liaisons

Dangerous Liaisons

Hugo Chavez’s foreign policy has received considerable attention since he came into office. Under his presidency, Venezuela became a strong regional power and contributed to the Latin America’s long-awaited independence from the United States. Indeed, Chavez fostered regional integration and bilateral trade with Venezuela’s neighbours and was a vocal opponent of George W. Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy. While the late President should be praised for these efforts, some of his foreign policy choices were much more controversial. Despite Iran’s theocratic regime and blatant denial of human rights, he developed strong ties with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was present – and ostensibly crying – at his funeral. Chavez also supported Muammar al-Gaddafi until the Libyan dictator’s death in 2011. He made several trips to Libya during his presidency and called Gaddafi “a great fighter, revolutionary and martyr” after he was captured and killed by the National Transitional Council.

In sum, Hugo Chavez is best described as an influential, charismatic and democratically elected leader who drastically reduced poverty, inequality and malnutrition in Venezuela. However, his record is stained by authoritarian tendencies and dubious alliances with foreign dictators. In that regard, other Latin American leaders – such as Lula in Brazil – may well deserve more praise than the provocative Venezuelan President. Will Chavez’s successor follow his path or engage in deep reforms of governance and foreign policy? It remains to be seen. In any case, the legacy of Hugo Chavez provides a compelling lesson for the global left. Indeed, it has often been attracted to charismatic and seemingly messianic figures without much concern for critical thinking or objectivity. For instance, numerous French left-wing intellectuals called themselves ‘Maoists’ in the late 1960s – largely ignoring the Great Leap Forward’s disastrous human toll. Of course, Chavez was no Mao Zedong. But progressives across the globe would do well to engage in thorough self-criticism: the left should not rely on provocative leaders to make its voice heard.

  1. senex72 said:

    Well I do not think it makes much sense to criticise Chavez for seeking to control US interference or for having to exist in the instabilities of ‘global’ oligarchic looting. He succeeded in the face of an almost universally hostile press that serves the super-rich; and he called Obama’s bluff by showing that it is possible for an economy mired in global trade to also sustain social welfare improvements. He also seems to have been instrumental in leading parts of Latin America out of the slaughter-house politics that marked (and still marks Mexico?) under the shadow of US dominance.

    As for the Aid agencies, the rights movements etc they have lost all credibility since they have been subsumed as a division of the Western/American ‘war without end’ against national partisans; often survive only in the shelter of army-protected bunkers; and plead for the rights of Hutu murderers, attack Ecuador (the only country to help Wikileaks against US/UK attack) etc. One thing Chavez need never have feared is criticism from the likes of them.

    • Antoine said:

      I agree with that account, although I think your take one NGOs – Amnesty International especially – may be a bit harsh. Nonetheless, the argument I presented above still holds: Chavez’s record is stained by the weaknesses of the Venezuelan economy & more importantly by his support for Iranian and Libyan dictators – clearly not the right strategy to counter U.S. dominance

  2. Tom worthy said:

    Generally reasonable piece, but you have not factored in the destabilising pressure Venezuela has been under from the US. Most notably, the US government supported an attempted coup against Chavez in 2002, but he was essentially restored due to popular support. Here’s a good account of this, the documentary ‘The Revolution Must Not be Televised’. Various channels also sponsored the opposition candidate Radonski, a representative of the oligarchy who previously held power in Venezuela, who was involved in the coup. Given the history and continued threat of imperialism, what Venezuela has achieved is nothing short of amazing. You’d also be hard pressed to find another post-colonial country who has successfully diversified from oil dependence – or a western economist who has solved this problem.

    Alo Presidente is a pretty amazing thing if you ask me – he didn’t simply ‘use the show to discuss his policies’, he would take questions from basically any member of the public who phoned in, rendering himself accountable and directly in touch with the public. If that’s not democracy I don’t know what is. You also portrayed this as him dominating the media, whereas the vast majority is still dominated by the same elites (and was effectively mobilised in the coup, as you’ll see in the documentary). They regularly describe him as ‘monkey’ in reference to his African heritage. And very few of these media have been shut down, whereas they would in a second in Europe.

    I would argue that Venezuela is more ‘democratic’ on any understanding of the term than most, if not all European countries. The policies implemented and the direction in which the country is going are generally supported by the majority of the public (though not the elites, obviously) – increased education and healthcare, reducing infant mortality, for example – whereas in somewhere like Britain, or the United States, virtually the opposite happens. Think bank bailouts, cuts, privatisation of health care, etc.

    On Gaddafi, of course he should respect the contribution of Gaddafi to progressive anti-imperialist movements around the world. Support for the ANC and funding Mandela’s election campaign, for example. You’re coming at that from the perspective of either France or Britain – two countries than illegally invaded Libya! Libya’s a warzone now, whereas it had previously enjoyed the highest standard of living (Human Development Index) on the African continent. You should ask some Africans what they think about Gaddafi. The majority of Libyan people were dramatically opposed to NATO’s bombing and siege of their country, as you can see here (excuse the silly music). Some research on that questions would be beneficial before judging Chavez’s international links as ‘dangerous liaisons,’ I would argue this kind of prejudice is very dangerous indeed.

    If by ‘the left’ you’re talking about the European left, they could learn a hell of a lot from Chavez. The left in Europe has basically accepted Thatcherism/neoliberalism (read deindustrialisation and capitulation to financial oligarchy) as the only way forward. It’s a pathetic mess with no ideas of its own. I would like to see a far more provocative left rather than a submissive, defeated, uninspired one.

    • Antoine said:

      A lot of good points here – including your last paragraph on the European left. But I would not say that Venezuela is the world’s most ideal democracy. As I mentioned in my article, NGOs such as Amnesty pointed to some of the flaws of the Venezuelan political regime, including a weak judicial system. However, to Chavez’s credit, this existed before he was elected and numerous countries face the same problem.

      I disagree with your take on Gaddafi. I was not writing from the perspective of “either France or Britain” – I usually try to be as impartial as possible.You are right to criticise NATO’s intervention – I would too – but that does not mean giving any credit to Gaddafi. And he did support the ANC and fought against Islamic fundamentalists. The country’s HDI score reflects its huge oil revenues which account for more than 80% of GDP, along with a very small population compared to Libya’s size and natural resources. Gadaffi did make some progress on social security and education, but unemployment was at a record high before he left – not to mention endemic corruption & a huge dependence on oil revenues. And he was not a peaceful democratic leader, far from it: remember his armed forces often used torture and opened fire on protesters in Benghazi during the recent civil war. Amnesty & other organisations recognised that many of the accusations against the Libyan leader were ill-founded; but that does not make him a “martyr” or a great “revolutionary” as Chavez claimed.
      Besides, his strong & unequivocal support for both Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad was much more problematic. Those are clearly authoritarian leaders, one presiding over a brutal theocracy, the other leading one of the most repressive states in the Arab world: the Syrian regime holds political prisoners, controls the media and massacred tens of thousands of rebels and civilians in the past two years. Chavez reiterated his support for the Syrian leader as late as 2012, despite the latter’s dismal human rights record. Let’s face it, Bashar al-Assad is not an anti-imperialist hero, he’s a murderer – or am I wrong & brainwased about him too? Praising such leaders – not to mention Putin, another ally – is an insult to those imprisoned, tortured or killed in Syria, Russia and elsewhere.

      This is symptomatic of a provocative, simplistic and Manichean foreign policy to counterbalance American power: any enemy of US imperialism was considered by Chavez as a friend, even brutal dictators like al-Assad – hence the ‘dangerous liaisons’. I’m not implying that Western leaders were necessarily more virtuous – some of them supported Arab dictators before the revolutions. But praising Chavez for his controversial choices in foreign policy and other areas, with no place for critical thinking, just gives credit to detractors of the Latin American left and could prove a dangerous strategic mistake.

  3. mijj said:

    thumbs up for @senex72

  4. Nice, thank you. I don’t think the two important approaches are “leftwing leaders” vs. “rightwing neoliberal” – there’s many people who don’t see the Venezuelan problem as a political one but rather as a matter of basic human rights. Just next door we also had a “influential, charismatic and democratically elected leader who drastically reduced poverty, inequality and malnutrition” and violence. Uribe was on the opposite site of the political spectrum. I think the main problem with him, as with Chavez, is not the objectives or achievements that you have mentioned but rather the means they use. If you agree that the goals don’t justify the means I’d take a closer look at the justice part, I think it’s quite a stretch to call Venezuelan elections democratic.

    • Antoine said:

      Thank you Andres for your response. I don’t think Alvaro Uribe reduced poverty and inequality as much as Chavez did; actually I’m pretty sure he did not. Regarding the means, do you have more information on the legitimacy of Chavez’s multiple elections? You seem to imply these were not “free and fair” elections.

  5. Zalina said:

    Hi! My name is Zalina and I am in 10th grade, I was wondering if you could help me with one of my history homework questions, the question is To what degree has a commitment to social justice been significant in creating Canada today? (based on economic inequality) If you can help, please email me!

  6. mijj said:

    the US has a lot to learn about democracy. The US version of democracy is little more than theater and propaganda to prop up the established, behind-the-scenes corporate dictatorship.

    Any Americans wondering where they might look for lessons in democracy might check out Venezuela.

    Here’s a clue: A democracy empowers the people, it doesn’t exclude the people from power (as in the US version of theatrical “democracy”)

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