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.
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.
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.
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.