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Venezuela's Hugo Chavez dies: 5 ways to look at his legacy
The controversial leader was a champion of the poor, a ruthless strongman, and a consummate showman
 
Hugo Chavez: Hero or monster?
Hugo Chavez: Hero or monster? Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

On Tuesday, the Venezuelan government announced that President Hugo Chavez, the country's longtime leader, had died at the age of 58 following a battle with cancer. Chavez was an intensely polarizing figure in both his native land and around the world, simultaneously praised as an anti-imperialist revolutionary and condemned as a power-hungry authoritarian who was leading Latin America down a dangerous path toward socialism. One need look no further than the headlines to get a taste of Chavez's convoluted legacy: The Los Angeles Times proclaimed, "President Hugo Chavez, hero to Venezuela's poor, is dead," while Bloomberg reported, "Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's anti-U.S. socialist leader, dies." Here, five ways to look at his legacy:

1. He was a champion of the poor
Upon coming to power in 1998 elections, Chavez embarked on a socialist overhaul — or Bolivarian Revolution as he called it, after independence hero Simon Bolivar — of Venezuela's economy, which lifted millions out of poverty through redistribution of the country's oil wealth. According to Chris Kraul and Mery Mogollon at The Los Angeles Times:

Chavez won the lower classes' support by redistributing the nation's vast oil wealth through welfare programs called missions, which set up medical clinics and schools, operated a chain of cut-rate grocery stores, and divvied up nationalized farms and ranches among cooperatives of the impoverished.

Daniel Hellinger, a political science professor at Webster University in St. Louis, said the welfare programs reduced Venezuela's poverty rate from close to 80 percent in the 1990s to about 20 percent, and wiped out illiteracy.

"To millions of poor Venezuelans excluded from meaningful participation in politics, Chavez offered hope for a new kind of democracy that would open doors of government to them," Hellinger said. "However much the system fell short of that aspiration, it was Chavez who gave voice to it." [Los Angeles Times]

2. He was a divisive, charismatic figure
Chavez's supporters adoringly referred to him as El Comandante, a man of the people who had an instinctive flair for channeling their fears and aspirations. As Charlie Devereux and Daniel Cancel write at Bloomberg:

Like his mentor [Fidel] Castro, Chavez could captivate followers during six-hour improvised monologues during which he sang, toured socialist farming co-operatives, criticized ministers for inefficiency, and told stories about his days as a tank battalion leader. [Bloomberg]

But to his detractors, he was a power-mad caudillo ("strongman") and an insufferable blowhard to boot. Ian James and Frank Bajak at The Associated Press write:

His opponents seethed at the larger-than-life character who demonized them on television and ordered the expropriation of farms and businesses. Many in the middle class cringed at his bombast and complained about rising crime, soaring inflation, and government economic controls. [Associated Press]

But there was no doubt over how Chavez felt about himself: He was the father of the nation. "I am no longer just me, I am a people," he said during his presidential campaign last year. "I feel incarnated in all of you.... You, too, are Chavez. Chavez has truly become a people."

3. He was a megalomaniacal authoritarian
Chavez, a populist through and through, enjoyed the overwhelming support of the country's poor, and was re-elected numerous times with a majority of the vote. But he was also accused of centralizing power in his office, or more accurately around his cult of personality. As Simon Romero at The New York Times writes:

At the same time, he was determined to hold on to and enhance his power. He grew obsessed with changing Venezuela's laws and regulations to ensure that he could be re-elected indefinitely and become, indeed, a caudillo, able to rule by decree at times. He celebrated his past as a military officer and stacked his government with generals, colonels, and majors, drawing inspiration from the leftist military officers who ruled Peru and Panama in the 1970s.

A bizarre governing apparatus subject to his whims coalesced around him. State television cameras recorded nearly every public appearance, many of them to make surprise, unscripted announcements, often in his military uniform and paratrooper's red beret. He might rail against Venezuela's high consumption of Scotch whisky — he did not drink alcohol, his aides said — or its high demand for breast augmentation surgery. He once stunned citizens by decreeing a new time zone for the nation, a half-hour behind its previous one. Fawning cabinet ministers sat through his televised lectures as he browbeat them over unfulfilled objectives. [New York Times]

4. He was an anti-American crusader
Chavez was the de facto leader of a leftist bloc of Latin American countries that sought to curb the U.S.'s influence in the region. "Chavez said that he wouldn't rest until Bolivar's dream of a Latin America united and independent from foreign powers was realized," write Bloomberg's Cancel and Devereux, tapping into a deep-seated resentment born from a long history of Western imperialism and the U.S.'s support of anti-Communist regimes in the 1980s.

But Chavez's anti-Americanism didn't really flower until 2002, when the Bush administration appeared to support a botched coup against him. Jon Lee Anderson at The New Yorker explains:

Chavez never forgave the Americans. Thereafter, his anti-American rhetoric became more heated, and whenever possible he sought to discomfit Washington. Chavez closed U.S. military liaison offices in Venezuela, and ended cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Even earlier, in 2000, Chavez had flown to Baghdad for a friendly visit with Saddam Hussein. Later on, in his avowed ambition to weaken the U.S. imperio and create a "multipolar world," he would go on to embrace others with similarly anti-American stances: Iran's Ahmadinejad was one, Belarus's Lukashenko was another. He invited Vladimir Putin to send his navy to do exercises in Venezuelan waters, and to sell him weapons. And there was his increasingly chummy, and dependent, relationship with Fidel Castro. [New Yorker]

Chavez's animosity toward Bush was most memorably expressed during a 2006 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, when he thundered, "Yesterday, ladies and gentleman, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman whom I refer to as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world."

5. He left behind a wounded economy
Although Chavez won the hearts of the poor by nationalizing oil assets and spreading Venezuela's oil wealth, the economy has suffered from inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of investment in sectors other than energy. Venezuela's economy is currently characterized by double-digit inflation and food shortages, while crime has spiked. Indeed, the great economic success story of the last decade in Latin America has been Brazil, which has combined free-market incentives with much-admired socialist policies that are aimed at lifting people out of poverty. As The New Yorker's Anderson writes:

In the region, it was not Venezuela but Brazil, finally emergent from its slumber as a regional economic and political powerhouse, that began to fill that vacuum. Brazil's last leader, Lula, who was also a left-wing populist, also made "the people" and poverty alleviation a priority of his administration, and, with a better management team and without all the polarizing confrontation with the imperio, he succeeded to an impressive degree. [New Yorker]

In that respect, the legacy of Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution in the region may have already been eclipsed.

 

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