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4 ways of judging Hugo Chavez

March 5, 2013, at 11:28 PM
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks during a rally in Maracay on July 1, 2012.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks during a rally in Maracay on July 1, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Death has a way of canonizing even the worst scoundrels. But Hugo Chavez, the recently departed president of Venezuela, is one of those unique, almost ahistorical figures who polarizes, even in repose. 

If you are an American foreign policy official or buy in to the Washington consensus, you view Chavez through the dichotomy of stability versus instability. Was he, fundamentally, a "stable force for the region?" In Washington, the world is broken up into regions largely dictated by the geography of the Cold War bureaucracy. Washington prizes stability above all else because stability does not impede the free flow of commerce or upset the balance of powers or force the U.S. to shift its resources. The verdict is clear: he was not. Forget his anti-American posturing. He was fundamentally destabilizing. (Mike Rogers, the House intelligence committee chairman, used that exact phrase today.)

If you're a social liberal, someone whose core system of valuation judges a leader on the basis of how many people he helped and lives he prolonged, Chavez comes out pretty well. He nationalized the state's oil industry and redistributed wealth to the poor. Human beings improved their lot because of Chavez. We can ignore this and focus on his poke-in-the-eye friendships with American enemies, but in doing so we significantly devalue the idea that human beings deserve food, water, shelter and health care. 

Of course, his means were populist and authoritarian. As a civil libertarian, you find Chavez fairly reprehensible. He bullied the press. He terrorized his political enemies. He had little regard for the rule of law. He created an internal police state. A total louche. He was elected democratically and leaves no democratic legacy.

If you're an economic liberal who generally gets along with the worldview of The Economist, he was a disaster for the future of Venezuela's economic growth. His successor will probably have to re-privatize in order to keep the government afloat. Inflation is high, deficits are enormous, and the system of support he created for the poor is fraying. 

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