The Legacy of Hugo Chavez

By Alejandro Armengol*

El retiro de la imagen del fallecido presidente venezolano Hugo Chávez trae de nuevo a la actualidad el debate sobre su legado. Foto: telesurtv.net
The portraits of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez were ordered removed this week from the National Assembly. Photo: telesurtv.net

HAVANA TIMES — After the portraits of the late Hugo Chavez were removed from Venezuela’s National Assembly this week, the question of his legacy as president appears revived. That, unquestionably, is what’s in question: if Chavez managed to transcend his time, to set a new standard for his country or alter the course of the nation definitively, his significance is not circumscribed to his political party.

If he was what we could consider a patriot, a category closer in spirit to the 19th rather than the 21st century but still somewhat current, particularly in Latin America, there are reasons to suggest the measure was hasty – something not unlike the taking of war booty – and that time will one day rectify the mistake. If, despite the brief span of time that has elapsed since his demise, Chavez left a mark in the country so deep that he deserves to be immortalized, then the measure was definitely hasty.

Furthermore, the matter goes beyond the argument – or excuse – that a country must differentiate between the legislature and the executive. That premise would be completely valid if we were talking about a portrait of the current Venezuelan leader, Nicolas Maduro, and what the removal of Chavez’ portrait ultimately puts into question is the foundational nature of the latter’s figure. Thus, this displacement takes on a symbolic significance more closely related to that of the toppling of monuments at a certain point in the history of France, the former Soviet Union or Cuba than to the change of official portraits that regularly takes place in the government offices of many countries. The question as to Chavez’ legacy, therefore, remains open.

A mural to Chavez on the outskirts of Havana.
A mural to Chavez on the outskirts of Havana.  Photo: juventudrebelde.cu

National and Latin American hero, mystical caudillo, a near-saintly martyr: Chavez tried to be all of this. And he managed to be each of these things at one point, though not fully. Which of these facets will survive the passage of time? Will his enormous popularity at the time of his death persist over time? Do the images of the thousands of Venezuelans who accompanied his coffin, in a procession that covered more than five kilometers, have more than a merely circumstantial value?

His popularity at the time may be an important fact, but that does not guarantee a legacy. Thus, ultimately, we must ask only one question: was Chavez more than an idea, a project (so as not to judge him too severely) or quite simply a passing ill? The answer, whatever it is, may depend on a broad range of factors, including personal considerations, but, with Chavez, there was always a personal rather than a definitive mark.

Fusing the martyr and the hero into one became one of post-Chavismo’s concerted efforts after Chavez’ death. The reason is simple: because, as of that moment, what has come to an end today with the dramatic drop in oil prices became clearer, that the aims of the late leader were always fulfilled halfway, that the military man was able to win elections but did not manage to transform the country, and that the Bolivarian ideal he held up is dying every day in Latin America and Venezuela.

Fidel Castro was the chief advisor of Hugo Chavez. Foto: cubadebate.cu
Fidel Castro was the chief advisor of Hugo Chavez. Foto: cubadebate.cu

Now, we can say that illness became, not the obstacle that prevented Chavez from fulfilling his goals, but the instrument of his transformation, from warrior to martyr. Chavez, then, will likely be closer to Eva Peron than the much-admired Simon Bolivar, an obliged reference for the poor, the object of worship, veneration and remembrance.

If Chavez were alive today! His followers are again voicing this, more the stuff of dreams for the poor who continue to exist in the country, of little substance for history and politics.

This is due, in good measure, to the fact that his plans and measures always lacked consistency and depth. It was all more show than action.

If Chavez left his followers any legacy, it was the kind of idolatry that doesn’t get much done and is incapable of decisive action. The fact his portrait was removed from the National Assembly with impunity is proof of this.

Chavez, who always fancied himself Bolivar’s and Fidel Castro’s heir (even with respect to becoming ill) ended up becoming the male version of Evita: a lot of fanfare but little essence. Crumbs for the poor and delusions of grandeur. His charisma relied on political and historical circumstances and on grandiloquent gestures.

As in Evita’s case, cancer put an end to a political career bathed in multitudes.

Chavez with US filmmaker Oliver Stone.

Chavez embodied the updated version of the Latin American caudillo. He was the bigwig, the one who took up people’s complaints and demands, their simple and absurd petitions, a capricious and volatile person who was both merciless and unjust, a human being who acted as though blessed with the omnipotence of a god, someone who didn’t leave behind hundreds of corpses or thousands of tortured persons but who also never had any qualms about being dictatorial, or about threatening a foreign journalist with death when the latter proved a nuisance, to mention one example. He aspired to become a myth, to be close to and present in Latin America till 2030, the 200th anniversary of Bolivar’s death. He ended up dying the same day as Joseph Stalin, 60 years before.

If, as Isaiah Berlin sentenced, the Russian revolution violently distanced Western society from what had, till then, struck all observers as a fairly orderly path and imposed on the country an irregular movement, followed by a dramatic collapse, Latin American populisms have done nothing other than prolong or prevent the continent’s economic and social development. Impelled by the imperfections and failures of the neoliberal model in the region, there has emerged a practice that limits itself to measures promising to distribute the bread today and end up bringing more misery and thwarting effective reforms tomorrow.

Chavez was ultimately dreadful, not only for Venezuela, but for Cuba as well, and his interventions and petro-dollars served to delay all attempts at “reforms” on the island.

Chavez with the new Venezuelan constitution.

When oil prices were at their highest, the late Venezuelan leader destined large sums of money to Latin America to extend his influence across the region, rather than devote a considerable part of that wealth to improving Venezuela’s industries and impelling the country’s economic growth. It is estimated that, from his arrival to power in 1999 to 2011, Chavez destined somewhere between US US $18 and 25 billion to international projects, which always combined economic interests with political ambitions.

Greatness and thirst for political domination coupled with tweeness: from paying Argentina’s and Ecuador’s debt to the International Monetary Fund to financing a popular samba festival in Brazil. He even subsidized a program in the United States providing heating fuel for Philadelphia’s poor. Sometimes, his meddling in the internal affairs of other nations was downright coarse, as when he threatened to break ties with Peru if Alan Garcia was reelected.

In cases like that of Peru, such meddling was ultimately counterproductive, to say the least.

According to The Economist, a survey conducted at the time by the firm Apollo revealed that only 17 % of Peruvians had a favorable opinion of Chavez, 75% condemned his comments during the country’s electoral race and 61% objected to his comments about Toledo, whom he called a “traitor” for signing a free trade agreement with the United States.

Peru is the third largest nation in size in Latin America, has a population of 27 million, of which 80 percent is indigenous or mixed-race, and a poverty level of 52%. The demographic indices clearly demonstrated that Chavez was being repudiated by the majority of the nation’s poor, whom the Venezuelan leader claimed to defend.

Beyond taking advantage of high oil prices, Caracas never had a viable economic project for the region. Chavez was always a circumstantial force that held back economic and political development and rifted nations apart. While Chavez continued to sell his oil in the US market, he accused those governments that sought to trade with his main source of revenues of being traitors.

Hugo Chavez with his daughters during the last days of his fight for life. Photo: telesurtv.net
Hugo Chavez with his daughters during the last days of his fight for life. Photo: telesurtv.net

Venezuela’s oil boom bolstered exports of consumer products made in the United States or manufactured at one of the subsidiaries that large American corporations have scattered across the world, to the befit of domestic and foreign businesspeople. The “socialism of the 21st century” was proclaimed loudly at pro-Chavez rallies while more and more planes loaded with goods left Miami, headed for Caracas.

This whole anti-imperialist farce and the absence of true economic development, which would have allowed for an improvement in the standard of living of the population beyond the help afforded by the limited redistribution of wealth and a bettering of services for the most underprivileged (something we must acknowledge as one of the few achievements of Chavismo) began to collapse early on, when the price of oil was still sky-high, owing to corruption, larceny and lack of experience.

It became worse over time with Chavez’ illness and, when Nicolas Maduro came to power, it acquired the dimensions of a national disaster. The fall in oil prices has only made evident the absurdity of an unsustainable economic, social and political model.

Chavez, therefore, deserves the fate due to him: to be remembered as an unfortunate moment in Venezuela’s history. Rather than the object of worship and nostalgia, his portrait should become a needed warning for the country’s future.
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(*) Originally published in Spanish by cubaencuentro.com


22 thoughts on “The Legacy of Hugo Chavez

  • January 14, 2016 at 12:45 pm
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    He’s not my President. I’m Canadian.

    The Geneva Convention distinguishes between lawful & unlawful combatants. The Gitmo prisoners are unlawful combatants. Under international law, ie. the Geneva Conventions on War, they are not entitled to trials in ordinary criminal courts. I support keeping these bad guys locked up.

    I do not support the use of torture on them. Nor do I support the well documented use of torture by the Castro regime against political prisoners, or even against terrorists who have attacked Cuba.

    The hypocrites in this discussion are those who condemn the US practices in Gitmo, (which occurred during a brief period of time), but who turn a blind eye to similar and worse practices under the Castro regime, which have continued since 1959.

  • January 13, 2016 at 6:58 am
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    P.s your President agrees with me about Gitmo.

  • January 13, 2016 at 6:57 am
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    Look, it’s quite simple. When you have domestic and international law, like the Geneva convention on prisoners of war etc, these rules apply to everyone; that includes enemies, terrorists and other unpleasant people (like many of those who are or were in GItmo). GItmo is not a normal prison & basically every human rights group (the same ones who report on Cuba’s dictatorial actions) and most governments have criticised & opposed Gitmo; prisoners have been tortured/imprisoned for years without trial etc. and the US political establishment has essentially admitted this but claims this torture provided them with ‘evidence’. Now if you want to defend torture that is fine, I don’t. I’ve no need to defend what people in Gitmo (and the torture prisons ‘black sites’ run by the CIA post 9/11 & actions in Iraq etc) may have done; some of them are guilty of heinous crimes, although some aren’t (e.g British guy released recently without charge after 10 years from Gitmo). The hypocrisy is the people who defend a torture site and illegal prison (regardless of who is there) run by the USA on Cuba; yet at the same time criticise the Cuban regime for imprisonment, claims of torture, lack of free speech etc. Either you oppose all cases of torture and imprisonment without fair trial which go against international law, or you are a hypocrite.

    I ask you what I asked before and didn’t get an answer to; would you say it’s okay for the Castro’s to imprison & torture, Gitmo style, the Miami based CIA sponsored terrorist groups who blew up that passenger plane in the 80s? Or the those who in the past set off bombs killing people? Or those poisoning milk and assassinating random figures during Operation Mongoose? Either Gitmo style imprisonmen, interrogation and torture is okay for everyone to do or nobody. And I say torture is wrong by everybody, no matter the crime.

  • January 13, 2016 at 6:33 am
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    Oh look, you oppose torture therefore you must support the people being toetured; great logic. Look, it’s quite simple. When you have domestic and international law, like the Geneva convention on prisoners of war etc, these rules apply to everyone; that includes enemies, terrorists and other unpleasant people (like many of those who are or were in GItmo). GItmo is not a normal prison & basically every human rights group (the same ones who report on Cuba’s dictatorial actions) and most governments have criticised & opposed Gitmo; prisoners have been tortured/imprisoned for years without trial etc. and the US political establishment has essentially admitted this but claims this torture provided them with ‘evidence’. Now if you want to defend torture that is fine, I don’t. I’ve no need to defend what people in Gitmo (and the torture prisons ‘black sites’ run by the CIA post 9/11 & actions in Iraq etc) may have done; some of them are guilty of heinous crimes, although some aren’t (e.g British guy released recently without charge after 10 years from Gitmo). The hypocrisy is the people who defend a torture site and illegal prison (regardless of who is there) run by the USA on Cuba; yet at the same time criticise the Cuban regime for imprisonment, claims of torture, lack of free speech etc. Either you oppose all cases of torture and imprisonment without fair trial which go against international law, or you are a hypocrite.

    I ask you what I asked before and didn’t get an answer to; would you say it’s okay for the Castro’s to imprison & torture, Gitmo style, the Miami based CIA sponsored terrorist groups who blew up that passenger plane in the 80s? Or the those who in the past set off bombs killing people? Or those poisoning milk and assassinating random figures during Operation Mongoose? Either Gitmo style imprisonmen, interrogation and torture is okay for everyone to do or nobody. And I say torture is wrong by everybody, no matter the crime.

  • January 12, 2016 at 10:58 pm
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    He died to soon and his courage will never be forgotten, he served God well and so has Cuba.
    Mysterious ways of God are hard to understand but cannot be denied Venezuela was served well
    as was the BRICS he inspired just add mortar to keep the BRICS together and inspire the rest of the world to be more like CUBA. or die trying on to the next world for the worthy souls true to God like HUGO!
    Thank You

  • January 12, 2016 at 9:16 am
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    “….Say to my face”? Why John, are you calling me out? Please stop embarrassing yourself. You know nothing about me.

    Although you hate to hear this, capitalism has done more to raise people out of poverty than anything else in human history. Wherever Capitalism takes root living standards rise. As an article in the National Review from 2013 says; “One can simply look at the difference between countries that embrace free-market capitalism, to varying degrees, and those with rigid state-controlled economies. Recall the classic comparisons between East and West Germany before the Wall fell, or now, between North and South Korea.”
    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/358771/capitalisms-triumph-michael-tanner

    Here are some other thoughts on the subject by some folks who know a thing or two
    http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578665-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-extreme-poverty-20-years-world-should-aim

    Even Bono agrees that capitalism takes people out of poverty “Aid is just a stopgap,” he said. “Commerce [and] entrepreneurial capitalism take more people out of poverty than aid”
    http://blog.independent.org/2013/08/12/bono-capitalism-takes-more-people-out-of-poverty-than-aid/

    …So John, As always your analysis, if you can cal it that, is completely wrong.

    As for Venezuela, Here is a great analysis showing how poverty rates are shooting up in Venezuela with more than 1 in 3 Venezuelans living in poverty. As stated in the article: “Ultimately, Chavismo’s “victory” against poverty is just rhetoric. What little gains there were in terms of poverty were due to a government that turned an oil boom into a transient consumption boom. That phase is now over, and poverty is reverting to its long-run trend.”
    http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/06/04/poverty-shoots-up-in-venezuela/

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