By Alejandro Armengol*
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
(*) Originally published in Spanish by cubaencuentro.com