Hugo Chavez has for over a decade been a constant in my life. Months after arriving in Argentina with my family, and already having to grapple with the ramifications of the country’s economic meltdown, I was following reports of a botched coup on the other end of the continent in April 2002. In 2003 I saw street protests against Chavez organised by the Venezuelan diaspora in Miami. On a brief visit to Cuba in 2006, I could witness for myself the strength of his appeal and influence elsewhere. Later returning to Argentina, the infamous maletinazo and the Kirchners’ increasing reliance on Caracas for debt relief and political clout. Throughout my time in Latin America and since, across it and beyond, Hugo Chavez has been the face of a continent for decades shorn of unifying guidance or inspiration, identifiable to the outside world.
There is no easy way of commenting on a man I felt I could neither lionise nor repudiate. It always struck me how polarised any portrayal of the man could be, wherever it were in the world, however wafer-thin one’s knowledge of Venezuela and the region were. In my first week at university in Europe, I couldn’t bring myself to join the left-leaning society, whose freshers’ table was decked with pamphlets proclaiming the virtues of the most misunderstood country on earth. Perhaps that was premature on my part, but neither could I stand for the notion of a madcap Third-World Caribbean Marxist dictator often spouted in my proximity. Was it really that simple?
There was much I admired about Chavez. The near-eradication of illiteracy in a country with some of the western hemisphere’s poorest educational standards constitutes a superhuman achievement in my book. Likewise shredding extreme poverty in a matter of years, the expansion of public healthcare and enshrinement of the rights of indigenous communities through constitutional reform and efforts at land distribution. Some misiones bolivarianas fared better than others, some social crusades endowed with better resources than others. But the model provided an attractive template, mirrored by the likes of Lula’s Brazil and drawing widespread admiration across Latin America. In a continent of such common cultural capital yet beset by trivial political differences, few if any leaders of such universal dynamism and potential have emerged. Chavez successfully articulated a vision far removed from decades of American backing for military juntas and the Washington Consensus, ushering in an era of leftist politics unparalleled in the rest of the world. The claim he legitimised his agenda through free and fair elections is a largely valid one.
There were negatives aplenty. An obscure, swollen family fortune, the emergence of the boligarcas and the nepotism permeating the political establishment, all too often glossed over by supporters abroad, surely contradicted the ideals of 21st century socialism. An unnerving militaristic nationalism, as exemplified to me by childish threats to attack Colombia after an extraterritorial assassination in Ecuador. The cosiness with the likes of Lukashenko, Ahmadinejad, Mugabe and Assad. The screws turned on the judiciary, media, opposition and business community (though evidence for this is best not heard from US-based NGOs nor the opposition itself); the breathtaking consolidation of power in his hands, corroding established parliamentary practices. The economic mismanagement of the country on his watch, eroding hard-fought gains made by the lower classes and leaving Venezuela in a precipitously downward financial vortex.
Lest it be unclear, I judge Chavez alone on his record. I have never been to Venezuela, and striving to wade between the blind adulation and vitriol directed at the Bolivarian project, both seldom founded on much rationale, I often despair. The closest I have come to interacting with the country is through my time in Latin America and my friendships with Venezuelans abroad. Admittedly none of them have professed support for Chavez, and I have always cautiously listened to them, some recounting horror stories of a country pockmarked with military posts at every corner or going so far as to hope for his death while receiving treatment. They have the means to travel and study abroad, and are wholly unrepresentative of the bulwark of Chavez’s support. Some would concede as much, and recognise the gains afforded to those less privileged than themselves.
Chavez rightly reclaimed the rights of his society’s forgotten voices and empowered so many of them. Whether he was effective enough in doing so is another question. It is easy to dismiss the growing exodus of middle and upper-class Venezuelans as that of the embittered bourgeoisie, but among them are many who do want a stake in their country’s future. They wish to enter government structures, fulfill entrepreneurial aspirations and raise their children in a safe and socially blurred environment, but many a door has been closed. Chavez may have catered for the vast disenfranchised masses of Venezuela, but that was not a vision all Venezuelans saw as entirely inclusive nor welcoming. A truly flourishing Venezuela, regardless of its political compass, is that where all its citizens can be accepted and enabled to prosper, rather than stigmatised by Miraflores.
How will I remember Chavez? He brought hope to millions. Few like him have managed to cut through the divides of Latin America and deliver social advances on a scale perhaps not seen since post-revolutionary Mexico, relatively speaking. But he was not an international messiah of socialism nor democracy, riddled with contradictions and incongruities. Only his successors’ efforts will give a true idea of his real legacy.
I guess the mass grief on the streets of Caracas today speaks for itself. Can we viably step into the shoes of Petare’s residents or any of Caracas’ countless other shanty barrios, the bedrock of Chavez’s support? It is an insult to their human intelligence, and that of all Venezuelans, to suggest we know best for them, and dumb down their emotions and debates to suit our own. Some perspective is always appreciated on the black and white spectrum. Leaders of Chavez’s stature have never been that simple.