Chavez's Legacy: Dictator Or Democrat?

A man screams as the coffin of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez passes in the street as it is paraded from the hospital
A man screams as the coffin of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez passes in the street as it is paraded from the hospital where he died on Tuesday to a military academy where it will remain until his funeral in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Seven days of mourning were declared, all schools were suspended for the week and friendly heads of state were expected for an elaborate funeral Friday. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Venezuela's “socialist revolution” came to an end on March 5. Democratic revolutionary to some, charismatic dictator to others, Hugo Chavez died on Tuesday. The former military coup leader, brilliantly reelected in 2012, adored by many Venezuelans, was often disquieting, but certainly left no one indifferent.

What will be Chavez's legacy? His cult of personality and his dictatorial attitudes, or his grand projects and ideals? Let’s look at the details. AN ENLIGHTENED DICTATOR OBSESSED WITH POWER 1. A Bonapartist in a red beret Democratically elected three times, Marxist Hugo Chavez mostly borrowed his political culture from social Bonapartism. Chavez sought to incarnate the State of Venezuela himself, even if this meant bypassing the Constitution or rewriting it as he saw fit. His main political tool: the referendum. His strength: the systematic dissolution of opposition forces, treating them like agents of American imperialism.

Following his election in 1998, Chavez passed a new constitution in 1999 that instituted the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and put in place the principle of “recall referendums,” which served as the primary popular counter-balance to the presidential power. The 1999 constitutional changes also contained provisions that set presidential term limits. While a referendum held to abolish this last measure was unsuccessful in 2007… another referendum in 2009 allowed Chavez to present himself again as a candidate. Another worrying deviation occurred when the Chavist National Assembly granted the president the power to legislate by decree for a period of 18 months.

2. A mystical and vote-winning cult of personality Hugo Chavez was able to build an exceptional popular base in a country ravaged by severe social conflicts. In addition to a generous and ambitious policy of redistribution of wealth, supported by his party’s “red shirts,” the PSUV, the Venezuelan president was able to foster a cult of personality worthy of the Soviet Union. Huge rock concert-scale gatherings, armies of fevered supporters, mystical Marxism with a hint of lyrical Catholicism and Bolivarian incantation… The Chavez “show” served the interests of a president who never hesitated to align his own person with the destiny of the nation. “Chavez doesn’t lie, Chavez doesn’t sell out, Chavez is the people, Chavez is the truth, all of you are Chavez, we all are,” he declared to supporters, while his opponents were systematically branded as “traitors” and “stateless.” The news of his cancer, treated in Cuba and hidden behind a thick smoke screen, also became an opportunity to erect the Chavez myth. “I conquered death to fulfill my commitments to the Venezuelan people!” he repeated while he ran for his fourth term. But death got its revenge.

3. Questionable diplomatic relations This is the President’s main grey area. A sworn enemy of “American imperialism,” a slogan that has become a rallying cry in South America, Chavez took his opposition to Washington so far as associating himself with the most dubious regimes on the planet. Under his watch, Venezuela massively imported arms from Russia, tightened its ties to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, consorted with Gaddafi’s Libya, and supported Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. This is not to mention the ideological and economic kinship with his Cuban sibling, where Chavez always received a distinguished welcome. These embarrassing associations were one of the main campaign arguments for Chavez's opponent in the presidential election of 2012, Henrique Capriles.

4. A tense media environment Freedom of the press exists in Venezuela. As Chavez supporters point out, over half of the country's television stations are privately owned and they reach about 60% of the viewing audience. The print media largely supports the opposition, even if it primarily addresses the wealthier social groups. That said, public television only gives airtime to voices representing the State. In addition, the Chavez government set a dangerous precedent by not renewing the broadcast license of Venezuela’s oldest private station, RCTV. That decision was made in retaliation for the station’s support for a failed coup in 2002, but sent shockwaves through the Western world, further reinforcing suspicions of Chavist authoritarian tendencies. 5. A worrying military culture A career lieutenant-colonel, quick to wear the uniform, Hugo Chavez continued to maintain strong ties with the Venezuelan army throughout his presidency. This was a real cause of concern for his opponents, who wondered about the military’s reaction in the event of defeat in the latest elections. Chavez spent two years in jail for a failed coup, fomented in 1992 by his movement, the MBR-200, against then President Carlos Andrés Pérez. From prison, Chavez tried to make a call for a public uprising. Victim of an attempted coup d’état in 2002 himself, Chavez owed his political survival to those faithful to him in the army, preceded by the fervor of his popular supporters. Another sign that the army continues to play a role in the democratic functioning of the country is that it has been designated as the entity responsible to ensure the continuity of the State, until a transitional president is sworn in. Hardly reassuring in a country where coups d’état are legion.

1. A leader who is unafraid of opinion
Although he allowed himself numerous liberties in interpreting the Constitution, Hugo Chavez could always boast about having involved the electorate in his decisions. Aside from the decision to legislate by decree, voted on by the Venezuelan National Assembly, the populist president consulted the people on a number of occasions and accepted the rejection of the 2007 referendum intended to authorize him to run for office once again. That really sums up the contradictions Hugo Chavez embodied: an enemy of intermediate entities who however never crossed the line of governing against the people. He was a democratically elected president, coming out on top of the only “recall referendum” organized by the opposition in 2004. And this despite allegations of fraud that hung over several elections.

2. A costly social fabric, but in the service of the most impoverished Elected in 1998 on a strong social platform that benefitted the lower classes, Hugo Chavez kept his word. He never succeeded in making his country less dependent on profits from the oil industry, which still singlehandedly supports the economy. And the success of his “missiones,” vast social and educational programs launched in the early 2000’s, is still debatable. But the numbers are real. Since his election, Venezuela’s GDP has tripled, unemployment has been cut in half, poverty reduced by a third, extreme poverty reduced to 10%, the gap between rich and poor reduced. On a social level, Chavism, with the help of petrodollars, has cut illiteracy in half, reduced infant mortality and increased life expectancy. And many Venezuelans credit him for these achievements.

3. An opportunistic pragmatism The Venezuelan president carried out an ambitious petrodollar diplomacy on the South American continent and won the support of many of his neighbors, starting with the influential Lula, former President of Brazil and role model for… Henrique Capriles, Hugo Chavez’s former rival. Though a sworn enemy of the United States, Chavez made sure never to cross the line and maintained the supply of oil to Washington. Recently, the president had said he “wished” both countries could enter “a new period of normal relations,” even supporting Barak Obama’s reelection. While this does not necessarily make him a democrat, it proves that the Venezuelan leader’s foreign policies were more likely based on political opportunism than an ideology that would threaten equilibrium in the world.

4. A jostled but stalwart opposition A sign that democracy is still alive and well in Venezuela, is that the opposition to “comandante” Chavez has never been stronger. The appearance of Henrique Capriles on the national stage is just one example among many. Of course, the political debate remains heated in this country where pro or anti-Chavez protests often turned violent. But the freedom to contest the elected president’s power is more or less intact, particularly in Caracas where Capriles brought together hundreds of thousands of supporters during a huge meeting organized a week before the vote. For the first time, on February 12, the Venezuelan opposition party organized primaries to choose their presidential candidate. Three million people, or 16% of the electorate, came out to thrust the young Capriles onto the scene. This is a sign that political pluralism does indeed exist in Venezuela.

5. Exemplary elections In order to stave off any suspicion of voter irregularities, even “fraud” according to the opposition, Hugo Chavez had promised to make the last presidential elections an unsullied example of the democratic process. The socialist and his primary rival Henrique Capriles Radonski -- endorsed by about 30 opposition parties -- in July signed an agreement stipulating that both would abide by the results of the vote. According to the electoral accompaniment mission of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the conditions of transparency were met. As Another guarantee, the 13,800 voting stations in the country were outfitted with electronic voting machines that were considered by all parties to be a protection against fraud. The Carter Center, charged with monitoring the anonymity of electronic voting, determined that the elections had been free and fair, while criticizing government propaganda. Venezuelan democracy has not proven to be incompatible with Chavism. But will it endure beyond it?

This piece has been translated from French and originally appeared on HuffPost France.



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