It’s finally happened:
“President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela died Tuesday afternoon after a struggle with cancer, the government announced, leaving behind a bitterly divided nation in the grip of a political crisis that grew more acute as he languished for weeks, silent and out of sight, in hospitals in Havana and Caracas.
Close to tears and his voice cracking, Vice President Nicolás Maduro said he and other officials had gone to the military hospital where Mr. Chávez was being treated, sequestered from the public, when ‘we received the hardest and most tragic information that we could transmit to our people.’ “
Readers of the site knew this was coming — well, not just the death of Chávez, but this obit also.
To say that I was a fan or supporter of Chávez is an overstatement, just as it would be an overstatement to label me a champion of the Obama administration, the Castro regime or the Chicago Cubs. Somethings have facets to them that make them both endearing and obnoxious.
If ever there was such a thing — a person, moreover — his name was Hugo Chávez.
Chávez came to power in 1999 after gaining popularity as the guy who tried to overthrow the old, neoliberal order in a failed 1992 golpe (for which he was imprisoned for). In his bid for the presidency, he won 56 percent of the vote.
Chávez cut a figure of a brash anti-imperalist who saw Latin America’s future in increased solidarity and decreased U.S. dominance.
As the second of seven children in a poor family in rural Venezuela, Chávez took office with plans to make his homeland a more equitable place. His principles and aspirations sprouted from his own history and the history of Latin America. “Born just a few days after the CIA drove reformist Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz from office,” writes Greg Grandin for The Nation, “he was a young military cadet of 19 in September 1973 when he heard Fidel Castro on the radio announce yet another CIA-backed coup, this one toppling Salvador Allende in Chile.”
The Venezuelan political system Chávez inherited drained the chief executive’s office of much of its effectiveness and placed greater power in two separate (though nearly identical) political parties. It was this system Chávez promised Venezuelan voters he would unravel.
He made enemies with the economic elites of Venezuela by calling them every name in the book and made it clear to the United States that he was as anti-Monroe Doctrine as his political father Fidel Castro. His antagonism of the traditional power structures (inevitably) led to various attempts to smear his reputation and toss him out of office. There was a failed coup attempt in April 2002 — paid for or supported by Washington — a recall election and a conservative-controlled media dead set on subverting the Chávez administration.
None of it worked, and Chávez emerged even stronger and more influential.
Sure, Chávez clearly had designs to increase the power of the presidency, but what president, Venezuelan or American, hasn’t?
And even then, one can hardly argue that he diluted Venezuelan democracy. As recently as September 2012, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter told reporters that of the 92 elections his organization had monitored, “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” (He then went on to say that the United States has “one of the worst election processes in the world, and it’s almost entirely because of the excessive influx of money.”)
On how Chávez was able to win his elections fairly, again, Grandin writes:
“Chávez’s social base was diverse and heterodox … neighborhood councils; urban and rural homesteaders, feminists, gay and lesbian rights organizations, economic justice activists, environmental coalitions; breakaway unions and the like. It’s these organizations, in Venezuela and elsewhere throughout the region, that have over the last few decades done heroic work in democratizing society, in giving citizens venues to survive the extremes of neoliberalism and to fight against further depredations, turning Latin America into one of the last global bastions of the Enlightenment left.”
Chávez’s popularity can’t be neatly pinned on the majority of Venezuelan people who are poor and want to live off the social welfare Chávez was want to shower on them — “much the way Mitt Romney saw 47 percent of the US electorate not as citizens but parasites.”
Just look at what happened almost 7 years ago.
Chávez was running for reelection in 2006 against an opponent promising to gift millions of the poorest Venezuelans a black card (“Mi Negra”) that allowed them to spend up to $450 per month. The voters didn’t take the bait, and Chávez won a second term. Had Venezuelan elections been a simple matter of bribing the voters, the country would’ve been rid of Chávez years ago.
During the same reelection campaign, Chávez promised to make changes to the constitution, one of which would allow him to seek another term. Critics in Venezuela and abroad pointed to the subsequent referendum in 2007 as proof of Chávez’s plans to transform the country into a totalitarian state.
Still, none of the proposed changes represented an assault on Venezuelan democracy. In fact, the referendum sought to strengthen it.
Included in the amendments were efforts to broaden and strengthen the electorate; to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, race or disability; to place restrictions on privatization; and empower the president on issues of national security.
As Gregory Wilpert writes for Venezuela Analysis:
“According to the reform, the right to being informed would be suspended during a state of emergency, which implies that censorship may be used in such situations (art. 337). The rationale for this is that the April 2002 coup attempt was based on manipulating the media to fabricate events that ended up justifying the coup. A state of emergency, according to Chavez supporters, would have to take such a course of events into account. Contrary to most news reports, though, the state of emergency still includes the right to defense, to a trial, to communication, and not to be tortured. This is more than one can say for the current situation in the U.S., where the president has the authority to arrest people without due process, according to the recently passed Military Commissions Act.”
In the end, after the referendum was voted down by a thin margin of the Venezuela people, Chávez responded with a mere “oh well.”
As Ezra Klein wrote on his blog at the time, changes to the constitution meant to bring the nation closer to being a totalitarian state “do not, in fact, fail by two percent. And when they do, the dictator does not, in fact, say, ‘I congratulate my adversaries for this victory. For now, we could not do it.’ ”
Chávez’s legacy will undoubtedly be a controversial one, mainly because Venezuela still faces several different crises and because Chávez refused to bow to America’s centuries-old dominion in the Western Hemisphere.
Still, when I think of Chávez, I think of a man with many faults, who made plenty of mistakes, but who continually wanted to do more for the impoverished and disenfranchised masses of Venezuela, Latin America and the world.
It’s very easy for me to criticize the man and his leadership (candidly, criticizing his how I make a living). But I find it difficult to fully condemn him and his goals. At the end of the day, at least he tried. He died trying.
Rest easy, Señor Presidente.