Chavez Signs Off


Hugo Chavez will certainly go down as one of the most (in)famous Latin American leaders of all time alongside Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Eva (Evita) Peron.

His death was announced by the Vice President Nicholas Maduro at 4:25pm on 5 March in Caracas, and has naturally prompted widespread public mourning throughout Venezuela, along with a strong international reaction that is indicative of his rule.

After a failed coup in 1992, Chavez, a former military officer, was elected to the presidency of Venezuela in 1998. Other than a coup attempt in 2002 which ousted him from office for 47 hours before his supporters in the public and military returned him to power, Chavez has been president ever since, continually winning elections that former US President Jimmy Carter, among others, has monitored as free and fair.

The legacy of the man who the Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once described as having "a body of reinforced concrete" will be strongly fought over, and never agreed upon. He may have regretted that his close friend Fidel Castro beat him to the famous words "history will absolve me".

For some, Chavez was a dictator, trouble maker and man who had seen Venezuela’s crime and inflation soar. For others he was a long sought after Latin American saviour, who finally put the poor first, empowered the excluded and opposed US imperialism. As such is often the case, the reality is much more complex.

Yes, there is no doubt that Chavez won democratic election after democratic election, despite the often vicious hostility of the media, because his policies transformed the lives of millions of previously ignored Venezuelans. However, the nation has seen a rise in violent crime, and especially for residents of the larger cities, safety has become a key issue.

Chavez followed in the great Latin American tradition of being a strongman (caudillo). He showed disregard for anglo-saxon liberal norms and packed the courts, railed against the corporate media, legislated by decree and pretty much did away with any effective system of institutional checks or balances.

Yet, for some reasons ignored and unknown by many, Chavez came to power in the context of a nation that before his election had all of the problems and more that critics are lumping on Chavez himself. The institutions were rotten to the core and corruption was widespread. Opposition voices and labour unions were marginalised, and oil money was being used to give patronage.

It is within this context that Chavez’s strongman rule made sense as an attempt to turn the nation around.

For the first five years of his presidency he took a weaker, social democratic line until he had more control and could attempt to make the bigger changes that fell under his self-proclaimed banner of "21st century socialism" such as wealth and land distribution alongside nationalisation of industry.

The immediate future is an election within the next 30 days, as dictated by the constitution, which is most likely to see Chavez’s appointed heir, Vice President Nicholas Maduro, pitted against Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in last year’s elections.

Recent polls would suggest that Maduro, partly flying on the legacy of Chavez, would win comfortably over a still disorganised opposition. He looks to continue in Chavez’s footsteps — Maduro very recently said he would expel the US ambassador for attempts to destabilise the country. He has also attributed responsibility for Chavez’s cancer to a plot by his enemies.

Chavez’s supporters have hit the streets immediately after the announcement chanting "Chavez lives, the struggle continues". Much to the chagrin of the right-wing opposition, the legacy of Chavez will remain a powerful one — a Maduro victory would give grassroots Chavistas an opportunity to push for social change outside the hero-worship and idolisation of the now-departed leader.

No doubt local and international opposition voices also see their chance to return Venezuela to their hegemony. Famously, diplomatic relations with the US have been very strained (although economic relations continue almost unhindered) with Chavez calling ex-president George Bush a donkey and the devil, and high ranking officials within the US government calling for Chavez’s assassination. No doubt Barack Obama will be watching closely and look to exert some of his nation’s soft power diplomacy.

Chavez’s plan to "deepen" socialism remains far from complete, but the social forces within the country still have enough political, social and economic power to continue with the ill-defined Chavista plan. The dispirited opposition will also seek to capitalise on the President’s death as an opportunity to push the nation back to the centre-right.

The country that Chavez has left behind is certainly not without its problems. But Venezuela is now a society in which the previously marginalised poor feel like they have a part in the nation for the first time. How else could one explain his popularity? He died without losing an election, but large challenges loom. How his successors take on the task of implementing his "21st century socialism" will be the real test of his legacy.

Whichever way it goes, Chavismo will remain the strongest political force in Venezuela for at least decades to come. In addition to being the country with the largest untapped oil reserves in the world, Venezuela will continue to command global significance. It may be as Bolivian president Evo Morales has said: "Chavez is more alive than ever".

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