Chavez: Despot or Saint?
Mar 6 2013
Everyone else seems to be either mourning at or dancing on Hugo Chavez's grave, but I’m feeling decidedly unmoved. And not out of some deep apathy. It’s just that the Chavez being invoked by both supporters and enemies can't be dead because that man never existed.
One dead Chavez was a despot. Democratically elected over and over again, popularly reinstated after a 2002 coup, but still some sort of Stalin or mini Pol Pot. (They both had that irresistible smile.) The other dead Chavez was a saint. Some demigod sent from above to massage away our earthly suffering and sing us tender bedtime songs afterward. He could do no wrong.
These narratives are utterly incompatible, setting the showdown for a month's worth of heated Twitter sparring and inane web-comment dueling. Now, there's nothing I like more than a good fight, but I'm not picking a side. Or I guess I'm picking both.
In its 14 years in power, Chavez's administration was at once authoritarian and democratic, crudely demagogic and genuinely participatory. History is messy like that.
El Presidente was part of a long line of Latin American populists, the left-wing variety of which has always attracted cheering fanboys. And for good reason: it's the fiery rhetoric of Italian fascism tempered by the warm and fuzzy egalitarian core of Scandinavian socialism. And Chavez lived up to some of those socialist ambitions: He was more committed to redistributing wealth and power than just about any Latin American leader who came before him. His government reduced extreme poverty by 70 percent. Millions got reliable healthcare and a decent education for the first time, and attempts were made to construct community councils and other organs of direct democracy.
Fittingly for a Caudillo, Chavez's early life had a folkloric quality. Born in a mud hut in the rural state of Barinas in 1954, his family was of mixed Amerindian, Afro-Venezuelan, and European descent—a perfect reflection of Venezuela's racial mosaic. Though he was introduced to leftist ideas in his school years from a family friend, Chavez's decision to join the military was mostly borne of a desire for social advancement. Poor village kids in Venezuela didn't have many options. Grabbing a gun seemed as good a choice as any.
And even if he wanted to follow his political passions, there wasn't much to rally around. The country's leftist forces were in disarray by the 1970s. Communists—a major opposition group at the time—were part of a broad coalition opposing the military dictatorship that then ruled the country until 1958. But after the dictator was toppled, a compact between mainstream parties in the country edged independents out. Frustrated young radicals decided to follow Che's example and take to the Venezuelan countryside. They died like him, too. The Communist Party lost all influence in the country’s political life.
Without existing radical forces whose coattails he could ride to power, Chavez had to be more resourceful than future allies like Brazil's Lula or Bolivia's Morales. He aligned himself with a group of left-nationalist soldiers, gathering with them to read a mix of socialist classics and eccentric volumes like Muammar Gaddafi's inane Green Book. Under Chavez's leadership, the soldiers organized themselves into what they called the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario.
The masses weren't ready to shake things up. They needed a push. The group tried to provide one in a 1992 coup d'état following a period of popular protest in Caracas against free-market reforms. Chavez intended to use the military as a vehicle of progressive change, a shortcut to impose reforms of his own. But his coup failed stupendously. Chavez had the support of less than 10 percent of Venezuela's military forces and his crew’s prerecorded radio broadcast intended to spur the masses to action never went out. His comrades took some key towns elsewhere, but Chavez's own forces remained held up in the Caracas Military Museum, unable to advance. They soon gave themselves up to the police and armed forces, and they all were sent to prison.
But in defeat, Chavez showed some of the savvy that would make him a political survivor. If he had been totally outmatched in armed battle, the following media war was his. As a condition of his surrender, Chavez was allowed to give an impassioned address to the Venezuelan public, saying that he had lost "for now."
And he was serious. Chavez became something of a celebrity. When he was pardoned and released from prison in 1994, he quickly moved to turn his once-illegal movement into a national election campaign. In response, the American ambassador in Venezuela told his colleagues in Washington to "watch what Chavez does, not what he says." But what he did was modest. Behind his bombastic slogans and eccentric campaign antics was a pretty generic political platform. Chavez ran as a centrist, promising an alternative to Venezuela's corrupt mainstream parties, modest constitutional reform, and some new social programs. At first, it wasn't that the people loved him—they just hated the other bastards more. And enough Venezuelans registered their protest at the ballot box. Chavez was elected president in 1999.
Everything that happened after that was unexpected, perhaps even by Chávez himself. Corporate interests, with American support and the backing of the country's private media outlets, launched their own military coup against Chavez in April 2002. The Venezuelan elite was too comfortable to even consider subjecting themselves to mild reforms. They wanted a government of the rich and were unabashed about it—they even immediately appointed Venezuela's Chamber of Commerce leader Pedro Carmona as interim president.
But like Perón's descamisados did in Argentina in the 1940s, a mass of Venezuelan workers rallied to support Chavez. Hundreds of thousands of people arrived outside the Miraflores Palace, and Chavez loyalists within the military seized control on the inside and resisted the putsch. Within a couple days, Chavez and the rest of his elected government were restored.
Opponents tried an oil lockout after that, which also wasn't able to unseat Chavez. With his foes discredited and riding a wave of popular support, the Bolivarian Revolution deepened. A reformed state-oil company poured money into social programs, and new experiments in participatory democracy were expanded. Abroad, Chávez pushed for Latin American unity and ramped up his anti-imperialist rhetoric.
But Chavez’s success wasn’t simply the result of the fact that he’d been freed up to pursue his every whim for a decade without effective opposition. Whatever the conservative depiction of it, Chavismo—Chavez’s political approach—wasn’t just a top-down form of patronage that gave poor voters a piece of the pie from the country’s booming crude-oil market. Change might have been sparked from on high, but Chavez was saved by mass protests in 2002 and was continually radicalized by currents on the ground. The people made Chavez, not the other way around.
Take the Communal Councils. Initially formed by the central government to oversee local social-welfare projects, they quickly turned into sites of real democratic debate, electing delegates and empowering people who previously didn’t have any say over the decisions that structured their lives.
Some "revolutionary" aspects of the Bolivarian Revolution turned out to be something of a bust, too. Labor cooperatives encouraged by the government, for example, have done little more than institutionalize underground-economy work without improving conditions. Poverty has been cut in half, but crime soars, prison conditions are deplorable, and inflation eats away at the wages and savings of ordinary Venezuelans.
But it's the extraordinary Venezuelans—not the regular Joes—who always found Chavez unbearable, and when he died yesterday, they probably all let out a collective cheer. Yet he was—and will likely continue to be—an example to his supporters of an inspiring thorn in the side of the rich. Under Chavez’s administration, the dispossessed may not have become wealthy, but they became more possessed: aspiring for more out of their lives, blaming the privileged for their lot, and building organizations to challenge their power.
When his cancer came to light two years ago, and as his health declined, many sought to make a movement that was largely dependent on Chavez's personality into something more sustainable. It may have worked. Right now, tens of thousands of his supporters are carrying his coffin on the street in a funeral procession. Few doubt, friends or foes, that Chavez's legacy will influence the region for years. The "Che vive" graffiti scribbled on walls across Latin America will soon have company.
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