For the next days and weeks there will be many Op-Eds and articles analyzing the impact of the premature demise of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. His legacy will be dissected; the effects of his political and economic model he dubbed “21st Century Socialism” will be fiercely defended by his admirers and sharply criticized by his detractors. Who will take charge next? Will elections be called within 30 days as is demanded by the constitution? Who will face now acting President Nicolás Maduro for the highest political prize in the land? Will there be a resurgence of the famous battle between Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello? And what role will the government of Cuba have in a post-Chávez Venezuela? All of these are important issues and deserve all the attention they will receive.
He seemed genuinely baffled on the very rare occasions when his opponents pointed out that the country was not his personal fiefdom and the national treasury was not his petty cash box.
Nevertheless, for a moment it’s important to step back, take a breath and consider what just occurred. The political tsunami that was Hugo Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution” cannot be understated. A cursory glance through the pages of Latin American newspapers over the last decade – or in conversations with politicians and academics – serve to ratify the tremendous impact that placed this individual at the center of regional politics for more than ten years.
Like other famous Latin American caudillos –figures such as Juan Perón, Rafael Trujillo, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and Fidel Castro– Hugo Chávez seemed to be the incarnation of an era. Through his endless seven hour tirades, punctuated with abusive language and obscure historical analysis he enthralled his followers. “Expropriate it” he would often yell, grinning maniacally as his mobs applauded the most recent of the almost 1,000 nationalizations (expropriations) that destroyed the private sector of his country. He would sing “rancheras” for hours and one time he spent more than 45 minutes personally knocking down walls for the building of a new metro — all live-fed on the radio and TV takeovers which he was so fond of and that fed his narcissism so well.
He seemed to relish his controversial foreign policy even more. His constant attacks on the United States frustrated American policymakers to no end. Expelling American Ambassadors, verbal fights with the King of Spain and episodes of grade-school name calling left world leaders scratching their heads. There was not a controversy that Chávez did not seek out – whether it be 9/11 “truther” conspiracies or doubting whether man actually made it to the moon; and in the last years blaming the United States for the cancer that eventually killed him. There was also not a tyrant the world over who did not find solidarity in Hugo Chávez. Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, Muammar Gaddafi, Daniel Ortega, and Bashar al Assad all turned to Chávez for support and largesse.
As with all dictators, the Caribbean’s latest despot could be wicked. He personally sentenced Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni to prison, where she still sits today. He arbitrarily closed RCTV, the largest and oldest TV station in the country; payback for its unwaveringly critical editorial line. He ordered the preparing of massive lists of his adversaries – like the Maisanta List with the names of 3.5 million of his personal enemies. He centralized all power in himself, nano-managing Venezuela through midnight cabinet meetings and twilight phone calls that always kept his ministers on pins and needles. He did not blink an eye when using judicial process, the tax services and regulatory agencies to persecute those who opposed him. And he seemed genuinely baffled on the very rare occasions when his opponents pointed out that the country was not his personal fiefdom and the national treasury was not his petty cash box.
There is no doubt that Venezuela is today a better place for his passing. Besides his larger-than-life persona and endless material for policy makers, political analysts and freedom activists to chew on, the truth of the matter is that after the inebriation of his 14 years in office wears off, all he has left Venezuela with is a bad hangover.
Nevertheless, friend and foe alike must admit that Hugo Chávez was one of the great men. Not great in terms of goodness — he was not a good man. But great in that he emerged from roots deep in rural poverty, negotiated the takeover of his country and maneuvered it for a time to the center of hemispheric politics. This is no small feat; in point of fact they are tremendous shoes for Nicolas Maduro –a failed bus driver– to attempt to fill.