The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been greeted with the expected polarized commentary. Chavez was a man both vilified and idolized outside and, to some extent at least for a while, inside Venezuela. It’s worth taking a look at the man now.
Chavez was a populist, socialist leader who wasted little time alienating both the United States and the Venezuelan upper class after he took office. Chavez became a global
hero for the left, and with good reason. He didn’t just promise to help the poor, he took action. He spent Venezuela’s revenue on education and health care. He pulled the country away from US influence. On the local level, Chavez set up groups – the Bolivarian Circles and Communal Councils – that were decentralized community boards of sorts that had real influence on local issues, a hallmark of participatory democracy that is very significant and rarely seen. And through nationalization of oil, agriculture and other business, Chavez both alienated major investors and substantially grew Venezuela’s GDP, at least for a while.
But while Chavez stuck to his guns when international investment plummeted, he, like most leftist leaders before him, was unable to figure out a way to contend with this. The US isolated Venezuela in the wake of his program of nationalizing the oil and other major industries in the country, costing US investors a lot of money. And Chavez welcomed that isolation; it allowed him to lead the fight against US imperialism, and he surely reveled in the role. And, while Chavez has kept the economy steady in recent years, it has been a patchwork project.
In his later years, Chavez followed an all too familiar pattern, vesting more and more power in the executive. Of course, after the failed coup attempt in 2002, and the ongoing efforts to destabilize his regime, there were real reasons for this. That’s the Castro argument, and the effects were the same. Chavez became more repressive, even earning some opprobrium from the left a few years back after he imprisoned a judge because he issued a ruling Chavez (and many Venezuelans) disagreed with. (more…)