President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela certainly made a mark. The sadness of his early death at 58 years old is at least partially mitigated by his escape from the fate of more run-of-the-mill ‘political celebrities’, whose careers invariably end in failure. No longer is there any need to speculate about how things might have turned out had he remained in power until at least 2030, as he appeared to wish.
Only history will reveal what kind of a mark Chávez has made. For those of us who live in places where politics has become the art of the impossible, of ‘There Is No Alternative’, it is difficult to appreciate quite how it can be to live elsewhere. Here we are left with the same people who mourned the death of the murderous General Pinochet in Chile condescending to comment on the exotic ‘polarizing’, ‘controversial’, ‘populist’ legacy of Hugo Chávez, as if politics properly consists of something else entirely.
The two most striking things about him are, as a result, generally the most neglected. First, he was born into relative poverty, an experience he chose not to deny or put behind him. Second, he was of ‘mixed blood’. To my mind, that accounted for much more of the visceral hatred he inspired among the ‘white’ élite than it ever chose to confess, at least in public. Chávez held these two things in common with the vast majority of the Venezuelan people, putting the fear of god (or ‘the mob’) into an élite that paid no more than minimal public lip-service to democracy.
Other things set him apart: One was his career as an ambitious professional soldier. Historically, the armed forces have played a more openly political role in Venezuela, as elsewhere in Latin America, than in, say, Europe or North America – and generally to even more lamentable effect. Chávez was different only insofar as he is reputed, for example, to have discovered inside a bullet-riddled ‘leftist’ car, a hoard of Marxist texts, which he salvaged and digested.
Clandestine ‘socialist’ conspiracy within the army did not seem to hinder his advancement and in 1992 he staged an abortive coup. Its anniversary is still celebrated as the birthday of the Venezuelan ‘revolution’. Arguably, his military training, connections and outlook helped Chávez to survive, where others before him, like Salvador Allende in Chile, did not.
Something else that set him apart was his affection for the generals of the wars of independence from Spain in the early 19th century, and above all for the Liberator himself, Simón Bolívar. ‘Bolivarian’ now prefixes the republic of Venezuela. Bolívar himself does seem to have had one distinctive political ambition: for a united states of liberated southern America. In that, he conspicuously failed, though Chávez kept on trying and even made some headway. ‘Bolivarian’ retains the doubtful privilege of meaning whatever one wants with sufficient conviction.
But, make no mistake, Chávez’s leadership has had tangible results for most Venezuelans. Since 1999, when he was first elected president, through 15 relatively clean elections of one sort or another, he helped to transform a country that suffered from all the most virulent diseases of oil wealth into one where the general quality of life improved at the third-fastest pace in the world. There are those who berate Chávez’s hypocrisy in selling oil to the imperialist US, rather than US hypocrisy in buying it. They accuse Chávez of squandering the country’s oil wealth, as if they had something better to do with it. Thankfully, many more Venezuelans question what other meaning of more durable substance than the general quality of human life can justly be applied to wealth.
The opposition to Chávez has reluctantly concluded that it may never reclaim political power unless it accepts at least some of this substance. Meanwhile, the scene is being set in some quarters for Chávez and chavistas to perform in Venezuela much the same function as Juan Perón and peronistas in Argentina. The dismal record of ‘strong men’ or caudillos in Latin America is scarcely worth preserving in any form. Rather, relative to what came before, what comes after Chávez stands a fair enough chance of being substantially better, and few indeed are the political figures who might justly lay claim to anything like that.