Farewell, El Commandante: How Hugo Chavez Polarized Venezuela & the World

Hugo Chávez
Graffiti of President Hugo Chavez in 2005. Christopher Anderson/Magnum

As 2012 drew to a close, Commander Hugo Chávez boarded an A-319 Airbus and, standing at top of the stairs, waved goodbye to his people before takeoff from Caracas to Havana. The Venezuelan president had made this journey many times before, ever since Fidel Castro had first received him in Cuba with the adulation and honors of a revered head of state. Back then, Chávez had just been released from a Venezuelan jail, where he had spent two years for leading a failed coup that catapulted him onto the Venezuelan and Latin American stage.

This familiar 1,300-mile trip brought Chávez such good memories that he referred to the Caribbean as the “sea of happiness.” But this December journey was different from the others that he had made over the past 18 years. Many of his ministers and closest collaborators, who were there to see him off, could not hold back their tears. They felt a premonition that this was a journey from which he wouldn’t return alive. They feared he wouldn’t be able to overcome his cancer.

Chávez did return to Caracas last month, though he was kept out of the public eye. His absence and the paucity of information about his health generated a wave of rumors that accentuated Venezuela’s political discord and kept the deeply polarized country in deep suspense over what might come next.

On March 5, Chávez died in a Caracas military hospital after an intense battle against a cancer that forced him to undergo four operations and many bouts of radio- and chemotherapy since it was first detected in June 2011.

Demonized and idolized in seemingly equal measure, Chávez was a nationalist and populist leader with a larger-than-life personality. His government was a hybrid political regime—neither fully democratic nor openly tyrannical—that combined periodic elections with an ever-growing concentration of autocratic power based on the control of the justice system and the manipulation of the electoral game. Chávez ruled Venezuela for 14 years, redistributing oil wealth among the poor and winning many elections, but also pitting Venezuelans against each other. He called his movement the Bolivarian revolution and surrounded it with a vague ideological halo branded as 21st-century socialism.

Chávez achieved great international influence because of his strong charisma, his irreverent personality, and his revolutionary vision of a world emancipated from capitalism and imperialism. The U.S. government was a constant target, and the alliances he forged with countries such as Cuba, Russia, and Iran challenged the traditional subordination of Latin American foreign policy to the dictates of Washington.

Last July, Chávez announced that he was totally cured of his disease. But he had made the same announcement seven months before, on New Year’s Day, and the cancer had reappeared. During the 2012 presidential campaign, his speeches brimmed with pathos and ruminations on death. On many occasions, he declared that he had transcended this mortal plane and compared himself with Simon Bolívar, the beloved Venezuelan hero who liberated five Latin American nations at the start of the 19th century.

The son of two elementary-school teachers, Chávez was born in the rural town of Sabaneta, on the western plains of Barinas, some 320 miles from Caracas. Means were modest in the household—Chávez was one of six brothers—so he was sent to live with his grandmother, Rosa Inés. She used to tell him tales about his great-grandfather, Pedro Pérez Delgado, a.k.a. Maisanta, a regional caudillo—half bandit, half hero—who took part in numerous revolts against presidents and tyrants during the early part of the 20th century.

Hugo Chávez Hugo Chavez after winning a referendum on his presidency in August 2004. Christopher Anderson/Magnum

As a young man, Chávez demonstrated talent for public speaking in the town celebrations. But his childhood passion was baseball. He considered becoming a Major League Baseball player, but opted instead for the military academy, at the time a more secure path to escape poverty. In the army, he proved to be a natural leader and a natural conspirator, too. With a group of army colleagues, he founded the Movimiento Bolivariano 200 and plotted for more than a decade to take power in Venezuela.

The Legacy

Chávez was a contradiction: a man who divided Venezuelan society into opposing camps yet remained undefeated in all the electoral events in which he ran as a candidate—three presidential elections, a recall referendum, and a presidential re-legitimization. What’s more, Chávez achieved what very few Latin American politicians have managed to do: in 2002, he survived a coup orchestrated by the powerful national business sector, supported by the private media, and tacitly endorsed by Washington. Later, the same year, he countered a devastating strike by the all-powerful state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and the capital sector, aimed at overthrowing him after the coup failed. These victories strengthened his leadership and helped lay the foundation of his mythical image as an undefeatable leader on the level of Castro.

Those experiences, Chávez said, taught him to distrust the oligarchy, with whom he clashed in a battle to the death characterized by expropriations. From 2003 onward, he launched a series of so-called Missions: aggressive social programs to help the poorest sectors of society. His strategy proved effective. Chávismo—as his movement is known—brought many out of poverty and improved the living conditions of millions of people. It also burnished his image as the avenger of the disfranchised, consolidating his popularity domestically and abroad. The masses of the poor proved to be devoted to Chávez, beyond the boundaries of reality. No matter the inefficiency of his government or its rampant corruption—to them, Chávez represented the hope of a better future.

Chávez burst onto the political stage with a brief TV appearance on Feb. 4, 1992, when he admitted his military defeat in attempting to bring down the democratically elected government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Those 61 seconds in front of the cameras transformed him from a revolutionary bit player to the main protagonist of Venezuelan political history. It also sowed the seeds for what would become his hallmark: televised ubiquity.

With an egocentric and overbearing personality, Chávez was very conscious of the power of his image, and no other leader in Latin America—not even his role model, Fidel Castro—made such intensive use of television, as the record bears out. During 14 years of government, Chávez accumulated more than seven continuous months of on-air time.

Hugo Chávez President Hugo Chaavez and entourage in 2006. Christopher Anderson/Magnum

As he well understood, the cameras provided him with the best platform for spreading his message against neoliberalism. In a televised speech at the United Nations in New York in 2006, Chávez quipped memorably about George W. Bush: “Yesterday, the devil came here, right here. And it still smells of sulfur today.” The line drew applause from international diplomats and from audiences around the world.

He was the alpha male of every international summit, his speeches breaking every rule of protocol. Only once in his long career as an international prima donna was he stopped in his tracks. The incident happened at the Ibero-American Summit in Santiago de Chile in 2007. Chávez had repeatedly interrupted the prime minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, when King Juan Carlos broke in: “Why don’t you just shut up?” he asked Chávez. The audience was astonished.

Despite these antics, Chávez did contribute significantly to Latin American economic and political independence by fostering institutions such as the Union de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Though total unity has not been achieved, the region looks more cohesive than it did a decade ago.

Chávez will also be remembered for fighting the neoliberal wave of the ’90s by leading a turn to the left that fostered the establishment of governments aimed at fighting poverty and social inequality. He actively promoted and financed the ascent of Néstor and Cristina de Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, José Mujica in Uruguay, and Ollanta Humala in Peru. But his support could be deadly as well. The Mexican leader Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador reportedly lost the presidential elections of 2006 because many voters rejected the “Chávez effect.”

In Cuba, however, the Chávez effect is most notable. A decade ago, Fidel Castro, who was still holding the reins of the Cuban government, signed an agreement with Chávez that would exchange Venezuelan oil for Cuban doctors and nurses who would help create a primary health network in Venezuela, known as the Barrio Adentro Mission. Since then, the alliance has been extended into many areas, making Venezuela the auxiliary respirator that has kept the Cuban economy on life support, helping the island nation survive, despite the loss of financial support from the now-defunct Soviet Union and an economic blockade by the U.S. that has lasted more than half a century. But Venezuelan oil was shipped not only to Cuba. It also went to other Caribbean nations and even to poor neighborhoods in Boston and the Bronx, where many homes were heated with fuel oil by Citgo.

Hugo Chávez Chavistas, supporters of President Hugo Chavez, at a campaign rally in La Vega. Christopher Anderson/Magnum

Chávez maintained a deep emotional and political connection with the socialist regime of the Castro brothers. Cuba was a second fatherland to him, a place where he felt safe and protected. After Chávez’s visit to Havana in 1994, Castro took him under his wing as a protégé, becoming a father figure capable of taming the lieutenant colonel’s volatile character. After the Colombian government under Alvaro Uribe bombed a guerrilla encampment of left-wing FARC rebels in Ecuador, Chávez broke off relations with Colombia and announced that his powerful Sukhoi warplanes were at the ready, should Uribe attempt any military action in Venezuela. Uribe, an unconditional ally of Washington, was Chávez’s nemesis, his main antagonist in the region. As tension grew between the two governments, Uribe asked Castro to mediate before the conflict turned into war.

Not surprisingly perhaps, relations with the U.S. were never easy. Though he appeared to take a liking to President Bill Clinton, it wasn’t reciprocated, and Chávez was never invited to the White House as a head of state. His relationship with the subsequent government of George W. Bush was characterized by aggressive allegations on both sides. Unremittingly, Chávez threatened to suspend the sale of oil to the U.S., but this never came about. Under Barack Obama, Chávez opposed the construction of new American military bases in Colombia, recalled the Venezuelan ambassador to Washington, and refused to accept the State Department’s candidate for Venezuelan ambassador. And though relations between the two countries weren’t entirely severed, they remain severely strained—with no change on the horizon.

The Post-Chávez Era

With his titanic personality and compelling discourse, Chávez built up a network of international supporters who included, in addition to assorted leaders and despots, high-wattage celebrities such as film director Oliver Stone, model Naomi Campbell, and actors Danny Glover and Sean Penn.

His political legacy, though, is hardly glamorous but rather a mixed bag.

When Chávez first came to power in 1999, the Venezuelan economy was at the brink of default, with oil prices at an all-time low. Chávez empowered himself by promoting the revival of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and later forced the negotiation of oil contracts with international oil corporations in Venezuela. Combined with an increase in demand for crude oil from the emerging markets, his actions helped bring about the largest oil windfall in Venezuelan history. The country’s GDP tripled in 14 years, according to official figures, allowing Chávez to easily finance a political machine based on social programs and direct cash transfers, which formed the basis of Chávismo.

Ironically, Chávez’s successes and improvements in the lives of the majority could run counter to his intentions in the long run. The Venezuelan economy suffers one of the highest rates of inflation in the world. It depends almost completely on oil and is plagued by inefficiency, waste, and corruption. Last February the Venezuelan government announced a 32 percent devaluation of its currency—the bolivar fuerte—the fourth in a decade. “Did he make the best use of these resources?” asks economist Angel Alayón. “Chávez has left us with a deficit of 16 percent of the country’s GDP, at a time when oil is at $100 a barrel. So, we should ask, what would have become of Chávez without the oil on which he built his popularity? The answer: he would have had to create wealth hand in hand with the private sector. The economic model left by him is unviable.”

Chávez’s material and moral legacy is even more opaque. He bred resentment with his incendiary speeches, and took advantage of antagonisms that could turn into untamable demons without his presence at the country’s helm. Venezuela, divided into two large and completely divorced political blocs, suffers from an ever-increasing crime rate that places it among the most violent countries in the world. It’s a blend that could produce a cocktail of social upheaval and conflict.

Last September, José Vicente Rangel, the country’s erstwhile vice president and one of Chávez’s most senior advisers, interviewed Chávez on his TV program. The interview was full of elegiac allusions. Rangel began by asking how Chávez would define himself. “As a subversive,” Chávez replied. Rangel then asked what Chávez thought about a line spoken by Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” A reflective Chávez replied: “Do good whenever you can, for something will remain.” Then he talked about resisting death for the sake of the people. When Rangel asked him the meaning of power, Chávez, paraphrasing Nietzsche, said that the ultimate essence of power was the will to live. “For example, with this illness I’ve contracted, the will to live so as to continue serving Venezuela,” Chávez said, emphasizing the word “live.”

This cryptic exchange continued until Rangel asked him what he would do if he were to win the elections that took place in October. Using a military metaphor, Chávez replied: “I would bolt the door behind the rearguard to prevent a big leap backwards,” referring to the time before he conquered power. “That would be terrible.”

Nicolás Maduro, the vice president and anointed heir, received the mandate of fulfilling Chávez’s dying wish: to further the revolution by implanting socialism in Venezuela. Nonetheless, it would be difficult for this utopia, now languishing in Cuba, to flourish without the autocratic control of government and public institutions that Chávez managed to impose.

In a televised message before he left for Havana in December last year, he announced that he was leaving Maduro in charge of the presidency. He also asked his supporters to vote for Maduro in a constitutionally mandated election, if he was no longer able to be president. After that message, Chávez never appeared in public again nor did he make any more public announcements about his last political will and testament.

After the death of Chávez and three months of bitter media war, the country seems sunk in confusion. And since Chávez was never sworn in to his fourth term of office, Maduro, the acting president, has no clear mandate to govern the country. Beyond Venezuela’s borders, though, the situation is different. Other Latin American leaders seem poised to snatch Chávez’s revolutionary mantle, such as Ecuador’s socialist leader, Rafael Correa.

“We are all necessary but no one is indispensable,” Correa said, shortly after visiting Chávez in Havana. “Even if the gravity of his illness doesn’t let him continue at the helm, the revolution must go on.”

Whether that is possible, with Chávez gone, is an open question.