Hugo Chavez – Latin American demagogue with the common touch
With his battle cry of “socialism or death!”, Hugo Chavez was a revolutionary firebrand of the old school. The former soldier who liked to be known as El Commandante put Venezuela and its “Bolivarian revolution” on the world stage and succeeded Fidel Castro of Cuba as champion and flag bearer of left-wing movements across Latin America.
Dead at 58, Castro’s charismatic pupil ruled Venezuela for 14 years and now leaves a divided nation wondering how long his political legacy will last without him. Chavez had used Venezuela’s oil wealth to fund the boldest social experiment his continent has ever seen, though his own revolutionary ideology was cloaked in such humour and Latin charm that it was often hard to tell how serious he really was.
He loved telling jokes, frequently burst into song, and could talk to his people for hours on end on his own television show. And though he frequently accused America of plotting to invade Venezuela, he kept selling the Americans oil.
In short, Hugo Chavez was probably neither as dangerous as his critics said he was, nor as benign as his supporters wanted to believe. It was his stated wish to stay in power till 2031, and it is by no means clear that the former army colonel would have achieved this solely through the ballot box.
Hugo Chavez enjoyed befriending rogues and tyrants in a coalition of the unwilling, including Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. He also forged an alliance with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, ridiculing claims that Iran was developing a nuclear bomb. In 2012, he sent an oil tanker to President Assad of Syria.
Though most of these leaders had been courted by the west in earlier years, Chavez’s suspicion of America coloured his entire foreign policy. He believed in, and played on, age-old Latin American fears of the “gringo”, or North American, and in doing so he won friends the world over.
“You are a donkey, Mr Danger” was his infamous message to President George W Bush, delivered on Alo Presidente, his own television show. In 2006, he called Bush “the devil” the day after the US president had spoken at the UN General Assembly in New York. “It still smells of sulphur today,” Chavez added mischievously from the UN lectern.
“I am totally devoted to the struggle for equality and justice,” the Venezuelan president told Channel 4 News in an interview that year. “The great crazy guy is in Washington, not here.”
American neoconservatives accused him of being a power-crazed demagogue, fuelled by oil. Donald Rumsfeld, then US defence secretary, compared him with Hitler, while the New Labour government ignored him during his last visit to the UK.
By contrast, the traditional British left revered him, envying the apparently simple choice his politics sought to represent: between socialist wealth redistribution and the “oligarchs” who had ruled Venezuela for decades.
It was over 20 years ago that Chavez, a colonel in the parachute regiment, launched a military coup. When it failed he was jailed for two years, but his hatred of Venezuela’s moneyed elite had struck a chord.
By 1998, he was elected to Venezuela’s presidency. At his swearing-in ceremony, he declared that the country’s constitution was dead.
Four years later, Chavez was briefly ousted from power himself. He blamed Washington for backing the ringleaders plotting against him and, hardly surprisingly, he never forgave the Americans. Pro-Chavez militia were trained to resist any US military intervention, though with the onset of the Obama years, the impact of Chavez’s anti-American rhetoric seemed to fade.
The key to the Chavez revolution was Venezuela’s oil, nearly 7 per cent of the world’s reserves. He tore up contracts with foreign multinationals and nationalised their oilfields. And he used the high price of crude to fund workers’ communes, in a country where millions survive on just a few dollars a day.
He often visited Fidel Castro, his idol and mentor, sending oil to Cuba in exchange for Cuban doctors. But for all its sound and fury, the Chavez revolution didn’t turn into the geostrategic nightmare that America feared.
A portrait of his hero Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan who led much of the continent to freedom from Spain, was rarely far from his side. His closest political ally was Evo Morales, the coca farmer and indigenous leader who became president of Bolivia.
Yet Chavez was also a polarising figure in a continent more inclined to paying Che Guevara lip service, rather than re-running for real the ideological battles of Guevara’s day. And what made Venezuela’s brand of Latin American socialism unique was that it was funded by oil.
In 2007, Chavez lost a referendum which would have allowed him to run for president as often as he liked. It was a reminder to Venezuela’s leader that he was not universally popular – and a reminder to the rest of the world that despite the Chavez personality cult, Venezuelan democracy was still in good health.
The referendum eventually passed, inspiring Chavez to believe he could emulate Castro and rule till 2031. Last October, he was re-elected for the fourth time with 54 per cent of the vote. The question which will now never be answered is whether the former coup leader would continue to adhere to democratic principles if the vote did not continue to go his way.
Human Rights Watch says there’s now almost no judicial independence in Venezuela, and that a TV station critical of Chavez has been taken off air. Human rights workers have been expelled from the country.
In 2011, Chavez was diagnosed with cancer, and a series of trips to Havana for treatment followed. He carried on singing through adversity and deriding his political enemies as “fascists” and “pigs”. Last year he claimed he had been cured. He never revealed what kind of cancer he had, and Venezuela’s opposition say they were deliberately misled as to the true extent of his illness.
Hugo Chavez could be grandiose and verbose but his common touch never deserted him. The question now is whether Venezuela’s revolution can continue without so passionate, controlling and colourful a figure at the helm.
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