Hugo Chavez wasn’t a socialist. He wasn’t a communist or a fascist or any of the other neat boxes the US State Department likes to throw the leaders of non-democratic states in. He was a classic Latin American populist. Following in the footsteps of Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico or Juan Domingo Peron in Argentina, he provided a style of governance that has been successful and well liked in Latin America. Chavez was a born politician. Clever, empathetic and a good communicator he understood how to present himself in a way that appealed to the Venezuelan people. He also came to power at the height of the oil boom, providing an economic cushion for his social welfare programs. However, the most important thing that Chavez did was to garner the support of what was the largest and most overlooked group in Venezuela: the poor. This propelled him into power in 1998 and sustained him during his entire time in office. He dramatically decreased poverty and illiteracy in Venezuela, set up clinics in rural areas and poor urban areas, passed some of the most progressive labor laws in the world and dramatically improved the quality of education in Venezuela. He nationalized the oil industry and implemented agrarian reform programs which led to great increases in agricultural productivity in the country. Did Chavez have authoritarian tendencies? Absolutely. During his time in office he used his presidential power and public support to censor the media and his critics, wrote a new constitution changing presidential term limits and allowing for consecutive reelection, he packed the courts and, at times during his presidency, he asked the legislature for the power to “rule by decree,” read: carte blanche to legislate as he pleased and block any legislation from his political opponents. His anti-American rhetoric drove the Bush administration crazy, but it also led to increased Latin American unity and the formation of Latin American organizations, like the Union of South American Nations, which do not include the US and have been beneficial for many of the member states. He helped usher in a new era of populist leaders in Latin America such as Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The fact remains that Hugo Chavez was immensely popular in Venezuela. He won reelection three times by considerable margins. Looking back at his time in office, it becomes clear that the bulk of his legacy is made up of the things he did for Venezuela’s poor. Chavez noticed the poor, he raised them up, he gave them a place in Venezuelan society. He provided them with better healthcare, education and working opportunities. He increased the average income in Venezuela and provided a social welfare net for anyone who needed it. Childhood and infant mortality and malnutrition decreased under Chavez, and life expectancy increased. Over 93 percent of Venezuelan children now attend school, over 95 percent of all Venezuelans are now literate, 95 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water, unemployment fell, both poverty and extreme poverty fell–all this while Chavez was in office. Hugo Chavez was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But a man who helps you feed your family, that’s a man you remember fondly. And to many Venezuelans that’s exactly who Hugo Chavez was.

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