With the death of Hugo Chavez, one of the world’s more colourful, charismatic and divisive political leaders passes into history.
But while few doubt the force of El Comandante’s personality, the future of the Venezuela that he leaves behind him is altogether less certain.
The mixed response on the streets of Caracas to Mr Chavez’s death is evidence of his troubled legacy. While crowds of supporters chanted “We are all Chavez!” outside the military hospital where the mercurial President lost his battle with cancer, elsewhere in the dilapidated, violent capital there were celebrations.
Love him or loathe him, Mr Chavez certainly changed the lives of his fellow citizens. Swept into the Miraflores Palace in 1998 on a wave of popular support, his “Bolivarian Revolution” was billed in the grandest terms. Chavismo was the completion of what began with the iconic 19th-century liberator Simón Bolìvar. It would up-end the old order, root out vested interests, and champion the interests of the poor.
Fourteen years later, the dream is still just that – a dream. Mr Chavez’s supporters claim him as a Robin Hood figure, pointing to the social programmes, the health clinics, and the power-to-the-people community councils – all funded by Venezuela’s vast oil wealth. High-profile attacks on George W Bush also struck a chord, both at home and abroad.
The dark side of Mr Chavez’s tenure cannot be ignored, though. True, he retained considerable popular support, winning no fewer than four elections, all with comfortable majorities. But he did not live up to early constitutional promises on human rights and the rule of law. Vast powers were shifted to the presidency, state institutions were packed with supporters, and opponents were harassed and imprisoned.
No less egregious is the economic mismanagement over which he presided. Venezuela is now all but a basket case: corruption is endemic, investment is non-existent, and the currency has been devalued five times in 10 years. As a result, the country’s infrastructure is falling to pieces, its public hospitals are death-traps, and Caracas has become a city of slums with one of the highest crime rates in the world. Meanwhile, a vast black market is flourishing, policed by armies of malandros with a finger in every pie from the pettiest local racket to international organised crime.
It is by this that Mr Chavez must be judged, not by the reach of his own rhetoric. Some of his ideas were, ostensibly, good ones. It is hard to find fault with medical clinics in poor areas, for example. But such schemes are unsustainable, relying as they do on ever-volatile oil prices. And all were designed to shore up the president’s personal power. With the spider at the centre of the web now gone, many will simply unravel.
The central question now is, what happens next? Chavismo will not disappear overnight. Indeed, Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, given Mr Chavez’s imprimatur in December, is the favourite to win the upcoming elections. A personality cult cannot survive without the personality, however; and it is far from certain that Mr Maduro can retain control, not least of the powerful armed forces.
Mr Chavez was no run-of-the-mill dictator. His offences were far from the excesses of a Colonel Gaddafi, say. What he was, more than anything, was an illusionist – a showman who used his prodigious powers of persuasion to present a corrupt autocracy fuelled by petrodollars as a socialist utopia in the making. The show now over, he leaves a hollowed-out country crippled by poverty, violence and crime. So much for the revolution.
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