Hugo Chavez: Friend of the Poor, Demagogue, or Both?

From 1999 to 2013, Hugo Chavez served as president of Venezuela. He leaves behind a mixed legacy that includes admirable efforts to empower the poor, but also a disturbing tendency toward authoritarianism.
Supporters of Hugo Chavez

Supporters of Hugo Chavez rally in Caracas in 2006. Photo by the author.

I was in Venezuela in 2006 when Hugo Chavez won re-election. I’ve rarely seen such excitement—for weeks ahead of the election, thousands of red-clad supporters thronged the streets in mass demonstrations. In the impoverished neighborhoods of Caracas, men and women broke down in tears as they told the members of our study tour how President Chavez had changed their lives. We saw new cooperatives supported by the government but run by employees. We saw literacy programs at work, and medical centers and doctors (many from Cuba or Cuban trained) fanning out across areas that formerly had little access to health care and education.

But there was lots of discontent, also. Upper-income community leaders criticized his populist approach. And there were plenty of critics on the left who feared his cult of personality and efforts to amass power.

Outside Venezuela, the United States opposed him on many grounds, especially noting his friendship with Fidel Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Noam Chomsky, who has praised Chavez for his efforts to alleviate poverty, went public with a warning about increasing authoritarianism. And Human Rights Watch criticized the Chavez government’s crackdowns on press freedom and judicial autonomy. But Chavez was also widely praised for his efforts to build networks of mutual aid among some of the region’s poorest countries.

My own view of Chavez was colored by what I experienced immediately before I flew into Caracas. I had spent some weeks in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales had recently been elected. The contrast between them was striking. Morales was clearly a product of Bolivian social movements, especially of Bolivia’s large indigenous population. The slogan spray-painted on the walls was “Somos MAS,” which means “we are more” but also “we are the socialist movement.” (MAS is the acronym for the Movimiento Al Socialismo, a political party in Bolivia). Those I spoke to made clear that Morales had been elected by well-organized social movements that knew what they wanted. (They had recently blocked efforts by foreign corporations to take over the water system in Cochabamba , for example). If their president didn’t do as the people wanted, these social movements could remove him from office. There was a sense in Bolivia that the people knew they were sovereign.

When I arrived in Caracas, then in a frenzy of adoration for Chavez, it seemed to me that in Venezuela it was Chavez who was sovereign, not the people. His supporters seemed to believe their well-being depended on the president, not on their own power as citizens.

Now that Chavez is gone, will the ordinary people of Venezuela find a way to step into the role of sovereign? Or, absent the charismatic leader, will big oil companies, the United States, and the nation’s wealthy have their way with the country?


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