Hugo Chávez is dead. It is hard for me to rationalise actively celebrating the death of anyone. Death is unpleasant and 99.9% of the time, the death of someone should be a sombre occasion. The last and only time I personally celebrated the death of someone was on May 1st 2011 when Osama Bin Laden was killed. I am an American from Northern Virginia and I remember seeing the smoke from the Pentagon on 9/11 and for days after that. Can you blame me for celebrating Bin Laden’s death? I have many Venezuelan friends who are joyously celebrating the death of Hugo Chávez and I for one cannot blame them. President Chávez was an evil man however his brand of evil was in some respects a carbon copy of an evil that predated his rule. Chávez publicly stated that he drew inspiration from looking back upon the rule of General Juan Velasco Alvarado.
Although I am only a U.S. citizen, much of my family resides in Peru where my mother is originally from. It was from 1968 to 1975 that Peruvians lived beneath the authoritarian darkness of one of the worst left-wing dictatorships in Latin American history. Like most infamous dictators, General Juan Velasco Alvarado considered himself something of an author. This is why Velasco had a little blue book (remember Mao’s little red book?) published detailing his destructive plans for the future of Peru particularly in the education sector. Similarly, Chávez published his own little blue book in 2000 that contained a new constitution recently approved by referendum. Despite the outward democratic gesture of a referendum, this new constitution made various non-Presidential institutions dependent upon Chávez whose authority as president grew in a troubling manner.
Throughout his life Chávez was a man who lacked originality, respect, or real authority. The aforementioned little blue book is one of many examples of how Chávez imitated other evil men. Aside from imitating evil men, Chávez wanted to be remembered as a great man like Simon Bolivar. I have no doubt whatsoever that each time Chávez invoked Bolivar’s name, Bolivar rolled in his grave. Chávez was not respected by anyone. However, he was feared by many. Among the many that feared Chávez were journalists.
One example of the many times he squared off against the press was when he took on Globovisión. Globovisión is a privately owned television channel that has been very vocal in its criticism of the now dead dictator. The private news channel is stuck in Chávez’s red tape and it may have to shut down this year because of that.
One of the most shocking examples of the press being shackled by Chávez was in 2012, when Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz threatened to imprison journalists who talked about contaminated water. The Attorney General claimed the threat was legal since journalists did not have properly documented evidence and studies to back their claims that water was contaminated. In response to this outrageous defence of contaminated water, Venezuelan journalists have stated the government does not let them (journalists) obtain copies of official government water studies. Therefore journalists can only work with powerful real-life examples of contaminated water such as seeing dirty water in person or speaking with people who have become ill after drinking water. Therefore, under Chávez it was deemed more important for the government to be “correct” about “safe” drinking water rather than for people to be protected from life threatening illness.
While I personally by no means mourn the death of Chávez, I am apprehensive about the uncertain future now faced by Venezuela. According to the Venezuelan Constitution, elections must now be held within 30 days of the death of a sitting president. In these elections the candidate for Chávez’s Socialist Party will undoubtedly be Nicolás Maduro, the Acting President who was given Chávez’s blessing to succeed him. In all likelihood, due to the short notice of these elections, the opposition will once again rally around Henrique Capriles Radonski who faced off against the dead dictator in the fall of 2012. While the opposition recently did poorly as a whole in state-wide elections, Capriles remains governor of Miranda state, cementing his role as leader of the opposition.
There is no doubt in my mind that Capriles will lose in this upcoming presidential election against Maduro. The death of Chávez will prompt feelings of nostalgia for what he could have been since in actuality he was a corrupt authoritarian ruler. Luckily, though, for Capriles and the opposition, Maduro does not have the larger-than-life personality his boss once did. There will also be warring within the Socialist Party. The development of a fractured Socialist Party was made highly visible by the bickering between Maduro and Diosdado Cabello (Head of the National Assembly) as they discussed who would rule Venezuela while Chávez was in Cuba. A house divided cannot stand.
It is my sincere hope that while Capriles will lose the upcoming presidential elections, that he, the opposition and the press remain steadfast in their stance against authoritarian rule. Venezuelans must be offered a viable and united alternative to the oppression they have endured for over a decade. Now that Chávez is dead the opposition can no longer say, “We are not Chávez”. A new message must be spread among the Venezuelan electorate, one that emphasizes the importance of democracy and freedom of expression.
The implications of Chávez’s death also have serious international implications. With Chávez gone, Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be the face of OPEC. In Latin America, Rafael Correa will be the new Count of the Loony Latin Left since Maduro does not have the same gravitas as Chávez or Correa. Another factor worth considering is how Venezuelan-Cuban relations will be affected by the death of Chávez in the long-term. As previously stated Maduro will, without a doubt, be the candidate for the Socialists and win the upcoming election. Cabello, however, may eventually challenge Maduro, possibly by undemocratic means. How would Cabello interact with Raúl Castro? More importantly, it is only a matter of time until Capriles or some other opposition leader becomes President of Venezuela. Whoever winds up winning the Presidency in the coming years on behalf of the opposition will have to deal with a non-Castro in Havana. Will these leaders unite in extending an olive branch to Washington? Could a Capriles Presidency help end the Cuban Embargo by having a democratic Venezuela as an impartial deal broker? These are all questions worth asking and can now be asked thanks to the end of Chávez’s reign. While in the near-term Venezuela will continue to face many challenges, in the long run Venezuela is better off now that Chávez is dead.