Bolívar in Brussels: Chau Chávez! (1954-2013)

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.

Image courtesy of www_ukberri_net, © 2008, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of www_ukberri_net, © 2008, some rights reserved

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.[1]

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.[2]  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.



10 Replies to “Bolívar in Brussels: Chau Chávez! (1954-2013)”

  1. This article reads like it has been lifted straight out of the right-wing US media. What kind of article about a person’s death opens with musings about celebrating? And how could you write an article about Chávez’s time in power without even bothering to reference his widespread popularity or the fact that he improved the lives of millions of people? I’ll leave a number of more minor points aside (many of which are similar to those made in my comment on your last article), but your highly ideological and frequently minor criticisms do little to substantiate your overall argument that Chávez was “an evil man” and that “in the long run Venezuela is better off now that Chávez is dead.”

    I’m not claiming that Chávez didn’t have his own flaws; of course he did, and some of them were very serious. What I am saying, though, is that this topic deserves to be treated with a lot more critical analysis than simply toeing the party line from Washington.

  2. “Evil” is not a word that should be used in analysis. It is a word of propaganda, of one-sided arguments that only recognize facts that fit a particular point of view, rather than objectively examining all data available to arrive at a conclusion.

    Where is your mention of Chavez’s highly successful fight against poverty? Of his establishment of free healthcare and education? Of the praise he has received, both at home and abroad, for his socialist reforms and outspoken criticism of the U.S.? It is more than fair to mention his severe transgressions and the words of his critics; Chavez concentrated far too much power in his own hands and acted against free press to a highly disappointing extent. However, as you have not even halfway attempted to analyze the full scope of Chavez’s deeds in an academic fashion, this article reads as nothing more than an uneducated personal rant.

  3. Aside from the bias pointed out in the above comments, this article completely misses the point of why Chavez was important to Latin America. Rather than being a bastion of democracy he symbolised unification and pride in a continent which is trying to leave behind the US-backed right-wing dictatorships of the twentieth century.

    Furthermore, I would say it is more likely that Morales, not Correa, will emerge as the new leader of what you call the ‘Loony Latin Left’ as his policies receive much more attention both in South American and in world media.

  4. Funny that you should call a man that was immensely popular and had the overwhelming respect of one of the world’s preeminent academics Noam Chomsky for most of his presidency a man who “was not respected by anyone.” Perhaps you meant to say he was not respected by anyone who reads the Wall Street Journal?

    Chavez always sought a mandate from the people and almost always succeeded in doing so; he won four fair elections and passed many policies through referendums. While Chavez indeed concentrated power unto his own position, particularly in the second half of his presidency, he arguably had a mandate to do that as well. On occasions when his referendums did not pass, he accepted defeat. Of course, towards the end he began taking overly coercive measures, intimidating judiciary bodies, silencing parts of the media, etc. in a manner that undermined democracy and lost him some respect from some particularly democracy-conscious academics.

    Aside from the fact that there is no mention of the monumental progress made in increasing literacy and broadening access to a decent education, you do nothing to even get close to proving your flippant claim that he was an ‘evil’ man. All you’ve done here is throw around some names of other people you deem evil. Awful piece of journalism.

  5. While I think that some of the things said in this article are said more for emotional and dramatic effect (you’re right, “evil” isn’t exactly a word used in analysis), Chavez was indisputably a leader with a checkered history, and much of the ire he gets (as well as the respect) comes from that.

    Domestically, Chavez did a lot to alleviate his people out of poverty. However, if you look at the region, almost every single country in South America over the past 20 years has lifted copious amounts of its citizenry out of poverty and firmly into the middle class. According to the World Bank, Venezuela actually had one of the lowest rates of economic growth in the region, suffering massive amounts of inflation and shortages. Poverty also was drastically reduced under Chavez, but again how much of this can be tied to the region as a whole than Chavez’s specific policies? Brazil, Peru and Colombia all reduced poverty incredibly effectively; much more, in fact, than Venezuela. Chavez was loved by his people (as plainly seen from the lines of people making pilgrimages to Caracas), but the political system he fostered under his presidency is deeply divided, and will undoubtably lead to political turmoil in the future.

    Of course, Chavez isn’t known to most of us as a domestic leader, but as a foreign head of state- and it’s there that he gets most of his controversy. Chavez was the main South American leader to fly directly in the face of the US- something that gained him almost as much love as hate. He evoked constantly the image of Simon Bolivar, which earned him a ten foot distance between the rest of the South American political elite, but because the image of Bolivar is tied up in heavy socialist imagery which was counter to many South American governments. People loved him because he was the head of arguably the most powerful South American country, and he did something with it.

    I would say now that Chavez wasn’t an evil man, but then again its too soon to tell. Many of the leaders from history we now perceive to be ‘evil’ are only viewed that way because of the exogenous effect they had on the world, whilst being hugely successful domestically. Adolf Hitler (I’m not referencing him for dramatic effect, merely as the best example I could come up with on the fly), was named man of the year for his economic policies that single-handedly brought Germany out of one of the worst economic collapses in history. Emperor Hirohito (man I am loving the WWII imagery today) forged the Empire of Japan from an isolated island into the 9th largest economy in the world, opening up Japan as never before to foreign investment and trade. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Nelson Mandela was considered by the entire western world a terrorist for much of the 20th century.

    Chavez wasn’t evil, Chavez was a politician and like all politicians, South American or otherwise, his actions were both good and bad depending on which side of the fence you come from.

    And to those that would critique this, may I remind you its a piece of JOURNALISM, not an academic discourse. The Foreign Affairs Review is a portal for the opinions of it’s analysts, not a banner for a particular political ideology. You can disagree fine, but don’t insult the writer.

  6. This article would have benefited quite a bit from at least acknowledging this “checkered history” rather than trying to prove just how “evil” Chávez was without almost any justification. But let’s just pretend for a minute that your point about poverty was even raised in the article in the first place. The piece would have been a lot more balanced, but the claims would still be contentious at best. Here’s Venezuela’s GDP growth for the past 10 years: Now here’s Brazil’s (, Peru’s ( and Colombia’s ( I’d say Venezuela has fared pretty well, wouldn’t you? Venezuela also looks pretty great in terms of other economic indicators, including its debt/GDP (36.3%) (compared to Brazil (54.4%), Peru (21.7%) and Colombia (45.6%)) and national poverty rate (28.5%) (again, compared to Brazil (21.4%), Peru (31.3%) and Colombia (37.2%)). (You may have noticed that Brazil’s done quite well for itself lately; is Lula a part of the “Loony Latin Left”?) Blaming Chávez for Venezuela’s economic woes is ridiculous; consider, for example, a look at inflation levels over the past 30 years: Even if poor economic management makes you “evil” (or just gives you a “checkered history”), the evidence just isn’t there.

    As for the point about this being journalism rather than academic writing, baseless claims and offensive opinions have no place in either. I agree that the FAR isn’t a “banner for a particular political ideology”, which is exactly why I made my point in the first place. It seems like others felt the same way. Whatever you want to call the things that you write about the world, facts matter. Buying into whatever you hear without bothering to question it, especially in an obituary piece of all places, is just not acceptable. Challenging unquestioned opinions and peeling away stubborn ideology is our duty as academics, journalists or whatever you want to call us.

  7. Seen from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it may in fact be true that the death of Chávez could leave Venezuela ‘better off’: I’m truly in no position to say. Yet this article would seem to stray from such an unemotional point of view.

    Several of the comments above have already noted the use of the word ‘evil’, used with surprising liberality. No man is without fault, and there are those with characters and careers far more dubious than those around them, something which is seen in greater relief when those individuals attain power. With this in mind, I would have to say that of all the arenas on offer, the sphere of International Relations and world politics is the least fitting in which to play ‘White Hat/Black Hat’. And whilst I doubt Chávez will ever be remembered as a saint, it seems juvenile that the one point this article does appear to make with any clarity goes little beyond ‘Ding Dong, the Wicked Witch is Dead’.

    If this is a post-mortem analysis of the man, then its bias renders it intensely flawed; if it is an obituary then it is, at least, merely insulting.

  8. Guys, guys, guys.

    You are all being far too grown up about this. Can’t we just call him a fascist and move on with our lives?

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