Death Comes for el Comandante: Hugo Chávez (1954–2013)

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Caracas on Nov. 27, 2009.
JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Caracas on Nov. 27, 2009

Like his idol, Fidel Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was one of the most garrulous and pugnacious leaders Latin America has ever known. That makes his death in Caracas today, March 5, at age 58, after a long and secrecy-shrouded fight with a cancer whose type he refused to disclose, feel all the more incongruous: Chávez, who for all of his 14-year rule was as loud and ubiquitous a fixture in Venezuela and Latin America as salsa music on the sidewalks, departed the stage in uncharacteristic silence after not having been seen or heard from publicly for three months.

But Chávez’s demise is likely to spark a constitutional upheaval inside Venezuela, where he and his socialist, anti-U.S. revolution controlled the world’s largest oil reserves, and where an electorate bitterly polarized over his heavy-handed governance must now hold a new presidential election within the next month. (Chávez’s Vice President, Nicolás Maduro, is considered the front-runner.) The most hotly debated issue is sure to be Chávez himself and his legacy — whether his firebrand reign in the end represented an advance or a setback for the Latin American left.

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Chávez called himself a “21st century socialist.” In reality he was a throwback to the dogmatic and authoritarian 20th century socialism of Castro, Cuba’s former dictator, and to the 19th century caudillo tradition of Chávez’s demigod, South American independence hero Simón Bolívar. Chávez hoped that being democratically elected would obscure the fact that he didn’t govern all that democratically. It didn’t. So it’s tempting to dismiss him as an anachronism, a vulgar populist famous for gratuitous yanqui bashing — for calling then U.S. President George W. Bush a malodorous “devil” at the U.N. in 2006 — an erratic and messianic retro-revolutionary whose country’s vast petrowealth let him indulge his Marxist nostalgia.

Chávez was all of those things. But if he was a leader behind his times, he still managed to influence them. Voters don’t make a radical like Chávez their head of state unless they’re mad as hell, and his stunning ascent altered the western hemisphere’s conversation when it needed to be altered. When Chávez was first elected in 1998, post–Cold War Latin America was awash in free-market reforms. Those changes were necessary, but their negligent implementation only widened the region’s epic inequality. Chávez’s bellicose neo-statism was hardly the antidote, but his Bolivarian Revolution, which steered Venezuela’s oil riches to the barrios for a change, was a wake-up call. It reopened the door for the Latin American left — and, fortunately, more moderates than Marxists walked through it, including former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose capitalist-socialist “third way” has since helped narrow the region’s wealth gap and brought countries like Chile to the brink of development.

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Leftists like Lula, in fact, are the genuine 21st century socialists, and their rise made the more doctrinaire Chávez less influential well before his cancer was diagnosed in the summer of 2011. Ironically, you can trace that decline back to September 2006, when oil prices were soaring and Chávez was at the height of his power and popularity at home and across the developing world. He could taunt Bush at the U.N. and hear applause from Caracas to Karachi — yet in a TIME interview the day after that speech, he all but forecast how his global and regional relevance would wither from then on.

As he drank a succession of guayoyos, or cups of Venezuelan coffee, Chávez told me with his famously caffeinated conviction that he now planned to turn even harder leftward. “I no longer think a third way is possible,” he said, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. “Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation. Only socialism can create a genuine society.”


After winning another six-year term by a landslide three months later, Chávez did turn further left. But chasing the mirage of ideological purity, be it capitalist or socialist, too often creates its own demons, especially authoritarian government and mismanaged economies. Chávez was never quite the dictator his critics claimed, and he did reduce Venezuela’s inexcusably high poverty — a large reason he won re-election last October despite Venezuela’s growing economic and security problems. Even as cancer made it hard for him to campaign, he remained the nation’s most popular political figure and defeated his opposition challenger by 11 points. Nonetheless, thanks to his own reckless and arrogant impulses, history isn’t likely to remember Chávez as fondly as his followers will.

(PHOTOS: Rise of Chavez: The Late Venezuelan President’s Path to Power)

It’s less likely to recall him as the crusader who toppled Venezuela’s criminally corrupt oligarchy in 1998, and more as the demagogue who led a failed but bloody coup in 1992. Or as the President who oversaw disastrous property and business expropriations, “media responsibility” laws that made insulting el comandante a criminal offense, and the elimination of presidential-term limits that he hoped would let him rule for life. It will view him less as the reformer who dynamically enfranchised and empowered Venezuela’s poor and more as the blowhard who presided over food shortages, the world’s highest inflation rate and South America’s worst violent crime rate. Less as the Bolivarian who worked for Latin American integration and countered U.S. hegemony in the Americas, and more as the polarizer who hurled sophomoric insults at Washington as well as foes at home — like his centrist opponent in last year’s election, Henrique Capriles, whom he called “a low-life pig” during a national TV address.

From the Plains to the Putsch
Either way, it’s not so surprising that Chávez favored the communism of Castro over the centrism of Lula. Born in rural Sabaneta, Venezuela, in west-central Barinas state, on July 28, 1954, Chávez grew up poor on the llanos, or plains, raised largely by a grandmother instead of his teacher parents. In Barinas he absorbed the sort of nationalist Marxism that got a boost in 1959 from Castro’s revolution in Cuba. Chávez learned to demonize the admittedly imperialista U.S. of that era and to deify Caracas-born Bolívar. He exalted the llaneros, the oft-defiant plains cowboys embodied by his great-grandfather, who had led a revolt against an early 20th century dictator.

Chávez’s schoolmates called him Tribilín, or Goofy, and made fun of his rustic shoes. But like so many Venezuelan lads of his social class, he found redemption in baseball (he was a good enough pitcher to get a tryout from the pros) and the army, where his Bolivarian self-image and his resentment of Venezuela’s venal, Washington-backed upper crust helped form an officer poised for rebellion — and convinced of his own grandiose destiny. As Venezuelan journalists Alberto Barrera and Cristina Marcano point out in their Chávez biography, Hugo Chávez Sin Uniforme (Hugo Chávez Out of Uniform), the military cadet had a knack for drawing “parallels between landmark events in his life and historic events” involving Latin American icons like Bolívar (whose remains Chávez would exhume in 2010 for a macabre autopsy).

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All that came to a head on Feb. 4, 1992. Chávez, then a paratrooper lieutenant colonel, directed a coup against then President Carlos Andrés Pérez, a cogollo, or chieftain, notorious for corruption scandals even as he imposed austerity measures on Venezuela’s working class.

The putsch, which killed scores of civilians as well as soldiers, collapsed after Chávez failed to take the Miraflores presidential palace in downtown Caracas. Still, the insurrection was cheered by millions of fed-up Venezuelans, half of whom lived in poverty, and by millions more across Latin America who’d been left behind by the region’s capitalist reforms. Chávez, a charismatic speaker who Barrera and Marcano note had a “religious and emotional bond” with the poor, became the people’s hero when, while being led away in his trademark red beret, he declared on live television that his uprising was over only “for now.” He was right: the next year Pérez was ousted on corruption charges; in 1994, popular clamor forced then President Rafael Caldera to release Chávez from prison. The cashiered officer decided to take power via ballots instead of bullets — and four years later he won the presidency with an astonishing 57% of the vote.

La República Bolivariana
Chávez, inaugurated in 1999, rewrote Venezuela’s constitution to make what he called its “sham” democracy more “participatory.” Under the new charter he won a special presidential election in 2000 that gave him a fresh six-year term. He began jetting all over the world to forge ties with leaders who, like him, disdained Washington — and, more important, to get fellow members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to pump up oil prices. The success of that campaign took the Bush Administration by surprise and increased the annual revenues of Venezuela’s state-run oil monopoly, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), from around $25 billion in 1998 to more than $125 billion in 2008.

But despite Chávez’s democratic credentials and his vast social projects—the misiones that brought many barrios their first clinics, schools, bodegas, potable water, decent housing and local councils—participatory democracy increasingly meant concentrating power in the hands of el comandante. His subordination of the legislative and judicial branches, his politicization of PDVSA and his frequent, hours-long television rants so divided Venezuela that in April of 2002 Chávez himself was the target of a coup. For two days he was ousted from office; but TV images of the elite reveling in Miraflores, as if it were again their private country club, sent Chávez supporters pouring out of Caracas’ hillside slums to restore him to power. The event hardened his socialist leanings — and his hatred of the Bush Administration, which despite its denials was widely believed to have backed the coup.

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That debacle was typical of Chávez’s incompetent opposition, as was its failed attempt to oust him in a 2004 recall referendum. By then, oil prices were in dizzying ascent, and Chávez’s social spending at home and aid abroad, called petrodiplomacy, was lavish. Leftist Presidents were being elected across Latin America, including Lula in 2002 and stalwart allies like Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Chávez was their standard-bearer, if not the whole region’s. He even presided over a formal bloc of half a dozen like-minded governments, called ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas). His big aim, as he told me in 2006, was to replace the two-century-old Monroe Doctrine, which had all but codified America’s dominance in the Americas, with his Bolívar Doctrine. It would be a “counterbalance” to U.S. hemispheric hegemony, he said, “a doctrine of more equality and autonomy among nations, more equilibrium of power.” And to a surprising extent, he and Latin America have realized that goal in recent years.

For much of his 2000–06 term, Chávez’s socialist bark was usually worse than his bite. (U.S. diplomats were known for cabling back to Washington: “Don’t listen to what Chávez says, watch what he does.”) He revered Castro and imitated the Cuban dictator’s cult of personality, but could emulate Castro only to a point. As U.S. journalist Bart Jones wrote in his 2007 Chávez biography, Hugo!: The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, “Venezuela was not Cuba, and [Chávez] knew it.” But as Chávez’s petropower swelled, so did his head and his mission to be, as he told Jones, a global “subversive.” If his verbal assault on Bush at the U.N. won him kudos in some quarters — he even said the U.S. President had left behind a satanic “smell of sulfur” at the lectern — it cost him standing in many others, especially as he allied Venezuela more closely with international pariahs like Iran and Syria.

Hurricane Hugo in Decline
Lula, who also won re-election in 2006, was by then Latin America’s standard-bearer, and Chávez’s hemispheric star began to dim. In 2007 he held a constitutional referendum whose central question was whether to eliminate presidential-term limits; Venezuelan voters, feeling perpetual-revolution fatigue, defeated it. Chávez simply forced another plebiscite on the issue little more than a year later and won, but in the process he made himself look more like Castro.

As the global recession sent oil prices south again, Chávez’s failure to rein in a raft of crises — including petrocorruption inside his own revolution, which produced a cohort of wealthy Chavistas known as the “Boli-bourgeoisie,” as well as military leaders, like one of his Defense Ministers, General Henry Rangel Silva, accused by the U.S. of aiding drug lords — began to stand out. So did declining investment and production at PDVSA. With Barack Obama in the White House instead of Bush, Chávez no longer had a yanqui villain to help him distract Venezuelans from those domestic problems.

The opposition, as a result, began making electoral inroads (despite Chávez’s efforts to disqualify opposition pols, via controversial regulations, from running for office). Then, in June of 2011, Cuban doctors found and removed a tumor near Chávez’s pelvis. Eight months later it reappeared, and most pundits questioned how he could carry on a re-election campaign in 2012, especially now that the opposition finally had a viable candidate in Capriles, the governor of Miranda state adjoining Caracas, to challenge him and his United Socialist Party (PSUV).

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After more treatment, Chávez declared himself cancer-free and went on to rout Capriles in October — because, he said, voters still revered him for “pulling Venezuela out of the swamp it was sunk in” before he came to power. Yet two months later he was back on an operating table in communist Cuba, where he could keep his true condition a more tightly guarded secret, and the world would not hear from him again. He in fact missed his Jan. 10 inauguration — causing critics to question whether, constitutionally, he was still actually President.

What Chávez couldn’t hide was the fact that his revolution was far too much a one-caudillo show, evidenced by the awkward government indecision back in Caracas during his long convalescent absences in Havana. Vice President Maduro, 50, who is Chávez’s handpicked successor and who for the moment is interim President, is likely to win the upcoming special election. But, given that Chávez’s 2012 victory margin was almost 10 points lower than what he got in 2006, it’s hardly certain that Chavism can be the same force without Chávez that populist Peronism, for example, has remained in Argentina after Juan Perón.

Still, whatever Chávez’s legacy is, Washington and the rest of the world need to remember the unmistakable reasons for his rise to power — chief among them a failure to build the kind of democratic institutions in Latin America that can close the region’s unconscionable wealth gap. That flaw still lingers, which is why the memory of Chávez should too.

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