A sculptor carving a political leader’s statue has fewer problems than writers, critics and thinkers trying to figure out one’s legacy after death. So it is with Hugo Chavez.
He ruled for 14 years, and would have carried on for many more if cancer hadn’t stopped him. While followers weep, opponents rejoice. What was Chavez really like? Visionary leader, or tyrant-in-the-making? The problem is that, we are not in a position to judge Latin American leaders, not knowing enough about Latin America to do that. The so-called experts on Latin America often get it all wrong. They either love him or hate him. What we can, is to evaluate on universal principles of leadership.
Political leaders aren’t lovable. They are likeable when they are good. Falling in love with a political leader is a dangerous and insecure position to be in. Hating them is a more common standard. I think I understand enough of our own politicians not to bother voting for any one of them. If I were Venezuelan, I’d have voted for Chavez the first time, though certainly not the last time when he had the economy in a mess and, worst of all, destined to head a government that was hiding the fact that their leader was terminally ill.
Chavez was charismatic. But that can be said about a lot of leaders, good and bad, in history – from Churchill and Nehru to Mao, Sukharno, Khrushchev and Hitler. Many successful leaders have been decidedly uncharismatic – De Gaulle, Clement Atlee and Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher come immediately to mind. Charisma alone doesn’t keep politicians in power. In the case of Chavez, the flow of oil money from surging international oil prices over the past decade helped a lot.
He certainly used that money to lift millions of Venezuelans above the poverty line and improve health as well as education and housing. But, after 14 years of rule by Chavez, the country’s infrastructure is a mess and the corruption that Chavez promised to deal with is bigger than ever – with a different set of people making money from the petroleum gold mine. As bad, Venezuela’s economy is more dependent than ever on oil, with 96% of foreign exchange revenues coming from it.
In retrospect, this is Chavez’s biggest failure. He could have used that oil money to re-shape the economy and reduce the dependence on oil money. That means heavy investment on education. Within fourteen years, a first grader will have moved through university. Chavez could have died knowing that he had laid a foundation for a better, knowledge-based country. He could have died having laid the path for new industries, a first class university, world class writers, filmmakers and other artistes. Instead, he leaves behind a country which, without the oil money, still looks very third world.
" Chavez was charismatic. But that can be said about a lot of leaders, good and bad, in history – from Churchill and Nehru to Mao, Sukharno, Khrushchev and Hitler "
One could argue that Chavez was hampered by Venezuela’s corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. But he had fourteen years in which to do something about it. When he was first elected in 1999, many left-wing intellectuals from all over the world fell in love with him (Many were more circumspect by the time he died). Nobel-Prize winning Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez was more circumspect right from the start. After accompanying Chavez from Havana to Caracas just before the charismatic ex-paratrooper took office as Venezuela’s president for the first time, Marquez wrote: “I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been travelling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist who could pass into the history books as just another despot.”
One could argue that Chavez should be judged on his foreign policy achievements, not just domestic issues. His most important legacy may well be his Bolivarian anti-imperialist and anti-American stance which helped inspire many Latin American nationalist movements, and the way he stood up to George W. Bush. But, if we are to believe what an aide said were his last words, Chavez died unhappily. He reportedly did not want to die because he felt his project – his country – was still unfinished. He wanted to live because he loved his people and do more for them. But it is doubtful if he could have achieved in forty what he could not in fourteen years. That’s a dangerously long time for any man to be in power.
He was certainly an improvement on the traditional Latin American despot, democratically elected and having survived a coup rather than grabbing power with one. His elections, while not totally fair, were not rigged. But where was he heading? The answer looks more negative than positive, but we can’t say for sure because we don’t understand enough of Venezuela and its politics for that.