His legacy will be debated for decades, much as people still argue over Juan Peron in Argentina. Many outsiders made up their minds long ago. There was Chavez the dictator who jailed opponents, sponsored terrorists and left his people hungry. And there was Chavez the hero who empowered the poor, deepened democracy and stood up to the US.
While based in Caracas for the Guardian from 2006 to March this year I would hear both versions on trips abroad. Dublin, Shanghai, San Francisco, it didn’t matter where, opinion was polarized and passionate. And completely depressing. This was Venezuela of fantasy, a cartoonish projection, each side parroting simplicities and distortions as revealed truth.
The reality was more complex and fascinating but if I broached oil dependency, or details that determined the fate of the revolution, eyes would glaze over. Few wanted to hear nuances of political economy. They wanted tales of the demon or gospels of faith.
There was, arguably, a duality to Chavez. The poor boy from the plains who loved to sing and tell stories rose up army ranks and attempted a bloody coup in 1992 against an unpopular, but democratically elected government. Six years later he took Miraflores via the ballot box, but in power created a personality cult, abolished term limits, curbed private media and put the armed forces, legislature, judiciary and state oil company, PDVSA, under his personal control. He turned a blind eye to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla camps near the Colombian border and hailed the likes of Robert Mugabe, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad as brothers.
However, the same president was adored by millions of his people, won free (if not always fair) elections, survived a US-backed coup, accepted electoral defeat (a 2007 referendum), spent oil revenues on health clinics, literacy courses and social programs, slashed poverty, devolved power to communal councils, stood up to former US president George W. Bush over Iraq, encouraged regional pride and assertiveness across Latin America and did it all with charisma and flair. The occasional clowning and buffoonery which grabbed headlines concealed a shrewd, sophisticated political mind.
Chavez, in other words, was — is — a hybrid: a democrat and autocrat, a progressive and a bully. His “Bolivarian revolution,” named after the 19th-century revolutionary Simon Bolivar, has embodied these contradictions. What, then, has it wrought these 14 years?
For Ruth Guerrero, a Chavista canvasser in Petare, a hillside slum in eastern Caracas, the answer was simple. “Hope.” The 56-year-old mother of three grew up poor and unemployed, unable to follow a yen for learning. Thanks to “Mision Robinson,” an adult education course, one of myriad social programs, Guerrero obtained a law diploma and now earns US$380 a month teaching at a Bolivarian university.
“Before that I had lived a life full of injustice. Chavez has been my teacher and leader,” she says.