Chavez’s death leaves future of Venezuela in uncertainty


Photo courtesy of CNN

Hugo Chavez Frias, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, speaks to the media during a press conference after speaking at a General Assembly.

Lissandra Villa

He came into power in 1999 and was a change for his country because he helped the country’s poor. He was reelected twice, most recently in 2012. He was considered to be a charismatic leader. His name was Hugo Chavez.

“Charismatic means somebody who actually appeals to people beyond just practical reasons,” said Steffen Schmidt, university professor of political science at Iowa State. “It means that it’s a leader who has an emotional connection to his supporters.”

With all the good, however, there was a dark side, and the death of Venezuela’s president has thrown the country into a state of uncertainty, including its relationship with the United States.

Chavez died Tuesday and his position was immediately taken over by his vice president, Nicolas Maduro. Elections are set to take place in April, but what’s in store for Venezuelans is uncertain because of the way Chavez ruled.

“He undermined the opposition in ways that were really disruptive to Venezuela’s long-term stability as a country, and that, frankly, may lead to long-term problems with stability in the future,” said Amy Erica Smith, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State.

Considered to be a revolutionary ruler, Chavez had a 14-year term to bring about the changes that he wanted.

“Many people thought that he was a change, and he was a change, but not a good one,” said Alessandro Madonna, sophomore in mechanical engineering from Venezuela.

Smith said that among the changes Chavez brought about were changes in government to make it easier to pass his legislature and technical changes to the way representatives were elected to Congress made it easier for his party to win.

With his charisma, he easily won the hearts of Venezuelans under the poverty line, who he promised to aid, and earned the resentment of those who had to sacrifice for his policies.

“He created hate between lower class and upper class,” said Estefania Quintas, sophomore in mechanical engineering, also from Venezuela.

Quintas said that Chavez took into account people who hadn’t been taken into account before.

“He got to where he was because he created division,” said Rossana Blanco, sophomore in psychology from Venezuela, who has difficulty remembering a time in Venezuela before Chavez.

Blanco considers her views to be very biased. Quintas and Madonna consider themselves privileged as well, but a lot of Venezuelans disagree with the three of them, as proven by Chavez’s elections, which were known for being fair.

“That shows you that … a big majority of Venezuelans thought that their life was better because of Chavez,” Schmidt said.

A lot of people do think that their lives have improved, Schmidt said.

“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some really big mistakes that Chavez made,” Schmidt said. “Now that he’s dead, those mistakes are probably going to become a problem for his political movement.”

Included among these are policies that have ended up paralyzing business, discouraging foreign investment and reducing the supply of products, Schmidt said.

“If they can only manage their economy in a smart way, get oil revenue to go into building a new modern economy as opposed to just redistributing things and undermining business and economic activity, they should be able to come out of this crises and improve their economy, but it’s going to require them changing their economic policies,” Schmidt said.

Chavez’s political movement gathered a lot of its power from its anti-American stance.

Schmidt said Chavez built a lot of his public support by blaming the United States for a range of issues.

Another reason Venezuelan and U.S. relations have not been good is that the United States has wanted more influence over Venezuelan affairs. Schmidt said the United States was unhappy about the nationalization of private ownership and industry.

That’s not the end of Venezuelan and U.S. issues.

“He systematically tried to pursue friendly relations with the countries that the [United States] is most opposed to,” Smith said. “It’s not clear why he would do that except that he really believed that the [United States] needed somebody to counter its influence and vision of the world.”

Among those countries were Libya and Iran, Smith said.

“The [United States] and Venezuela have had an uneasy relationship for many years now, particularly since Hugo Chavez came to power, and especially with the rise of George Bush,” Smith said.

Chavez said Bush was the devil at a 2006 U.N. General Assembly, saying the stage no longer smelled of sulfur as he addressed the assembly after Bush had.

This came after the 2002 coup against Chavez by his opposition that the United States supported, creating bad blood between the two countries.

With President Barack Obama’s election, there was initial thought that things would get better. Smith said rhetoric did improve, but not a fundamental shift in the relationship between the United States and Venezuela.

“He had a vision of democracy that was dramatically different from the vision of democracy that we have in the [United States],” Smith said. “His vision of democracy was rooted first and foremost in the notion that some kind of material equality was needed, that democracy is impossible without people having some of minimal standards of living.”

Upper middle class and the wealthy in particular took issue with this.

“Instead of teaching people how to fish, he brought the fish,” Blanco said.

Venezuela, a country rich in resources, provides a lot of opportunity for business. Chavez was known for taking businesses’ profits and redistributing them to the poor.

“He defined democracy as socialism. He is famous for saying over and over again that capitalism is incompatible with democracy,” Smith said.

If Maduro is elected as Chavez’s replacement, Smith said most people don’t expect many changes. He would be running on behalf of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Venezuela’s major party and Chavez’s creation.

“One might expect that the tone of the confrontation between Venezuela and the [United States] will ratchet down once again [if Maduro is elected],” Smith said. “[In the short term] I would expect to find somewhat better relations between the [United States] and Venezuela just because Chavez was especially fiery in his rhetoric.”

Schmidt said that currently a lot of Venezuelans are very upset and unhappy because it’s a period of uncertainty.

As Blanco said, “He died, but he didn’t take the problems with him.”