Chavez leaves a revolutionary legacy


Photo courtesy of UNTV/CNN

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spoke Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009, at the United Nations General Assembly.

CNN Wire Service

Charismatic and combative, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cultivated a larger-than-life appearance. But even after 13 years in office, his legacy may be more fleeting than his outsize personality suggested.

Chavez, 58, died Tuesday afternoon, according to the country’s vice president. Chavez had battled cancer.

Supporters and opponents alike can name ways Venezuela has been transformed while Chavez was in office — poverty is down, crime is up, polarization has become the status quo — but the changes may not be as ingrained as they seem.

The cornerstone of Chavez’s presidency was the Bolivarian Revolution, his ambitious plan to turn Venezuela into a socialist state. The most visible symbols of the revolution were the numerous social “missions” aimed at eradicating illiteracy, distributing staple foods and providing health care in all corners of the country.

Social programs were not new to Venezuela, but Chavez elevated them in scope and prominence.

“The most positive legacy that Chavez has is that he put his finger on a legitimate grievance that many Venezuelans have: social injustice,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research and policy center in Washington. “Whoever succeeds him is going to have to deal with that question.”

Chavez was elected and re-elected in large part thanks to support from the country’s poor, who felt marginalized by previous governments.

He tapped into their needs and frustrations — often through confrontations with the Venezuelan elite — and promised that the country’s vast oil wealth would be redistributed to the poor.

According to World Bank statistics, the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line declined from a peak of 62 percent in 2003 to 29 percent in 2009. In the six-year period between 2001 and 2007, illiteracy fell from 7 percent to 5 percent.

“The result is that going ahead, any future government is going to have to put this front and center,” Shifter said.

This much was apparent during the last presidential contest, in which opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski criticized Chavez’s missions for mismanagement but promised to fix them rather than do away with them.

In October, Venezuelans opted to give Chavez another six-year term.

“(Chavez) has definitely given an identity and feeling of self-respect to people who felt invisible and ignored,” said Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “The lasting thing about this is, people who benefited will continue to demand participation in the political and social system.”

This political awakening among the lower classes, however, does not translate into a lasting solution to poverty, analysts say.

Chavez did not create a system to make these benefits sustainable, for instance, by not investing enough in infrastructure, McCoy said.

The president’s programs provided assistance without creating jobs, Shifter said.

“This is not a sustainable model,” he said. “It’s a lost opportunity.”

Chavez also will be remembered for undermining the checks and balances in his country.

Venezuela always had a strong presidency, and Chavez further consolidated power in the executive.

As the president wielded more power, institutions such as the electoral commission and the judiciary were politicized and stacked in Chavez’s favor.

Gone were the two parties that traditionally alternated power. In its place came one party, and one man.

“His presidency shattered the political universe that existed before,” said Charles Shapiro, president of the Institute of the Americas and former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela during Chavez’s tenure.

The government centered on Chavez, and his followers became known as chavistas.

“Too often he has been portrayed as a clownish character, but to the people who support him, he is a rock star and very capable politician,” Shapiro said.

The fervor of his followers, combined with the disdain of the upper classes, created a polarization in Venezuela that runs deeper than anything blue or red in the United States. Supporters and opponents of Chavez “in many ways deny the other side that they have the right to hold their views,” Shapiro said.

He stirred nationalistic sentiment and popularity by picking fights with the “imperialist” United States and its allies among the Venezuelan opposition. He used his combative speeches to drive a wedge between the working class and the elite in his country.

One former high-ranking U.S. State Department official recalled a meeting with Chavez in the early 2000s where the two sides had a “fairly good” conversation.

“In person, one-on-one, he can be very charming. He’s smart; he can be accommodating,” the former official said.

But immediately after the productive meeting, Chavez appeared on television, “totally mischaracterizing” the conversation.

It was a Chavez trait that U.S. officials saw repeatedly.

“He just gets carried away. There’s something that animates him, and he moves into this demagogic, accusatory mode,” the former official said.

But Chavez’s fiery and divisive style is not assured to become a hallmark of future leaders, even if his party retains power.

“It’s a classic problem of a charismatic leader,” the former State Department official said. “His authority is based on his personal appeal to his supporters, and there are very few people who would be able to replace him.”

Just as important as the things he changed are the things Chavez didn’t change.

Under his watch, the country’s dependence on oil revenue continued. A new model of state capitalism didn’t bring to fruition the promises of a revived economy. The government institutions, which were weak before Chavez, are politicized now but remain weak.

The fruits of Chavez’s legacy, for good or bad, have not changed the course of Venezuela as dramatically as his public relations machine portrays.

Those who have studied Venezuela agree: Before Chavez, there were already oil funds being diverted to the poor. There was already the nationalization of some industries. There was always corruption and weak governmental bodies.

Chavez enhanced some of these policies and repackaged others and added his own anti-American flare to it.

“I don’t think he’s been as much of an innovator as people seem to say, because there is a history of redistributive politics in Venezuela,” the former State Department official said.

Most of what Chavez has accomplished can be undone, even if not overnight, the analysts said.

“This is simply a sad situation where there was a lot of promise and a lot of hope and a lot of possibilities, but his appetite for power and disdain for institutions has made it unsuccessful,” Shifter said.