When a CNN notification woke me up from a nap in 2013 with news that Hugo Chávez had died, I first got excited at the possibility that Venezuela was finally exiting the dark tunnel it had entered over two decades ago. Then, the realization that the boogey-man of my time would never pay for his crimes —at least in this dimension— hit me.
Chávez was always a lucky guy. So lucky that he was absolved from his crime of attempted murder against a sitting president in 1992. So fortunate that the only thing standing between him and the presidency was an unpopular status-quo and the beauty queen he ran against in 1998. In the end, he was so lucky that he died just before his 21st century socialism proved fatal to every aspect of Venezuelan society, scattering more than two million migrants across the globe.
He was so lucky that he died just before his 21st century socialism proved fatal to every aspect of Venezuelan society.
History tends to romanticize those who die young. There’s the risk of Chávez becoming an icon of socialism: a Ché Guevara-like figure who ends up on the T-shirts and tattoos of hipsters across the world despite his crimes against humanity.
His untimely death left his life open to interpretation for many, especially because it wasn’t really until after he was gone that the horrors of the Venezuelan crisis reached the newsfeeds of people all over the world.
Earlier this year, during an explanation of the surreal Venezuelan situation that focused on Maduro’s incompetence, HBO’s John Oliver theorized that “as long as the price of oil went up forever and Chávez never died, the cracks could have been papered over.”
The typical Chávez biography frames him as a “controversial” leader who some Venezuelans saw as authoritarian and others as the Second Coming of Simón Bolívar.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, although Chávez’s opponents argued that he engaged in undemocratic behavior, his supporters pointed to successful education programs, increased access to health care, a rise in employment, and a more than 20% drop in the poverty rate under Chávez’s rule.
The reduction of poverty and increase of access to health care and education were temporary, as we all know by now. Yet they have remained talking points when discussing Chávez’s legacy.
He was a master media manipulator who spent millions of dollars to curate the parts of his persona and revolution he wanted to show to the world.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise, since Chávez loved mingling with the Hollywood elites that a true socialist would wrinkle their nose at. He was a master media manipulator who spent millions of dollars to curate the parts of his persona and revolution he wanted to show to the world.
For this, he enlisted the help of international celebrities like Sean Penn and Danny Glover, who protest capitalism while cruising through Los Angeles in a sports car and a Starbucks drink in hand. Some of them took Venezuela’s money and a picture before vanishing from the stage, but Oliver Stone created a documentary, South of the Border, that was available on Netflix until recently.
The brilliantly-produced film features Chávez at his most charismatic, taking Stone on a tour of South America during the height of the pink-tide, showing him how socialism really could work outside the pages of political theory books. It depicts Chávez as he wanted to be remembered: a leader of the people who used Venezuela’s oil wealth to free Latin America from the grips of the evil gringos and capitalism.
Unfortunately, his opponents have never had the financial resources of the world’s biggest oil reserves at their hands, and didn’t create a counter-narrative to the one Chávez sold to the world and that his minions are still pushing today.
The details most people seem to remember about Chávez are his social programs and remarkable charisma —not how he turned the richest country in Latin American into the worst crisis the continent faces today.
In line with most portraits of Chávez, the popular progressive American news site Vox.com describes him as being “loved by the country’s poor and working classes” and opposed by “the elites and conservatives.”
While it’s true that many supported Chávez before his death, it’s primarily because the shit hadn’t completely hit the fan yet.
While it’s true that many supported Chávez before his death, it’s primarily because the shit hadn’t completely hit the fan yet, and high oil prices allowed him to keep a steady flow of handouts to the increasingly hungry masses.
Yes, Chávez still pulled huge crowds to his public appearances, and yes, he was a charismatic guy who knew how to reach the hearts of Venezuelans. But elections in Venezuela have been unfair at best and fraudulent at worst since as early as 2004, and given the massive protests and dissent he faced throughout his presidency, it’s impossible to quantify just how popular he really was.
From his first day in Miraflores, Chávez used the nation’s economic resources to fund his political machine, immediately increasing his control of PDVSA —a move that would kickstart the rapid demise of the oil company that can’t meet production goals today.
By 2004, Chavez’s political foes such as Henrique Capriles Radonski were already being incarcerated and government employees who voted for his recall were being persecuted.
Still, every time he was re-elected by the biased CNE, the world acknowledged his win and framed him as a democratically-elected leader. Incredibly, it wasn’t until this year’s sham elections that the chavista regime was officially seen as illegitimate by the international community.
Only after decades of abuses by the Executive Branch has the world finally given Maduro the title of dictator his predecessor —by definition— also deserved.
More important than how the international community sees Chávez’s legacy, however, is how we Venezuelans see it, and how we learn from history in order to not repeat it.
Chavez’s image as a socialist hero is pushed by those who have jumped the sinking chavismo boat.
Chavez’s image as a socialist hero is pushed by those who have jumped the sinking chavismo boat and are now going around the world proclaiming the dangerous idea that their supreme leader was good and the real problem is Maduro.
Rafael Ramírez, the former PDVSA chief who presided over its destruction and recently left Venezuela when the thugs turned on him, told the BBC that Maduro was “dismantling everything Chavez achieved”. He added that the current government is “sliding rapidly into authoritarianism, which has nothing to do with Chávez”.
Then there’s Luisa Ortega Díaz, who has pulled the biggest pivot in Venezuelan history by going from chief oppressor to alleged freedom-fighter. Last year, when the unconstitutional Constituent Assembly was formed, Ortega’s main argument against it was that such a move would “threaten Chávez’s legacy”.
“Those opposed to the assembly are called traitors, fascists, terrorists —we cannot live in a country like that,” one of Chávez’s main players told Reuters.
Maybe Ramírez and Ortega were blinded by the wealth and protection they enjoyed at the expense of Venezuela’s well-being when they lived there, because dissidents have not only been insulted since Chávez took power, but have also been jailed, exiled and even killed.
Ortega, with the support of the “official opposition”, has continued to travel the world as the legitimate Prosecutor General of Venezuela and telling the story of how Maduro turned the benevolent Bolivarian revolution into a dictatorship.
Dissidents have not only been insulted since Chávez took power, but have also been jailed, exiled and even killed.
Of course, for characters who have played significant roles in wrecking Venezuela but left during the Maduro years, protecting Chávez’s legacy means protecting their own when justice comes knocking on their door.
Yet the truth is that Maduro has continued Chávez’s legacy in a way that would make his former boss proud, using a system of inherited kleptocracy to stay in power no matter the cost, which was also Chávez’s main objective.
After the attempted coup against him in 2001, Chávez focused on crushing all dissent and creating the current system, where anyone who opposes the regime faces political persecution and those who protect it are rewarded with wealth and power.
While preaching about Venezuelan sovereignty and railing against imperialism, Chávez handed the country over to Cuba in exchange for the effective Castro-Communist manual in how to rule forever.
He armed criminals to attack and intimidate protestors, forming the “Bolivarian Circles”, pro-government militias that would eventually evolve into the colectivos that have assassinated hundreds of young protesters.
Always true to character, Chávez’s final act once he knew his days were numbered was instructing the nation to elect his most-trusted man to continue his reign of terror.
Maduro can’t be separated from Chávez’s legacy because he is Chávez’s legacy.
Maduro can’t be separated from Chávez’s legacy because he is Chávez’s legacy.
What was left after fourteen years of Chávez was a narco-state with non-existing institutions, virtually no independent media, and a severely beaten-down opposition that has allowed an extremely unpopular dictator to stay in power.
Given that the regime has redesigned Venezuelan culture and education around propaganda that shows him as a heavenly savior, one must wonder who the children of Venezuela will blame for the tragedy they’re growing up in. In the current age of fake news, it’s important that we understand how Venezuela got to this point, and who led the way.
Chávez’s true legacy can be found in the children dying of hunger and searching trash for food across Venezuela, in the thousands who have died while fighting for their freedom on the streets or simply by stepping outside their homes, the millions leaving all they care about for a chance at survival, and the ruins of a country that once was.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.