In 2008, I was standing between a garage and a storage bin in the DUBO area of New York, talking to a Venezuelan woman about her animation business. As I was on another continent and unlikely to ever see this woman again, I decided to ask her what could have been an awkward question: What did she think of Hugo Chavez as president? The woman, whose company was based in New York and Caracas, thought about this for a while before commenting that given the choice most Venezuelans would opt for Western liberal democracy, but given South American's history with dictators, they knew they were better off than a lot of other people.
This response is typical of the way the left view Chavez. To some, he was a hero of the people, nationalising oil reserves, standing up to America and reforming society for the benefit of the poorest and most disenfranchised. To others, he was the embodiment of overbearing authority, intolerant of criticism, restricting civil liberties and harbouring foreign criminals. Regardless of where you stand on the history of Venezuela under Chavez, most people have to admit (at least grudgingly) that Venezuelan was probably better off with him than without him.
Hugo Chavez was President of Venezuela for nearly 14 years and, in that time, survived international pressure to remove him, attempted coups and won four successive elections. He also changed the constitution to allow himself to keep running for successive terms of office. Chavez nationalised Venezuela’s oil industry and played a difficult game, balancing American and Chinese oil interests against each other so that he never become too indebted to either side. He invested money in education and improving the lives of the poorest members of society, amongst whom he was hugely popular. He founded workers co-operatives and implemented a program of land reform. He also once sent a judge to prison for being lenient in sentencing a political dissident.
Chavez was born in Sabaneta in 1954, and grew up to join the army. In 1992, he attempted to lead a military coup, which was unsuccessful and landed him in prison. Two years later, he founded the social democratic political party and was first elected president in 1998. During his time in office, he had to contend with numerous democratic and undemocratic attempts to remove him from power. Chavez also cultivated friendships with Fidel Castro and Ken Livingstone, with the latter he arranged a competitive petroleum export contract which allowed the then Mayor of London to prevent transport costs from rising.
Amongst those on the left, where Chavez really divides opinions is whether he is among the last of an old breed of authoritarian socialist dictators, who have faded away in the first part of the 21st Century, or the blueprint for a new type of popular socialism, rooted in alleviating poverty and traditional leftist polices. It is a testament to Chavez’s massive popularity that he was able to be as authoritarian as he was - in most other countries in the world he would have required a stronger grasp to hold onto power, or would have been voted out of office. But Chavez’s appeal was always to the poorest members of Venezuelan society, who saw real improvements in living conditions.
Chavez’s thinking was sound: nationalisation, workers’ co-operatives, wealth redistribution, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, public education, and all the other things we on the left want to see in our governments. Where he fell down was in his implementation. Venezuelan’s infrastructure suffers from chronic lack of investment, industry is underdeveloped and the country still heavily relies on its finite oil reserves. Chavez implemented a lot of important reforms but failed to build a modern prosperous socialist society. The real testament to his legacy will be whether the next election brings in someone of similar values or the complete opposite.
The eyes of the world will be watching very closely to see what happens next. Unlike North Korea where succession was guaranteed, the possible outcomes in Venezuela are much more varied. Doubtless opinions of Chavez’s legacy will be divided - what will be important is whether future generations of Venezuelans look back on the Chavez years and decide that they probably were better off with him than without him.