The mood was somber in my house on Tuesday night and on Wednesday, after hearing of the death of Hugo Chávez. The president had not appeared in public since early December 2012, was fighting cancer and a mysterious respiratory infection, and had lost the ability to speak, yet Venezuelans I know seemed to assume that he would return. His passing even shocked silent the Chigüire Bipolar for a day. In human terms, it was difficult to assimilate the passing of a figure who cast such a large shadow over contemporary Venezuela and who directly or indirectly affected the lives of so many current and future Venezuelans (amazingly, my Venezuelan wife had never voted in a presidential election without him on the ballot). Indeed, for someone who led his country with such conviction and outsized gusto and rhetoric, the circumstances of the comandante’s death were much more eliot (as in t.s.) than Sid Vicious.
Assessing Chávez’s legacy will be the work of generations of social scientists and historians. His tangible legacy is much clearer than the intangible one (as, I suppose, is often the case with all tangibles and intangibles): he leaves an economy in shambles, a bloated and inefficient public bureaucracy, an enormous public debt, and dated infrastructure. Corruption is rampant. Homicide rates are at record highs, and political institutions are weak or non-existent. Despite enjoying record high oil prices over the past dozen years, the country suffers from food shortages on such basic items as meat, sugar, milk, and Harina P.A.N., the corn flour for every Venezuelans' daily arepa. At the official exchange rate, Harina P.A.N. imported from Colombia is cheaper in Washington, D.C. than it is in Caracas. And when my wife and I were married in the Andean state of Táchira in 2011, we arranged for family and friends to arrive via Colombia rather than Venezuela because official exchange rates in Venezuela made the cost prohibitively expensive.
Of course, I probably have Chávez and his friends to thank for my marriage in the first place: Rebeca signed the 2003 petition for the 2004 presidential recall referendum, and her name was subsequently published on the lista Tascón. As with innumerable other Venezuelans, this leaked signature limited the possibility of public sector employment, and she chose instead to seek a Master’s Degree in Ecuador, where I met her. Later, she came to the U.S., where work was more forthcoming. More shockingly, she is one of nine public high school classmates (of 37) who have escaped political or economic conditions in Venezuela to work abroad. I have no doubt that Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution genuinely hoped to sew economic development and social equality while giving voice to the poor. But the lista Tascón incident is representative of a broader pattern of intimidation and politicization of public life that marked Chávez’s tenure—especially after 2002.
It is difficult to discuss Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution without taking sides. The president’s rhetoric was often inflammatory and polarizing, with accusations and conspiratorial plots hurled against enemies, real or perceived. Chávez cultivated enemies like Bush and Uribe, and friends like Putin, Lukashenko, and Ahmadinejad, and his international and domestic role was often that of a dangerous provocateur. It is his leadership (and oil money) that permitted the creation of ALBA and UNASUR. He was, if nothing, consistent across domestic and international in his political intransigence. Of course, this stubbornness was fueled by the often disorganized and uninspired opposition forces, which consistently underestimated the breadth and width of Chávez’s support and foolishly perpetrated a coup d’état with the silent consent of a pliant U.S. in 2002. Any trace of compromise from the government disappeared with this enormous blunder.
H.L. Mencken famously wrote that a demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots. As popular elections proved over and over again, Chávez was only a demagogue in the eyes of 40% of Venezuelans; he was a patron and hero to the rest. In January I visited Western Caracas, around the area of Pérez Bonalde and near the neighborhood 23 de enero (where a rally lead by the Communal Council and a PSUV deputy commemorating the fall of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez famously armed young children with Kalashnikovs while flanked by graffiti of an armed Jesus). Leaving the metro, there was a National Electoral Council booth in the station for people to register to vote. Up the stairs, in the light of day, I encountered people scurrying in and out of a Misión Alimentación office with food, a line for free eye exams as a part of Misión Milagro, and hand-written signs for people to enroll to improve their literacy in Misión Robinson. Like so many ringing it, this neighborhood with unfinished buildings and even unpaved roads was being offered basic government services at little or no cost. The political recognition and electoral mobilization of these sectors means that Venezuelan leaders can no longer ignore the poor. In fact, social programs targeted at alleviating poverty have become standard fare for opposition leaders, a much-welcomed addition to party platforms.
Still, Chávez leaves behind a bitterly divided, polarized country. He preached a politics of exclusion, especially after the failed coup of 2002 and with greater gusto after the PDVSA strike of 2002-2003. Under his rule, a violent society grew from bad to worse. According to UNODC Homicide Statistics, Venezuela had the fifth-highest homicide rate in the world in 2010, unmatched by middle-income countries. Sadly, many Venezuelans are numbed to the carjackings, murders, and secuestros express that take place around them. Playing dominos with my brother-in-law and his friends one night, they regaled me their or their families’ experiences of robberies and kidnappings; I was the only one of the bunch without a story. Another high school classmate of Rebeca’s was murdered at an ATM in her hometown, the victim of a robbery. Chávez himself proclaimed to be the center of innumerable assassination attempts, and wore bulletproof clothing constantly, including bulletproof liqui liquis. Perhaps this violence and fear of violent death makes Chávez’s passing at the hand of the insidious but too common cancer even more startling.
What happens now? Well, following the trail blazed by Chávez himself, the government has decided to ignore article 233 of the 1999 Constitution and appoint Vice-President Nicolás Maduro as President instead of Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. There will be elections—maybe in thirty days, maybe more—, and Maduro will win, bolstered by sympathy for Chávez and the promise of continuing his revolution. Unfortunately for Maduro, he will be stuck with cleaning up the mess created by Chávez, the violence, the economic situation, the crumbling infrastructure, without the benefit of Chávez’s charisma, force of personality or iron control over those around him. Things will not change much in the short-term, little-lone overnight. The same people are in power, the lack of institutionality endures, and still 50% of the population supports the PSUV. Chavismo may live on, but it will not remain in power indefinitely. Henrique Capriles’ time will come.
Chávez long expressed that he wanted to be buried in Sabaneta, his family’s hometown in the llano. Forty-eight hours after his official death, while millions mourned his absence, Interim President and successor Maduro has announced instead that the ex-President would be embalmed and displayed "so that the whole world can contemplate it like Ho-Chi Ming, Lenin, and Mao Tse Tung". Chávez would have little right to complain; it is he who handpicked Maduro, Cabello, Elías Jaua, et al., and it is he who is ultimately responsible for creating his own myth. Rather than resting in linda Barinas, tierra llanera, Chávez will no doubt transcend the economic and political turmoil he leaves behind as a symbol for anti-imperialism and the poor. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the majority of Venezuelans.