After a bitter battle with cancer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died yesterday in a military hospital in Caracas. I have been reading several reactions from world leaders and members of society groups in the US and Canada, and it seems to me that fervor dominates Chavez’s passing. My views on Hugo Chavez’s legacy are very mixed.
Chavez epitomized the ideal behind the “Caudillo” figure, which I personally find detrimental to the spread of an individual’s ideas. This is especially true in Latin America, where political culture inherited by the Cold War tends to be reactionary by nature. If anything can be said about Chavez’s rise to power, is that his first election was a call by the Venezuelan people for change, albeit delivered by the opposite side of the political spectrum. But with Chavez gone, where will reactionary politics lead Venezuela? While many around the world rejoice, uncertainty looms.
I can understand the reasons why millions loved (and continue to love) Chavez, but not all of his policies were wise. In the area of peace, Chavez left a horribly polarized continent. Chavez’s hero, Simon Bolivar, believed in independence and unity for the peoples of Latin America based on our ancestral aboriginal and colonial past. While Chavez sought closer collaboration with other Latin American countries, he did so along profound ideological lines, leaving the region’s rich common past in second place. Colombia has never been any less Latin American than Bolivia, but its leaders have been at odds with Chavez’s ideas, and this has triggered severe divisions between both governments. There should not have been a reason to exclude countries in the region based on the ideological nature of their governments; dialogue and cooperation should have been at the core of these relations.
Irrespective of an individual’s political lineages, one cannot debate Chavez’s contribution to Latin America’s claim of ownership over its own political and social activities. Before Chavez became a political actor in the region, the only real example that Latin America had to support the belief that its own fate could be decided on its own was Cuba, and perhaps the governments of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Salvador Allende in Chile. In his 14 years in office, Chavez was able to empower an entire region, and make it believe that its destiny and interests could fearlessly diverge from those of the US. The prominence of groups such as ALBA and Mercosur bear witness of the region’s economic potential and ability to cooperate without outside interference. If there is a legacy left by Hugo Chavez in my mind is that he reminded Latin America that its land is strong and its men and women capable of bringing themselves up.
As a final note, I will not comment on his administration’s “dubious” human rights record, because any transparent and objective analyst would have to juxtapose Chavez’s alleged human rights violations with those of other governments. This task alone would take too much time and space, and would inevitably lead to cyclical analyses on colonial quests, fights against terrorism and other acts that could also be considered as human rights violations.