Hugo Chávez would have turned 59 July 28. A general who was at his bedside when he died has reported that the Venezuelan president desperately wanted to go on living. Chávez saw himself as indispensable to his country’s future, which was simultaneously a noble and tragic flaw in his character.
The third in Chávez’s trinity of heroes was Ezequiel Zamora, a populist and brilliant general. In Venezuela’s fratricidal Federal Revolution of 1859-63, Zamora rallied Venezuela’s poor peasants into an army by promising social justice and urging them on with the cry, “Terrify the Oligarchy.”
Like Zamora, Chávez was viewed as an avenging angel by many Venezuelans after he led a failed coup in 1992 against Carlos Andrés Pérez, who a few years earlier had ordered troops to quell a mass rebellion in response to austerity measures that went against 1988 campaign promises. More than a thousand people were killed in what was a turning point for many Venezuelans.
After having served time in prison for his attempt to remove Pérez, Chávez entered politics on a platform of social reform promising to convoke a constituent assembly, address the needs of the poor and use the nation’s great oil wealth in service of the majority. He won the presidential election of 1998 and swept from power a corrupt and discredited political elite.
Chávez immediately fulfilled his promise to convoke a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. The assembly represented and was influenced by a host of social movements that sprung up from Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, women, environmentalists, poor neighborhood, and many other sectors. The new document, the first in the world to be written in gender-neutral language, set up new institutions to reinforce civic participation and checks on the traditional branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial.
Chávez also moved to retake control of the state oil company, whose executives had privatized many of its operations, had sought to withdraw Venezuela from OPEC and brought foreign investors into the country’s oil fields at bargain-basement terms. Commentators often suggest that Chávez was merely lucky to see oil prices rise from $9 to $60 a barrel, and later to more than $100 during his term. Certainly he was aided by Asian consumption and Middle East instability, but his policies contributed to his good “fortune.” He strengthened OPEC, which helped to stabilize global supplies and prices, took majority shares (with compensation) in lucrative new fields, and increased royalties and tax collections.
Most importantly, Chávez directed the new oil bonanza toward the needs of Venezuela’s poor, who played a crucial role in rescuing him in 2002 from a coup d’etat orchestrated largely by oil company executives, the old political elite and the private media. In 2012, the U.N. Development Program representative in Venezuela said, “Venezuela has really good performance through its [social] missions, where the issues of nutrition, the reduction of poverty, education, access to health, are really on track.” He noted that Venezuela had already achieved some U.N. development goals and was “on the way” to meeting others.
Oil diplomacy and promotion of social justice were also engines of Chávez’s foreign policy and account for why at home and abroad Chávez is often revered as a man of the people, one who was willing to take the bounty of the nation and use it for the advancement of Venezuela and the region, rather than for personal gain. “Bolivarian” principles were embodied in the founding of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) — an humanistic alternative model to Washington’s proposed NAFTA expansion via a “Free Trade Area of the Americas,” which Chávez helped to bury in 2005.
His leadership contributed to a host of new diplomatic and economic initiatives in Latin America that have enhanced the region’s ability to act more autonomously of the U.S. in global affairs. Poor Caribbean nations especially have benefitted from Chávez’s internationalism. In places like Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti and St. Vincent, Chávez is viewed more as a guardian angel than a “dragon in the tropics,” as his critics in Washington portray him.
The “social missions” were not simply welfare transfer programs; Chávez tied them, after 2005, to the notion of 21st century socialism. Chávez proposed amending the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 to include multiple forms of social and private property and a “new geography of power” embodied in a communal state. But unlike the process in 1999, the institutional renovation was largely a proposal from the mind of Hugo Chávez. His package of amendments narrowly lost a referendum in December 2007. He remained determined to build the communal state through laws passed by the National Assembly, then firmly in the hands of his party.
Were the positive side of Chávez’s life and career better understood here in the U.S. and abroad, I would worry more about note noting here his personal failures, missed opportunities, and top-down style of leadership even while his policies took into account those at the bottom. But, alas that is not the case.
There remain lessons to learn from this president who for 13 years made significant strides to deliver on his campaign promises and ameliorate the dire living conditions of Venezuela’s poor by eradicating illiteracy, significantly reducing poverty and opening the doors to a new life through health care and education for all. His faults and his virtues — which manifested themselves in actions and words that resonate deeply with Venezuelans, especially those of humble origin who remembered him with deep affection on his birthday — should also be taken into account.
Daniel Hellinger is professor of international relations at Webster University and author of many scholarly articles and books on Venezuela.