Just because Hugo Chávez is a polarizing figure, which he is/was, does not mean we have to sit on one side or the other. It is not a matter of being pro-Chávez or anti-Chávez, especially for Latin Americans and Latin Americanists who are not Venezuelan. I got a little frustrated last night at the amount of airtime that CNN devoted to the views of Roger Noriega and Eva Golinger. For Noriega, who has often put his support behind coups and attempted coups in Latin America, Hugo Chávez was a dictator (Noriega is not really sure if he is socialist or fascist one though) and a threat to the US and his demise is wonderful news, while for Golinger, the man could do no wrong and his contributions to the creation of a better world are truly immense. What we need is a more complex picture of Chávez and what will be his legacy. Sure, Chávez put (some) oil wealth into social programmes, he provided a welcome and desperately needed challenge to US foreign policy and neoliberal economic policy and during the past decade or so, the Bolivarian revolution, along with the crisis of capitalism, has enabled socialism to become a thinkable and tangible political aspiration again in Venezuela and beyond. There is no end of history in Latin America today. Chávez also dared to complain at the smell of sulphur left by George Bush at the United Nations and got a new generation to read Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. On the other hand, the Venezuelan economy is in a mess and murder rates are astonishingly high. He was democratically elected, but he was also without doubt a masculinist, populist and authoritarian caudillo. Many people loved him, adored him, and many are grieving. Just as many will be rejoicing, and hoping that the opposition now stands a realistic chance of returning to power. Those grieving are largely poor, darker-skinned and disadvantaged, those rejoicing are largely wealthy and white. That class and racial difference is significant.
But Chávez’ political style actually jeopardizes rather than foments revolution, because it is built around a cult of personality, rather than around a dynamic and proliferating social movement. He changed the constitution so he could remain in power. And it is a model that he has helped to reproduce elsewhere, most notably in Nicaragua, where there is also a masculinist, populist, and authoritarian leader in power, who is also clinging onto power. Daniel Ortega was re-elected in 2011 although the Nicaraguan Constitution forbids re-election. Along with his wife, Rosario Murillo, he has taken Venezuela’s oil wealth, some $2.5 billion since 2007 (but they privatized it through a company called ALBANISA so it doesn’t appear in the National Budget), while ordinary Nicaraguans are struggling with the highest gas prices in Central America, people have lost faith in the electoral system and small children are still cleaning windscreens late at night at the traffic lights of the capital. But what will become of Nicaragua’s ageing caudillo and his destructive and anti-democratic determination to remain in power, now that his mate is dead? As Nicaraguan journalist and author, Sofía Montenegro commented on Twitter yesterday, with the death of Chávez, Nicaragua’s inconstitutional couple (Ortega and Murillo) has lost the goose that laid the golden egg. The death of Hugo Chávez changes Latin American politics, he was a significant actor that enrolled many other actors, in quite dramatic and decisive ways, in Nicaragua, in Cuba, in Bolivia. Without him, his discourse, his embodied presence and his bankrolling of his allies in the continent, these other actors will inevitably be reassembled and they won’t look the same in the medium to long term.