After 14 years of presidency, Hugo Chávez, 58, reportedly died today of cancer, leaving behind an unfulfilled vision of socialism in his own country of Venezuela. Chávez pushed what he called 21st-century socialism, a Bolivarian revolution more commonly known as chavismo.
Critics accused him of fomenting class warfare, pitting the country’s poor against its middle and upper class. But for those thousands of poor, Chávez was a messiah, who spent billions of the country’s oil money on the misiones, welfare programs aimed at eradicating illiteracy and providing healthcare and education for the poor who live in the slums, on the hillsides surrounding Caracas and other cities. More than that, Chávez made the poor feel empowered, made the indigenous less ashamed of their roots or not speaking immaculate Spanish, and gave them a sense that Venezuela mattered on the world stage.
But behind the rhetoric and grand programs, Chávez’s record was spotty. In 2011, 8.5% of the population lived in extreme poverty, compared to 23% in 1999, according to government figures. Yet the country’s official murder rate has doubled according to official figures, and may be even higher in reality. Crime in the hillside barrios the president sought to uplift has risen. Prisons, hospitals and public schools are still some of the worst in the region, and trade unions have been left weak. “He kept hope for a revolution to come. After 14 years, we’re still waiting for the revolution,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst at the consultancy firm IHS, at a recent panel discussion in London’s Frontline Club.
Instead, Chávez honed his international image and forged alliances with countries in his attempt to build a multipolar world that could exist outside of the grip of the United States. “Never has a Latin American leader wasted so much money, misspent so many resources and misused such power. Chávez could have transformed the country, but instead used those resources to build a personality cult, push a failed ideology and decimate the country’s economy,” Moisés Naím of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington told the Wall Street Journal (paywall).
Yet, in doing that, Chávez has built a bloc of leftist Latin American states after his own heart, adhering to ideas of anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. And in the end, they might prove more resilient in putting into practice his principles in their home countries. “Chávez has had an extraordinary presence on the regional stage… he will have meant something,” said Jon Lee Anderson, a writer for the New Yorker, at the panel. In a recent article, Anderson wrote about the world’s tallest slum, housed in a defunct tower in Caracas.
With Chávez dead, Cuba’s Fidel Castro retired, and his 81-year-old brother Raúl promising to step down in 2018, the most prominent of these populist-leftist regional leaders is now Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who some call chavismo’s next comandante. Correa has vowed to “steamroll” through reforms that would make permanent a socialist model in the country, empowering the poor and dismantling what he has called an elitist system.
Bolivia’s first indigenous president Evo Morales is another socialist stalwart, and in Brazil a much more diluted brand of populism under Dilma Rousseff similarly promotes a world with where more of the world’s power comes from emerging markets. Venezuela might recede into the background after the death of its bombastic leader, but his revolution looks set to live on at least a little longer.