The Hugo Chávez Venezuela loved—and the world never knew

Despite the many flaws of his government, Chávez generally remained within the bounds of democracy.
Despite the many flaws of his government, Chávez generally remained within the bounds of democracy.
Image: AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos
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A supporter of Hugo Chávez’s put it this way: “Venezuela is the most lied about country in the world.”

That may be over the top, but it raises a valid question: Did the world get an accurate picture of Chávez, of what he accomplished and failed to do?

To most people, Chávez was a bloodthirsty, crazed dictator who destroyed a once thriving democracy sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves. He was, the media and pundits told us, some kind of South American Pol Pot. But this was more of a cartoon caricature than a realistic portrait of the man—more demonization than balanced explanation.

For sure, Chávez was no saint, and his government—like any—had its flaws. It fell short on combating crime, corruption and bureaucracy. And it was too focused on Chávez as a one-man show.

But here’s what the opinion-makers didn’t tell you: Chávez was not massacring people or lining opponents up against walls before firing squads. He generally remained within the bounds of democracy, and won numerous elections that even the US government at times recognized as legitimate.

His government slashed poverty in half. It brought thousands of Cuban doctors into poor slums to provide free, 24-hour-a-day basic medical care. It also launched a massive free education program, virtually wiping out illiteracy and giving maids a shot at a high school diploma and others at a college degree.

And despite “one-man rule” allegations, Chávez—while no doubt a strong-armed, charismatic leader—also spawned a massive grassroots renaissance among millions of poor Venezuelans. They now participate in community groups that do everything from running soup kitchens to installing public water systems.

Chávez, for the first time in Venezuela’s history, fully redirected the country’s vast oil wealth to the impoverished majority. For decades that wealth was controlled by a tiny, fabulously rich elite—an oligarchy—that lived in gated mansions and jetted off to Europe while the majority subsisted in tin shacks. As the poor struggled to eat, the rich raped and pillaged the oil wealth.

In short, Chávez was the poor people’s president. And he was a symbol to millions of other poor people around the world who saw him as a beacon of hope.

Flawed? Absolutely. A brutal dictator? Hard to back up with the facts.

Those who want to dismiss him as a two-bit banana republic dictator may be condemned to seeing another just like him rise up in the future if they don’t understand what brought him to power—and continued to make him a hero to millions.

His death may only make him even more of a sainted martyr to the dispossessed of the world—and a warning to the rich who allow social inequality to fester.