Hasta Siempre Commandante: The Legacy of Hugo Chávez

By Nikole Hyndman

The death of Hugo Chávez rocked the world of international relations. As foreign governments scrambled to make public condolence statements, the world remembered just what a controversial figure Chávez was. While he was adored by the Venezuelan people, he was a thorn in the side of Western governments. He was also a close personal friend to remarkably controversial leaders like Fidel Castro, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Muammar Gadhafi.

Amidst the demonization of America and capitalism, Chávez kept the world watching Venezuela. His unrelenting criticisms of the Western imperialist powers got him significant attention from Western governments. His alliances with staunchly anti-American states like Iran, Belarus, and Syria gave him both power and influence in the international system. Chávez shaped a new, more powerful Venezuela.  

However, with his passing, many questions have yet to be answered about Venezuela’s future domestically and globally. In foreign relations, the heartfelt condolences which came from Iran and Belarus were met with cold responses on the part of Western governments. The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper used his statement to Venezuela after Chávez’s death to let Venezuela know that the passing of their adored leader brings an opportunity for a “better” Venezuela.

This mixed global response was also demonstrated across social media sites. While some lamented over the loss of a great leftist leader, others voiced relief with the elimination of an age-old enemy of American hemispheric hegemony. A number of U.S. law makers echoed Harper’s opportunistic view point on Twitter in both Spanish and English. Clearly, the response to Chávez’s death has been polarized, but passionate.

Domestically, and throughout Latin America, the response to Chávez’s death has been one of grief over the loss of a leader which upheld the era of leftist guerrilla movements and Latin American socialism. Chávez’s dedication to using funds from the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), to finance an elaborate social spending structure made a considerable difference in the lives of Venezuelans that was reflected in the country’s socioeconomic indicators. Under Chávez, poverty dropped from 50 percent when he first took office in 1999 to 31.9 percent in 2011. Enrollment in secondary education and the number of Venezuelans graduating from post-secondary institutions have both risen substantially because of Chávez’s education spending. Over two million Venezuelans are now receiving pensions compared to less than five hundred thousand in 1999.

Social policy gave Chávez astounding domestic popularity. However, his foreign policy and international trading schemes with pariah states put him in the company of dictators and abusers of human rights and democracy. Chávez was often criticized for a certain lack of democratic transparency in his regime, especially in the state’s relationship with media outlets critical of the government. Chávez’s Venezuela saw the closure of over 30 radio stations, as well as harassment and intimidation of newspapers and television stations.

With Chávez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, navigating Venezuela through the aftermath of Chávez’s passing, many question the direction this country is going in. Will it continue to criticize the United States and form alliances which challenge U.S. hegemony? Will Venezuela continue to assert itself on the world stage through the manipulation of its relative oil power? Will Chavismo outlive its leader?

Only time will tell what is left of Chavismo in Venezuela. The recent presidential elections in Venezuela demonstrated, in Maduro’s slim 1.8 percent margin win, that Venezuelans may not be convinced by el Comandante’s successor. As controversy over what opposition supporters consider to be a stolen ballot dominates Venezuelan politics, it is clear that Henrique Capriles and his supporters are gaining real traction. At no point in the Chávez era has an opposition leader come so close to taking an election. Capriles presents a real threat to the persistence of Chavismo.

Nevertheless, Chávez will forever be remembered as a leader who held true to his leftist commitments, and cultivated unbelievable support because of it. Chávez may have had shaky foreign policy relations with important economic actors on the world stage, but he made his country globally significant. His commitment to the nationalization of the Venezuelan oil industry and impassioned social welfare policy demonstrated the complexity and importance of the state of Venezuela. While this is how the textbooks will be written, it remains to be seen what this will mean for the Venezuelan people.

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Nikole Hyndman is a final year undergraduate student of Political Studies and Spanish at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. 

For Your Reference:

Blanchfield, Mike. “Hugo Chavez Dead: Harper Issues Statement on Venezuelan President’s Death.” The Huffington Post. 5 March, 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/05/hugo-chavez-dead-stephen-harper-canada_n_2814363.html>

Flores, Jose Angel. “Hugo Chavez Wages War on Free Press in Venezuela, Other Latin Presidents Follow Suit.” Policymic. 2012. < http://www.policymic.com/articles/11212/hugo-chavez-cristina-kirchner-and-other-leftist-presidents-persecute-the-press-in-latin-america>

Johnston, Jake and Sara Kozameh. “Venezuelan Economic and Social Performance Under Hugo Chávez, in Graphs.” Center for Economic and Policy Research. <http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/the-americas-blog/venezuelan-economic-and-social-performance-under-hugo-chavez-in-graphs>

Lendman, Stephen. “Venezuela’s Bolivarian Movement: Its Promise and Perils.” VenezuelanAnalysis. 4 January 2006. < http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1556>

“Lukashenko laments over Chavez and Belarus’ imagine in the West.” The Voice of Russia. 18 March, 2013. <http://english.ruvr.ru/2013_03_18/Lukashenko-laments-over-Chavez-and-Belarus-imagine-in-West/>

Obejas, Achy. “Hugo Chávez and the Middle East: Whose side was he on?” 12 March 2013. <http://www.wbez.org/blogs/achy-obejas/2013-03/hugo-ch%C3%A1vez-and-middle-east-whose-side-was-he-106046>

“On Twitter, Leaders Show Mixed Views of Chávez.” The Washington Wire. 5 March 2013. <http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/03/05/on-twitter-political-leaders-react-to-chavez-death/>

“Palestinians and Iran pay tribute to Hugo Chavez.” The Jerusalem Post. 6 March, 2013. <http://www.jpost.com/International/Palestinians-and-Iran-pay-tribute-to-Hugo-Chavez>

Robertson, Ewan. “Maduro Proclaimed Venezuelan President Elect Amid Opposition Claims of ‘Illegitimacy’.” VenezuelanAnalysis. 16 April, 2013. <http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/8640>

Watts,  Jonathan and Virginia Lopez. “Venezuela begins seven days of mourning after death of Hugo Chávez.” The Guardian. 6 March, 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/05/hugo-chavez-dies-cuba>





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