With the death of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela is left in a state of contradiction with an uncertain future
As he entered his thirteenth year of presidency, Hugo Chavez continued to deteriorate from a cancer that no “miracle” claims were able to change. Early yesterday evening, the president of Venezuela died in Caracas, leaving behind a questionable, unfinished mark on Venezuela.
To discuss Chavez’s time in office, the Frontline Club recently hosted an event titled Hugo Chavez’s Legacy, bringing together a panel of experts who have reported from Venezuela and interviewed Chavez on several occasions.
Chavez’s government was one which commanded popular support, with Chavez rising as a symbol of socialism and revolution in Venezuela. Notably, the country benefits from a lack of ethnic or religious divisions and is, therefore, quite homogenous in this sense. Chavez won elections handsomely and allegations of fraud were never proven. He was described as amiable with a strong charismatic presence by many of those who met him.
However, as Rory Carroll, the Guardian’s chief correspondent in South America, explained, there was a “gulf between his rhetoric and reality” which rendered Chavez a showman. It is this rhetoric which, quite tragically, meant that he was often written off as a buffoon in western media. The simplistic assertion that he was a despot, the panellists argued, is inaccurate in that his repressions were “light and selective”.
Nevertheless, it is no secret that Chavez had huge international ambition, and as Jon Lee Anderson, foreign correspondent for The New Yorker, remarked, this was assisted by the fact that his counterpart in the US was George W Bush for a period of time – a “fool” on the international stage. With this as ammunition for encouragement, Chavez aligned himself with every country that opposed the US, which meant that he often neglected domestic affairs.
Carroll – who has discussed the Caracas political court at length in his new book Comandante, due to be released tomorrow - highlighted the fact that Chavez continued to deny both his own physical decay and the decay of Venezuelan society. This deterioration is glaringly visible in Venezuela’s public services today. Anderson worked on a 12-page spread titled Slumlord: What has Hugo Chavez wrought in Venezuela. He described how his recent visit to Venezuela, without the robust presence of Chavez, gave him the opportunity to view Venezuela in a different way. Whereas before poverty was only visible on the hills and the centre remained a “boring, pristine” North American city, now “slumification” was evident everywhere.
The public hospitals have been described as the worst hospitals in Latin America, with glass strewn on the floors, blown light bulbs and regular shootings. The death rate in prisons, too, is shocking, with figures higher than Brazil or Mexico, and authorities classifying strangling as suicide to reduce the appearance of the murder rate. In one particular prison that Anderson visited from the outside, astonishingly, there have been no entries from officials in six years, except one guard hand-picked by the inmates to collect dead bodies. The drug and weaponry trade is rife, even within these prisons.
The key issue which the panellists agreed on was the “unevenness of all programmes” produced by the government and the severe failure of policy implementation in Venezuela, with competent people being placed in the wrong positions, and with public image being prioritised over governance.
Government projects have been doomed to fail from the outset. Real estate is being forcibly acquired, then bought and sold. The slums are considered the “most insecure” in harbouring extreme violence, while new buildings are being “slapped-up” in a haphazard way.
The main talent of Chavez, Anderson argued, was keeping the hope of revolution in the people – a revolution which didn’t come to fruition. But the revolution was real in the hearts of the citizens, and that has huge social value in itself. And Carroll concluded that the sporadic positive stories that have emerged from Venezuela, sadly, are unlikely to outlive Chavez.
It is difficult to envisage Venezuela without Chavez at the reins. The country has new challenges with an extortionate social debt and ever increasing oil prices. It remains to be seen whether the next president – likely to be current Vice-President Nicolás Maduro, a bus driver turned union leader – will be accepted by the armed forces and, moreover, whether he can bring about positive change.
Photo Credits: Associated Press / Ariana Cubillos
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