Like almost any other outstanding leader, Hugo Chavez polarized society, and assessments of his political legacy will differ dramatically. His rise to international fame was evidence of major shifts in global politics: before him, the presidents of countries like Venezuela rarely became global stars.
The feeling that the liberal political and economic model had come to dominate the global stage prompted a search for an alternative model. No wonder Chavez and his ardent advocacy of “21st century socialism” resonated with left-wing forces all over the world, especially in places where discontent with the US domination was growing fast.
No matter what his opponents say about the political system in Venezuela under Chavez, it was definitely not a one-party dictatorship.
On the whole, Chavez was quick to see that dictatorships were becoming outdated at the end of the 20th century. People around the world, from Eastern Europe to East Asia, from southern Africa to South America, demanded the right to influence their rulers.
But Bolivarian socialism is unlikely to survive long after Chavez’s death. Like secular socialism, it is good for redistributing incomes – oil-rich Venezuela will have enough funds for redistribution in the next couple of decades – but it cannot encourage economic efficiency or private enterprise. Chavez’s large-scale foreign policy initiatives will soon wither away, because Venezuela will not have enough money to satisfy its global ambitions no matter how high the oil price.
However, this does not mean that Chavez was king for a day who could not influence the course of history. It may sound shocking, but Chavez was not unlike Augusto Pinochet, even though they were diametric opposites politically and very different human beings. But a closer look at these two military men, both of whom became presidents, reveals one more thing they had in common: their policies, even though discarded by their followers, changed the political stage by adding new elements to it.
Chilean President Augusto Pinochet launched neoliberal reforms that revived the Chilean economy, which had been undermined by years of shoddy governance and almost finished off completely by the socialist experiments of Salvador Allende. Of course, Pinochet’s repressive methods are not acceptable, and his economic excesses soon became evident and had to be dealt with. His departure was not mourned and he spent the last few years of his life hiding from international justice. But when he ruled the country, he and his supporters promoted a policy of economic responsibility, which is still working. From 1989, when Pinochet left the post of president, until the end of the 2000s, the country was led by left-wing forces, that is, the dictator’s former opponents and the supporters of the man he deposed, Salvador Allende. Yet Chile remains an efficient state with a stable economy, and the changes launched by subsequent democratic governments have not eroded the healthy foundation laid by Pinochet.
The situation in Venezuela is completely different. Chavez added an important element – justice – to Venezuelan politics. Compared to other Latin American countries with a similar social structure, Venezuelan society was extremely segregated, with a haughty aristocracy looking down on the impoverished masses. These masses elected Chavez because they saw him as one of their own, and in response he turned his policy around to face the poor.
You cannot keep redistributing wealth forever, so Venezuela’s policy will change. But even if right-wing forces come to power, they will be unable to ignore what Chavez has taught the people, which is to fight for their rights, and so these forces will have to maintain the social aspect of their economic policy and possibly even strengthen it.
Justice is now one of the biggest words in global politics. It is what people demand when they are dissatisfied with their country’s economic system and when they question the political privileges of the “chosen” countries, such as the permanent members of the UN Security Council or the G8 nations.
An extravagant and sometimes even grotesque person, Chavez inspired many people in Latin America and influenced global politics through them. The new leaders who have come to power in neighboring countries are following in Chavez’s footsteps by catering to the poor majority. There is no future for the inflammatory anti-Americanism of Hugo Chavez, but leaders from Chile and Argentina to Brazil and Mexico have shown that they will not toe the US line, as their predecessors did in the past.
Hugo Chavez was a man of his time. Now that he is gone, the world will not only remember his revolutionary statements, but also the measures he implemented to the benefit of his country.