Rest in peace Hugo Chávez
Hugo Chávez, the revolutionary, charismatic, socialist leader of Venezuela succumbed to cancer on Tuesday, March 5. He was 58-years-old.
As a skinny-twelve-year-old, with big feet, played with his siblings in the Venezuelan border town of Sabaneta, he must have had hopes and dreams for his future. But who would have had the foresight to imagine that this ambitious boy would grow up to be one of the most electrifying presidents the region had seen?
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was born on July 28, 1954. He was raised by his grandmother after he and an older brother were placed with her following allegations of abuse by their mother. Television was a large part of his life growing up and lessons learnt from the entertainment industry remained a part of his showman persona throughout his life. He was influenced heavily by the father of one of his friends; a man who was a teacher, an historian and a proud communist. Here young Chávez was introduced to the teachings of Ezequiel Zamora and Simon Bolivar. Bolivar, whose struggles led to the freedom of the people of Latin America from the Spanish Empire, would become Chávez’s role model.
After graduating from Military Academy, Chávez often found his socialist ideals in opposition to his military duties. In 1992, Chávez and his underground Bolivarian Revolutionary Army attempted to overthrow President Perez in a coup. The coup failed and resulted in Chávez’s imprisonment. He was pardoned and released from prison in early 1994, by Perez’s successor, Caldera. He emerged with a stronger following than before.
Soon afterwards Chávez began his campaign for the highest office of the land. He formed a political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, and began his journey upwards. His platform was using oil revenues to end poverty.
These popular promises secured him the presidency in 1999, but following through was another ballgame altogether. Though some oil revenues were funneled towards the poor, a large chunk was siphoned off to Cuba. Chávez also used some of the revenues to support terrorist organisations like the FARC to destabilise neighbouring Colombia.
One of his initial acts in office was nationalising the oil industry, including the assets of Exxon-Mobil. He gained further resources to promote his agenda but lost the ability to produce at capacity as experts left due to the failing infrastructure and rampant corruption.
Similar effects plagued the farming industry when farms and ranches were nationalised and smaller parcels were allotted to the poor. Over the years these measures have forced Venezuela to import food where previously it was a proud exporter.
His popularity fell but his showmanship knew no limits. He made long speeches full of grandiose rhetoric. He appeared on a weekly TV show called “Alo Presidente” (Hello, President), on which he would speak for hours without the benefits of any scripts. He rants about capitalism were often and long, and his criticism of American presidents, both GW Bush and Obama, were talked about for ages. But as his ratings fell he had to struggle to be eligible for re-election.
In 2009, he was finally able to win a rigged referendum which would allow him to run indefinitely.
He leaves behind a limping nation for his successors; a nation made weaker by cronyism and nepotism.
Whether Chávez’s vice president, Nicolás Maduro, continues as the president, after the state mandated elections in 30 days or the probable opposition leader Henrique Capriles forms a new government, Venezuela will be facing challenges.
Chávez’s Venezuela has an inflation rate which stands above 22%. There is a culture of violence with prevalent firearms and a crumbling infrastructure. Every part of the country, including the judiciary and the army is severely politicised and it will be a challenge for anyone, without the relentless charm of Chávez, to hold them together.
On the international front, Chávez aligned himself with China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Libya and Cuba as he moved away from the USA, a major importer of Venezuelan oil. A new successor may see better relations with the US as a way to ease some of the economic problems of the country.
Hugo Chávez passed away unremarkably, ravaged by cancer. He took every opportunity to assure his adoring people that he would beat the disease but in the end lost the battle. His quiet end was quite unexpected, given a life full of dramatic performances. It seemed that throughout his political career he couldn’t quite decide whether he was an activist or a politician. But he certainly was an entertainer on the international stage.
Adios, El Comandante.
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