Hugo Chavez’s Legacy of Conflict and Propaganda

Since Hugo Chavez’s death was announced a war of words has
erupted in Venezuela and abroad for control over the definition of
his legacy. Was Chavez an
authoritarian thug? Was he a
bold and authentic representative of the world’s exploited and
downtrodden? Was he a
human rights violator or a human
rights defender? A champion of the underdog or a bully?
Depending on what you read or where you are tuning in, he was one
of these things or the opposite, and occasionally he was several at
once. The debate will rage for years and millions of dollars will
be spent in hagiographic exercises or in efforts to demonize the
man. One thing, though, can be agreed upon from the outset—conflict
and confrontation was the defining factor of Hugo Chavez’s
political existence and it will also be his legacy.
Chavez burst onto the Venezuelan political scene in 1992 when he
tried to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Carlos
Andres Perez—a socialist leader beloved by the likes of Fidel
Castro, Francois Mitterand, and Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez. The Chavez
plot was to kill president Perez and his family and then subject
Venezuelan society to a cleansing complete with proscription lists
sentencing enemies of the state to death for various unspecified
crimes. Chavez failed, but after a brief stint in prison he traded
his military fatigues for a suit and exploded onto the electoral
scene, winning the 1998 presidential election in a landslide.
Historians and pseudo-historians favorable to Chavez have spent
the better part of his 14-year rule assuring the world’s
intellectuals that, domestically, Chavez embodied the spirit and
struggle of a neglected population of Venezuela’s underclass that
was ignored in a 50-year duopoly that never shared Venezuela’s oil
wealth. They have
used every metric at their disposal to claim that, on balance,
Chavez has been a significant step forward in Venezuela’s
development. Beyond Venezuela, his defenders delight in how he was
an impish and daring voice against what they see as a North-South
divide; that Chavez
stood up to the United States on behalf of the world’s poor and
The alternate view, briefly summed up, is that Chavez was a

narcissistic power-hungry authoritarian who presided over a
corrupt criminal enterprise he called a government. This view
maintains that Chavez divided Venezuela into two warring factions
while he and his cronies looted the country’s oil wealth and
embarked on diversionary foreign policy exercises that lumped
Venezuela in
troubling and sympathetic relationships with the dictatorships
of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Belarus.
Sadly, there are fewer articulate and honest critics of Chavez than
there are dishonest sycophants.
The public relations struggle over Chavez is not new but this
period will be its fever pitch. Chavez partisans both inside and
outside of Venezuela are aware that as long as they can convince
world opinion that everything that preceded Chavez was terrible—or
at least as bad—then allowance can be made for the faults or crimes
of his government. ;
Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University,
in The Nation: “Every sin that Chávez was accused of
committing—governing without accountability, marginalizing the
opposition, appointing partisan supporters to the judiciary,
dominating labor unions, professional organizations and civil
society, corruption and using oil revenue to dispense
patronage—flourished in a system the United States held up as
exemplary.” In other words, the previous governments were
appalling. There is some truth to what Grandin says. That’s why
Venezuelans polled in the 1990s favored an illegal coup and yearned
for a strongman. Chavez was happy to oblige.
However, a major modifier that Grandin and other Chavez
supporters like Pomona’s
Miguel Tinker-Salas, and Drexel’s
George Ciccariello-Maher, choose not to emphasize is the sheer
scope of Chavez’s sins.
Venezuela’s pre-Chavez democratic governments were messy,
inefficient, and corrupt. However, there were term-limits:
presidents could only serve one term and would have to wait a
decade out of office before seeking re-election. Government
included checks and balances to the point that Carlos Andres Perez
(who Chavez tried to assassinate) was impeached for corruption in
1993. Judicial appointments were previously made by factions from
various political parties—unlike under Chavez who, first, stacked
the Supreme Court and, then, personally threw judges who disagreed
with him in prison (the most prominent one, a female judge, alleged
she was raped there). Critical television and radio stations

weren’t shut down and labor unions marched and were able to
strike without going to prison under the earlier regime. Under
Chavez, the persecution
of union leaders was frequent.
Both monetary policy and the oil wealth collected by the central
government had historically been subject to audits and
congressional oversight from a bicameral body. Under Chavez, none
of the above was allowed. Accountability became non-existent. In
2012, Transparency International declared Venezuela the
most corrupt country in the Americas. From this perspective,
waste due to
mismanagement of the economy and theft from government coffers
during Chavez’s 14-year rule far exceeds the economic evils under
all Venezuelan governments during the twentieth century.
Completing a list of Chavez’s excesses, especially those that
starkly contrast with the governments that preceded him, would be
an exercise that could fill several encyclopedias. Unfortunately,
there is no institution or public relations team providing a
counter to the confrontational Chavez apparatus, whose talking
point hinges on re-writing Venezuelan history and stressing that if
the Chavez project fails then Venezuela would regress to an
unimaginable past.
Throughout the 20th century it was common practice among
propagandists and apologists of both left-wing and right-wing
dictators to use this Manichean approach—pointing to scapegoats of
an unimaginable past that would pave the road to rewriting history.
Fortunately, beyond the walls of a dictatorship and especially
after they crumble, history tends to put propagandists in the place
they belong.
Ironically, the most articulate voices in exposing Chavez have
come from those who, initially, appeared to give him the benefit of
the doubt. The best two examples are Brian A. Nelson, author of

The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chavez and the
Making of Modern Venezuela, which was named one of the
“Books of the Year” 2009 by ;The Economist, and Rory
Carroll, former Guardian correspondent in Venezuela and
author of
Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Both these
authors’ research led them to conclusions that contradicted their
own ideological positions, but by being honest intellectuals, they
were able to accurately report on some of the most politicized
episodes of recent Latin American history. To some on the left,
they might remain mere turncoats to their political and ideological
roots. Yet, this is precisely the key to the conflict over Chavez’s
legacy; it isn’t about empirical evidence, it’s about politics and
That human rights and liberal democracy had a rough time under
Chavez is
beyond question to the reasonable observer. And it remains to
be seen whether after his death the situation will improve or
further slide into authoritarianism. What can be definitely counted
on is that partisan hacks will continue to engage in a full
throttle defense of El Comandante, truth be damned.

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Hugo Chavez’s Legacy of Conflict and Propaganda

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