Within an hour of Hugo Chávez’s death, I saw the ¡Viva Venezuela Libre! pop-up on Facebook, celebrating the death of one of America’s supposed great menaces and one of the worst dictators of the 21st century. But in doing so, we have vastly simplified a complex situation.
If we actually face the facts on the ground, Venezuela was already free. The Organization of American States and The Carter Center certified almost every election he ran in as free and fair. In his 14 years as president, he used oil revenues, which had once benefited only the white upper classes of the country, to begin helping the most marginalized members of its very unequal society. Within that time span, hundreds of thousands of young people were given an education for the first time while poverty levels plummeted. There have been some violations of human rights, but far fewer than that of “democratic” predecessors under the two-party system that existed before, as Venezuela expert professor David Smilde has noted. His aggressive stance towards the United States and “neoliberalism” did not emerge until after a botched U.S.-backed coup in 2002.
The uncertainties under Chávez had nothing to do with democracy. He demonstrated a lack of commitment to the environmental goals he set out for the country. He failed to invest in industries other than oil, leaving the nation’s infrastructure in disrepair. Some of his social welfare programs were hampered by inefficiency and corruption.
On the international stage, his legacy must be remembered for a long time. Latin Americans of all political stripes have every right to mourn and remember Chávez. Perhaps no one since the liberator Simón Bolívar has done so much to improve the sense of solidarity in the region. He spearheaded the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, an organization aimed at furthering the region’s integration. At the community’s most recent meeting, Uruguayan President of José Mujica commented that the current sense of indispensible solidarity in the region would not have existed without his leadership. Even conservatives like Felipe Calderón of Mexico have praised his efforts.
Moreover, his election signaled the start of Latin America’s “Pink Tide.” For the first time, liberal and leftist leaders have been elected throughout the region without being forcibly removed. His example has shown that new forms of economic development could be tried. Some of the most important economic experiments are being conducted in places like Brazil and Ecuador. While conservatives disapprove, it shows that the democracies in these countries can support an ideological diversity that used to be limited violently by elites. More voices can now be incorporated into national discourses. And for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, inequality across the region is finally decreasing. Few leaders have experienced approval ratings as high as some in this new generation.
We should do better than to remember him for calling President Bush “El Diablo” at the U.N., and for occasionally shaking Ahmadinejad’s hand, which are probably, at worst, bad publicity stunts. The fact that undemocratic forces were not able remove him in 2002 signaled an affirmation that Latin America was no longer the United States’ backyard.
Gabriel García Márquez once remarked after having spent several hours with the man, that he could not decide whether he was just another Latin American despot, or the savior of his country. History has shown us that Hugo Chávez was neither. Like any statesman, he has made moral mistakes and policy errors. He leaves behind a polarized nation. But, if we as Yalies are supposed to pride ourselves with our ability to understand and contextualize a situation, we cannot write Chávez off as a tyrant. If we, as future leaders of this country (and many other countries), are to foster respect and a better relationship with our neighbors to the south, we must gain an appreciation for the complexity of their societies, their institutions, their leaders and their traditions. Just because he wasn’t our kind of democratic leader, doesn’t mean he wasn’t democratic.
Much of Latin America and a majority (yes, a majority) of Venezuela mourn today. For what he started and for the hope that he has fostered, I mourn too.
Francisco Diez is a junior in Morse College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .