Chileans are known as a buttoned-up bunch in Latin America. We only legalized divorce in 2004, and envy the salsa dancing skills of our northern neighbors. We are a colder country, literally and figuratively. Other Latin Americans are surprised by Santiago’s tidy streets. They are shocked to meet Pinochet apologists (I am not one of them, but I have friends who are). Even Salvador Allende, our socialist president from the 1970s, preferred the politician’s suit and tie to the berets and uniforms of Chávez or Fidel.
Though I am left of center, I certainly have that Chilean conservative streak: Latin America should not cry over Hugo Chávez’s political demise. I mourn the death of a man, but I will not mourn the death of his project. Chávez kindled noble hopes of equality and justice for the poor, but this only makes failure even more tragic.
I sympathize with Chávez’s goals of redistribution in a region with bleak inequality. Even in relatively prosperous Chile, my high school years were marked by this invisible divide. You simply never met people who lived outside a certain part of the city. They dressed differently, spoke differently. Many of the kids in my uptown school had never ridden the Santiago subway. I imagine that in pre-Chávez Venezuela, with a stronger racial barrier and after two decades of stagnation and corruption, inequality must have been even more painful. I understand the rise of Chavismo.
Two wrongs, however, do not make a right. Armed with idealism and petrodollars, Chávez could have done more for his country’s economy. With so much money, growth was inevitable. Yet after 14 years of 21st century socialism, the country’s infrastructure is in shambles, corruption remains pervasive and Venezuela has returned to the perennial Latin American curse of high inflation.
This I can forgive. As supporters point out, Chávez drastically reduced inequality and poverty. But what really bothers me is Chávez’s steady erosion of democratic rights. Democracy is more than free elections. I am sure he would have won anyways, but the 2012 election was hardly fair. Chávez’s candidacy violated the term limits of his own 1999 constitution. And can you imagine a U.S. presidential candidate refusing to debate with his opponent, denigrating him on national television instead? He did this with his unlimited access to airtime. Chávez had also previously shut down several opposition media outlets. It is true that the opposition supported a coup attempt in 2002, but many apologists fail to mention Chávez’s own failed coup 10 years earlier. These are hardly the actions of a committed democrat.
Some Chavistas argue that their leader’s social goals, coupled with the violations of earlier regimes, justified these democratic shortcomings. This comes awfully close to what I hear from my pro-Pinochet friends back home: that the ends justify the means, that some oppression is needed for an economic objective and that the predecessor violated rights more seriously anyway.
Latin America does not need to sacrifice democracy to achieve justice. Witness Chile. Under a stable democracy after 1990, with truly fair elections, no state control of the media and no acid insults of the opposition, we reduced poverty from 45 percent to 15 percent and have begun to decrease inequality. Brazil is now tracing a similar path.
Political polarization is Chávez’s most dangerous legacy. The Venezuelan body politic is sick, just as Chile’s was in the 1970s and ’80s. I recall older relatives telling me of the hatreds of our past. Families in the early ’70s were divided. People stocked arms and began seeing their opposition, left or right, as less than human. When my father voted against Pinochet in 1988, my conservative grandfather would not talk to him during the election. My great-grandmother cried when the leftists won, afraid that the “communists” would take her furniture away. Venezuela’s social bonds were similarly eroded whenever Chávez called his opposition swine or devils, refused to debate with them, refused even to acknowledge their right to dissent. Political hatred is a dangerous tool.
As Yalies, we should try to understand a complex situation. We should take a nuanced view on politics, one that is not black and white. This is why I support some of Chávez’s goals. But Chávez himself did not take this view. He leaves behind a house divided. I mourn for Venezuela and the hatreds Hugo Chávez has sown.
Diego Salvatierra is a senior in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.