Friday, March 8, 2013

Adios, El Comandante.

Hugo Chavez, the revolutionary, charismatic, socialist leader of Venezuela succumbed to cancer on Tuesday, March 5th. 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 28th, 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 learned 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 Chavez 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 Chavez’s role model.

After graduating from Military Academy, Chavez often found his socialist ideals in opposition to his military duties. In 1992 Chavez and his underground Bolivarian Revolutionary Army attempted to overthrow President Perez in a coup. The coup failed and resulted in Chavez’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 Chevez 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--using oil revenues to end poverty.

These popular promises secured him the presidency in 1998, but following through was another ballgame altogether. Though some oil revenues were funnelled towards the poor, a large chunk was siphoned off to Cuba. Chavez also used some of the revenues to support terrorist organizations like the FARQ to destabilize neighboring Colombia.

One of his initial acts in office was nationalizing 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 nationalized 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 W. 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 Chavez’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.

Chavez’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 politicized and it will be a challenge for anyone, without the relentless charm of Chavez, to hold them together.

On the international front, Chavez 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 Chavez 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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