Hugo Chávez’ Legacy and the Meaning of Democracy

Hugo Chávez died March 5 after a nearly two-year battle with cancer, he was 58. Chávez was a career military man who served over a 17-year period and whose decorated service culminated in the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1992, he led an unsuccessful coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez, for which he served two years in prison before being granted a pardon. He then relaunched his party as the Movement of the Fifth Republic and made the transition from soldier to politician.

First elected in 1998, Chávez promised “revolutionary” social policies, and constantly accused the “predatory oligarchs” of the establishment of being the corrupt servants of international capital. In July 2000, he was re-elected under a new constitution for a six-year term. Chávez thereafter won a series of elections and referendums, including one in 2009 that abolished term limits for all elected officials. Last October, Chávez won his last presidential race for another six-year term.

What was the effect of Hugo Chávez’ ruling for Venezuela?

Using data gathered from sources such as the World Bank, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) there are a variety of key indicators that show the positive effect of Chávez’ government to Venezuelans. During his mandate, unemployment dropped from 14.5% of the total labor force in 1999 to 7.6% in 2010; GDP per capita rose from $4,105 in 1999 to $10,801 in 2011; poverty decreased from 23.4% of the population recorded as being in extreme poverty in 1999 to 8.5% in 2011; infant mortality also decreased, from a rate of 20 per 1,000 live births in 1999 to a rate of 13 per 1,000 live births in 2011; and oil exports boomed, from net oil export revenues of $14.4bn in 1999 to $60bn in 2011.

However, the negative consequences of Chávez’ ruling are just as manifest, including the mismanagement of unprecedented oil revenues received by Chávez’ government; a consecution of isolationist political policies that kept Venezuela outside of the sphere of influence in the international arena; and across the board corruption so extensive that it made Venezuela rank 172 out of 182 countries surveyed by Transparency International in 2011.

Chávez’ government was authoritarian, patriarchal and unforgiving to opposition. His decision to shut down the oldest and most popular TV station, RCTV, because of its critical opinion of his government, illustrated his disregard for freedom of expression. During Chávez’ ruling, opposing the government was considered a threat, and Chávez government targeted journalists and private broadcasters with higher taxes, difficult procedures to air shows, and even encouraged violent groups to destroy their equipment and attack journalists. Chávez also showed a fundamental disregard for the principle of judicial independence, such as when Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni released an accused person whose pre-trial detention was in violation of Venezuelan law, and Chávez demanded on national TV her imprisonment for 30 years.

Chávez’ government’s disdain for the private sector was evident. Government intervention spanned from oil and gas to a wide range of other strategic sectors and industries, including aluminum, cement, gold, iron, steel, farming, transportation, electricity, food production, banking, paper and the media. From 2005 to 2012, Chávez’ government was responsible for almost 800 expropriations and nationalizations of property held by foreign interests. The expropriations of private property held by Venezuelan citizens were commonplace during Chávez mandate.

What form of democracy does effective government require?

Some see Hugo Chávez’ legacy as favorable to the disadvantaged, who saw their standard of living increase during his ruling. He was seen by many as a savior who stood up for the poorest. However, others saw his disregard for human rights, his nationalization of industry and oil, his inflationary economic policies, and his authoritarian regime as contrary to the meaning of democracy.

The man Chávez designated as his successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, became acting head of state last week and will represent the governing leftist PSUV party in next month’s special election. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles is running against Maduro. Whoever becomes the new president of Venezuela will have to decide about the type of government Venezuela needs and deserves, and as to what is the meaning of democracy in the 21st century.  



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