It’s interesting to see how differently people see Hugo Chávez in the United States, compared with how his fellow caribeños saw him. He certainly was a thug, as Krauthammer says. And he could be a particularly sinister thug, as the verbal and physical attacks on Venezuela’s Jewish community made sickeningly clear.
But there was more. As Guardian correspondent Rory Carroll argues in this brilliant New York Times op-ed, he was also in the end an awful manager, who has left Venezuela in ruins. Mind you, Venezuela had long-since been enfeebled and besotted by the curse of nationalized oil and corrupt governments, so it was already in terrible shape when Chávez took over. But he pushed his nation far deeper into indolence and dependency. He never grasped that wealth emerges from labor productivity, not from the ground, and after blowing a trillion dollars in oil windfalls like a personal charity/slush fund, he has left Venezuela much poorer.
I grew up in a family of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, and we have always felt very close to Venezuelans. They talk like us, listen to the same music, etc.; they’re as familiar as people from North Carolina are to Texans. For me, listening to Chávez — which we could do at great length on the Internet — was always a bit like listening to that crazy uncle who shows up for family parties and steals the night because he’s just such a clown. Where his hero Fidel Castro was humorless and sadistic, Chávez was funny and outrageous — and so very, very vulgar. As much as anything else, that made me feel sorry for the many dignified Venezuelans I knew — to be represented on the world stage by this embarrassing spectacle was just pitiful.
For the destitute and deeply uneducated Venezuelans who live on hunger wages and handouts, Chávez must have seemed like some sort of angel elevated from among their own — and he practically was. That was the best thing about him. The worst was that in the long run, he has left Venezuela’s poor, and their progeny, most ruined of all.