Hugo Chávez is dead. The Venezuelan dictator’s battle with cancer that began with a secretive 2011 trip to Cuba ended yesterday, at 4:32 p.m., in a military hospital bed in Caracas. But though the man is gone, the myth remains.
Chávez was a political game-changer. Throughout his 14 years as Venezuelan president, he demonstrated a passion for politics, an unequaled popular touch, and a sense of mission of redemption for the poor and excluded. He had tremendous ambition, as well. He saw himself as the progenitor and patron of a global revolution against “savage capitalism.”
With the “Bolivarian Revolution” and “Socialism of the 21st Century,” he promised Venezuelans a better life, and for many he delivered. As the proverbial soldier on horseback, he also fit into the role of caudillo or strong man that figures so prominently in Latin American politics. He became what social thinker Sidney Hook in The Hero in History called an “event-making man.”
He was also a polarizer. Chávez saw his nation as consisting of two camps: the good people and, arrayed against them, the dangerous followers of greed, counter-revolution, and the U.S. As Venezuela’s chief financial officer, he gambled on the world’s unquenchable thirst for oil and won, but at the price of sound economic policy and growing addiction to the “devil’s excrement.” As commander-in-chief, he helped militarize a largely civilian-minded nation. As top cop, he watched violent crime soar throughout the country and elevated officials identified as drug kingpins by the U.S. to the nation’s highest posts. Caracas has become one of the deadliest cities on earth.
A deeply authoritarian leader, Chávez managed to command the electoral system and cover political activity with a veneer of popular participation. And while he was not as bloody-minded as a Lenin, Mao, or Fidel, he gutted rule of law and the separation of powers, and severely constricted individual rights. He was an anti-constitutionalist whose core principle of governance was “l’état, c’est moi.”
On the world stage, he won the adulation of the radical Left and filled the wallets of pals and sycophants with a steady stream of handouts. His love for dangerous, murderous leaders such as Ahmadinejad, Assad, Qaddafi, and their ilk was genuine and lacking in moral scruple. And like his mentor Fidel Castro, Chávez clearly delighted in playing David to the hapless and perpetually clumsy American Goliath.
As Chávez’s end neared, the inner circle around El Commandante grappled with the realization that power was descending rapidly upon their shoulders. Even collectively, they knew, they were and are incapable of filling the deceased leader’s shoes.
For them, the immediate goal is to reap maximum advantage from the leader’s death in the next 30 days—before the presidential election that will determine Chávez’s successor. This entails accelerating Chávez’s apotheosis into the pantheon of national and international heroes of the Left. According to Nicholas Maduro, vice president and Chávez’s hand-picked heir, a selfless and loving Chávez sacrificed body and health for the little people of Venezuela. Chávez suffered for the sins of his nation and paid the ultimate price in order to leave behind an enduring revolutionary legacy. Move over Simón Bolívar, the secular canonization of Chávez has begun.
The second step is to reaffirm that Chávez’s death was not the result of the cold, impersonal, and indiscriminate workings of malignant cells but rather something far more sinister. “We have not a single doubt and at the proper moment we will convene a medical board to confirm that Chávez was attacked,” said Maduro on Tuesday.
In short, Chávez’s coterie will insist that the leader’s death resulted from foul play by the devils—foreign and domestic—that perpetually threaten the Bolivarian Revolution with counter-revolution, draconian neo-liberalism, and destabilizing coups. Therefore, vigilance, unity, and crushing the opposition — by violence if necessary — are a must.
The post-Chávez era has begun. The future is uncertain. All that can be said with assurance is that this Andean nation of 30 million will remain a crucible for the battle between democracy and dictatorship.
— Ray Walser is a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.