Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, liked to present himself as a revolutionary, a socialist for the 21st century. Many members of the American Left presented him this way too. In reality he was the latest in the long line of caudillos, the strongmen who have been the scourge of Spanish America; “throwback” and “reactionary” are therefore more fitting ways to describe him.
Violence was his medium. A junior army officer, he did not hesitate to mount a coup, and once in power to devise a constitution that made him leader for life. He drove thousands into exile, expropriating their land and property. Venezuela depends on its oil, and nationalization of the oil companies gave him funds with which to buy popularity. Nobody knows the scale of the ensuing corruption, but rumor has it that Chávez and his family have amassed a fortune of $2 billion. Every week, he raised the political temperature with Alo Presidente, his very own television program, unscripted, the humor and the menace interchangeable. He militarized his supporters, putting them into red shirts and red berets. Opponents had to get the point, or face arrest if they didn’t.
Hostility to the United States is an expedient many a caudillo has found useful. On the one hand, Chávez continued to sell oil to the United States — and on the other he did what he could to obstruct its foreign policy. Fidel Castro was the model to whom he deferred with the obsequiousness of a pupil towards the headmaster. He paid one official visit to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and another to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Robert Mugabe, Moammar Qaddafi, and Bashar Assad were others in this supportive circle of dictators, misnamed by him as beloved brother revolutionaries. In front of the United Nations General Assembly he referred to George W. Bush as the devil and claimed to smell sulfur. In front of a media pack he humiliated Barack Obama by giving him a book making a polemical case against alleged Yankee imperialism.
Years may have to pass before the dire consequences of such misrule can be righted. The exceptionally high murder rate is a measure of the breakdown of society. The restoration to political health of those now accustomed to wearing red shirts and berets is likely to be a difficult and violent process. Like other caudillos before him, Chávez has left the world a more brutal place than he found it.