For anyone who is interested in Latin America, Hugo Chávez’s death inevitably creates a sort of void in their intellectual life. For the past decade and a half, it has been impossible to study the region and not talk about him, even if your interests lay outside of the oil economy or Venezuela. By sheer force of will and with the help of a trillion dollars in oil sales, Chávez was able to turn Venezuela into a regional power with influence far beyond the Western Hemisphere. He was also one of the most polarizing figures in world politics. For anyone who has read this blog before, it’s no secret that I am not a fan of his politics or his style of governing. I’ve written before about how I was never able to see how his model was even as good as, let alone better than more moderate forms of left-leaning governance. That said, I’ve devoted a lot of time to studying and thinking about chavista Venezuela over the last half dozen years and the question that always lingered in the background for me was: what type of person was Hugo Chávez deep down? Was he merely a flawed man trying to do right by his country or was he a cynical megalomaniac who simply tapped into lower class anger and marginalization to further his own desire for power?
I think one thing that is undebatable at this point is that Chávez was an extreme narcissist. He illustrated that time and again throughout his presidency through his need to personally control every possible apparatus of the state and took it to another level by running for a third term this past year even as he undoubtedly knew he was not healthy enough to complete even a fraction of his term. Whatever his intentions, Chávez clearly did not believe anyone was as qualified as he was to lead.
I also think that it is clear that Hugo Chávez was not a democrat, at least by any deeper definition than “he won elections.” Chávez was a master politician, and was extremely popular for much of his time in power but he did not govern or campaign for reelection in a democratic manner. Governing by decree, routinely demonizing your opposition and limiting the opposition to 3 minutes of airtime per day while spending hours each day campaigning during cadenas (official addresses that all television stations are required to air) among other things make elections little more than a veneer of legitimacy in the eyes of those too ignorant or naïve to the reality. Real democracy means working for consensus and respecting minority opinions during the times that fall between elections and Chávez didn’t do that.
Beyond that, I find Chávez’s intentions difficult to pin down. While lamentable, the fact that Chávez governed in an authoritarian manner didn’t preclude him from genuinely wanting to make things better for his country’s most vulnerable. He also could have never particularly cared about any of that but saw lower class empowerment as a means to gain power himself. Perhaps most realistically, he could have started out with genuinely good intentions (if bad ideas) and become cynical after he had already secured the nearly unconditional support of the poor.
He certainly seemed to care about the poor, at least as far as his discourses were concerned. If you believe Bart Jones’ telling of it in his biography ¡Hugo! (which seemed apologetic when it was published in 2007and like a naïve hagiography by 2010 and beyond), Chávez was deeply affected by both his family’s poverty during his youth and the dramatic effects on the poor from the IMF emergency package that led to the Caracazo in 1989. At first, this certainly seemed to be true in his governing. The misiones programs at first seemed a novel way to improve public health, increase literacy and give people the tools they needed to help develop a productive population.
Over time, however, his policies, while many were nominally directed at the poor, tended to do little to improve their lot and much to make it worse. All this while enriching a clique of core supporters at the top of the chain through an array of rent seeking initiatives (Cadivi being a prime example). While much ballyhooed, the misiones programs were, at best, terribly mismanaged, opaque and inefficient. At worst they were mismanaged, opaque, inefficient giveaways that did nothing more than fuel a pre-election consumer boom at tremendous cost (despite the aforementioned trillion dollars in oil revenues over the last decade, Venezuela’s debt burden has still managed to grow dramatically). Moreover, violent crime in Venezuela is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, well ahead of Mexico and Colombia, despite the much reported drug violence that plagues both countries. These crimes disproportionately affect poorer Venezuelans and the state has done little of substance to deal with the issue.
My personal belief (or perhaps hope) is that he really was an idealist at the beginning and that he really was driven by a desire to make Venezuela a more equitable place but that the trappings of power and his own narcissistic and megalomaniacal tendencies eventually won out. This explains why the misiones began as programs with similar goals to successful antipoverty programs such as Oportunidades in Mexico or Bolsa Família in Brazil (conditional cash transfer programs that aim to ensure children receive necessary shots and attend school) but devolved into cheap loans on consumer products. Reducing poverty shifted from the goal to a means to an end and in the process became a superficial, but costly process that empowered Chávez and his cronies but will, in the long run, leave Venezuelans poorer.