Chavez myth will outlive his achievements
March 5th, 2013
10:54 PM ET

Chavez myth will outlive his achievements

By Christopher Sabatini, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly. The views expressed are his own.

It’s difficult to remember a time when Hugo Chávez didn’t dominate the headlines, just as it is difficult to believe that, with his death, there will come a time when he no longer does. Elected as Venezuelan president in 1998 and sworn in in 1999, Chávez became the voice of a new group of leaders across South America that came to power with the collapse of traditional, elite-dominated party systems. He was the bête noir of the United States, a hero to the anti-globalization left and to the poor in his own country, a savior to the Castro regime in Cuba, and the clown prince of the regional summit circuit. For all this, though, Chávez’s legacy in Venezuela and in the region will be one of institutional debasement and polarization.

The one-time lieutenant colonel rose to prominence in 1992, when he and a group of mid-level officers attempted a coup against the country’s then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. In a brief statement to the media, Chávez promised that while he may have failed, that he would return to correct the social injustices that led to his putsch. After serving time in prison he did, winning the 1998 presidential elections, overturning a two-party system that had governed Venezuela since 1958 through an increasingly closed, corrupt system held together by the country’s oil riches and patronage.

But the revolutionary coup plotter proved a better destroyer of first the system that preceded him, and then the state that he created, than an institution builder. After convening a constituent assembly in 1999, Venezuela approved a new Bolivarian constitution – named after Chávez’s hero, South American independence hero Simón Bolívar. Even before new elections and appointments to fill state positions like the Supreme Court, Chávez and his supporters in the constituent assembly started to subvert their own constitution.  Over the course of the next 14 years, the Chávez government undermined judicial independence, used Central Bank reserves for patronage, created partisan militias, established parallel local government structures – including the police forces in Caracas – consolidated control over the media, politicized the electoral commission, and nationalized private companies by caprice.

More from CNN: After Chavez, a power vacuum

At the same time, President Chávez bullied political opponents and threatened opposition media. The result of the institutional vacuum, heated political rhetoric and arbitrary policies was the escalation of political polarization and a spike in corruption and criminality never seen before in Venezuela. Over the course of the last 14 years, the threat of political violence always hung in the background with competing street marches in the early years almost a daily occurrence and with a near majority of the population distrusting the state mediate social and political conflicts. At the same time, Caracas became one of the murder capitals of the world.

This ignominious distinction tracked (not coincidentally) with the growing evidence that sectors of the government, including the military, were involved in narcotics trafficking, leading the U.S. Treasury to blacklist seven Chavista government officials.

Through all of this, President Chávez cleverly avoided international criticism and oversight by angrily asserting national sovereignty, stoking anti-American suspicions and at times behaving like a buffoon. All three worked particularly well. Through the five referenda and presidential elections that were held after 1999, Chávez effectively beat back decades of advances in election observation and standards. While elections were never stolen in the traditional sense – though the opposition in 2004 clumsily attempted to claim so and then refused to participate in the 2005 elections – the disproportionate advantages that the government had in public spending and media also meant they were not free and fair.

More from GPS: Who comes after Chavez?

But the president’s railing against imperialist intervention and blustering claims of national sovereignty intimidated the international community. President Chávez promoted the retrograde idea that any form of criticism of human rights came from political opponents, coup plotters (like him?) or was an affront to the country’s dignity.  Sadly, despite an international community that had evolved to defend and protect these rights, Chavez’s bluster worked far better than many would have thought pre-1998.

Human rights concerns were all-too-often dismissed because the president was seen as a champion of the poor. And Chávez’s decision to pull Venezuela out of the Inter-American Human Rights Court and efforts later – in collaboration with his ally Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa – strip the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of its independence did not provoke the sort of region-wide opposition that many would have expected. Such is the advantage of being an international bully.

In the end, the legacy of Chávez won’t be so much his leadership or Chavismo more generally.  There will be little institutional imprint left by Hugo Chávez. Quite the opposite. While the myth of Chávez and his considerable charisma will remain, little concrete will remain, except the age-old lure and echo of populism and its risk...not unlike that of his hero, Bolívar who wrote, shortly before his death “those who have served the revolution have plowed the sea.”

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Topics: Latin America • Venezuela

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soundoff (125 Responses)
  1. Howard

    Chavez was a nationalistic "Oil" despot with a populist following. He could have used his country's vast oil wealth to leave behind a real and tangible legacy but instead he chose a path of consipiracy theories and making friends with anyone or anything that he felt would annoy the US. My condolenses to the family for their loss and to the country for the loss of the last 12 years.

    March 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      Nevermind that it was the peoples' revolution, Howard. If you were a wood tool, I would guess you were a skew.

      March 6, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Reply
      • Howard

        It was a peoples' revolution that moved him into power. Everything he did after that was on him. The "people" did not make the economic and geo-political decisions, those came strictly from Chavez. I don't hold Chavez's feelings towards the US against him, but he actually didn't do very much to improve his country considering the power and the wealth that was at his disposal.

        March 6, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  2. Andrew

    Bullsh@#, Sabatini. The reality of Venezuela's socialism and democracy will outlive our myth! Let alone the wedge we tried to drive between Venezuela and Brazil. Mythical.

    March 6, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  3. joe anon 1

    chavez was a great man for the majority of the people.
    the 100 – 200 families of greed who wanted 100% of venezuela's wealth for themselves hated chavez.

    the american govt which serves the wealthy also hated chavez, a leader who served the people

    March 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  4. Andre

    I'm sorry your dictator died. Would you like ours?

    March 6, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  5. sly

    Like Castro, and other left wing Latin leaders, Chavez had a lot of good qualities, and some bad qualities.

    For good qualities, both were able to free their nations from the right-wing murderous dictatorships the United States established in their nations. As such, they stopped the murder's by our CIA and the military we created in those nations. Thousands, likely millions, of Latin civilians were murdered in Chile, El Salvador, Cuba and Venezuela with our nation's authorization.

    Both helped the poor and moved out the rich who had enslaved the poor and stolen all the wealth of their nation. This was a huge problem in Cuba, where the rich right wing stole all the nations money and brought it to Florida.

    But both also restricted individual freedom's, which is a weakness.

    No black and white here with Chavez – a good leader who did a lot of good, but operated under a system designed to restrict liberties.

    March 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  6. Charlie


    March 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  7. Rudolf vs

    What achievements beside lining his own pockets?

    March 6, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  8. us_1776

    This man will have far more impact than you think.

    You will finally understand when ALL the jobs are done by robots.


    March 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  9. Jim McDonald

    I think he will be missed although I hope the people who replace him carry on and develop socialism in Venezuela. He seems to me to have gotten a bad press in US media which he was also able to use to enhance his image in his own country. He has been one of the leaders spearheading social reform throughout Central and S. America.. The historical picture has been one of exploitation by European , USA Corporations, and internal oligarch rule. The Chavez "revolution" was a form of military assisted populism. It takes force and power to shake up and remove power.. Hence the complaints about Chavez. No one likes losing their grip on power and wealth which is what happened to those oligarchs whose industries were nationalized.

    March 6, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Reply
    • DrPhill

      "power and wealth"

      You mean like the billions Chavez stole from his adoring lemmings?

      March 6, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  10. eh

    "... a savior to the Castro regime in Cuba, and the CLOWN prince of the regional summit circuit." nice typo there.

    March 6, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  11. DrPhill

    Just like a tinhorn, Leftist dictator. He throws a few crumbs to the lemmings to keep them docile, while he steals billions for himself and his cronies. Classic Libearalism. He will burn in Hades for eternity.

    March 6, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • us_1776

      CLassic capitalism as well.

      Communism and capitalism all end up at the same place.

      All the money goes to the very top.


      March 6, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      Chavez was elected, Venezuela is a democracy.

      March 10, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Reply
  12. rafael

    Chavez was never ever an Amirican kissass that is why most Americans hate him,same as most of then hates Fidel,Lula,Correa,Cristina,Evo,America Latina needs more and more Chavez,is way better that a Venezuelan like Chavez stole the Venezolanos Money and not the Americans as they do all around Latinoamerica where they have kissass presidents.

    March 6, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  13. Bruce Rubin

    He confiscated peoples property and opened the doors to the prisons and used the convicts as his personal gang and dissent oppressors.

    March 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  14. johnny

    Chavez squandered Venezuela's national oil wealth . He was Father Christmas to other corrupt Governments. In fact as an act of defiant against US, Chavez intentionally spent billions every year to prop up Cuba's economy which was and still is in a terrible mess.

    As a result of his squandering over the years, Venezuela is now heading towards a financial crisis as its national debt continue to balloon to unsustainable level. Any prolong drop in world oil price could trigger that financial crisis for Venezuela.

    March 7, 2013 at 8:41 am | Reply
    • irfan Haqqee

      Hugo Chavez Gave Heating Aid to U.S. Poor Following Obama Budget Cuts.

      March 12, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Reply
    • irfan Haqqee

      "As a result of his squandering over the years, Venezuela is now heading towards a financial crisis as its national debt continue to balloon to unsustainable level" Hey Johnny we can say the same for US government and all the European Governments. They are all facing financila crisis. Atleast under Chvez the poor Venezuelans did not suffer as much as the poor in the US and Europe. Did not your government squander US wealth on unnecessary wars? US government too has been Santa to many dictatorial government if you know your history. US media is programmed to be critical of any foreign government that challenges US government's hegemony. How else would they brainwash the minds of people like you.? You do not get a chance to thinkmfor yourself they do the thinking for you.

      March 12, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  15. Viktor Korsakov

    Chavez was a great leader of the 21st century. Half the world hated him (damn yanks...) and the other half loved him. But it is absolutely disgusting to hear that people are desecrating photos of his body. Nobody deserves that.

    Viva Chavez!

    March 7, 2013 at 9:50 am | Reply
  16. Julie Matthews

    i just want to throw this out there. The U.S. has never ratified the American Convention on Human Rights. Let's compare GDP and Gini to the United States shall we? We can move past all the demonization and just stick to facts if you like. I'm sure your assessment will look a bit biased if we do that. Happy to provide more facts if you need them.

    March 8, 2013 at 12:21 am | Reply
  17. Carlos

    The "Chavez Myth" will only live if you make it.

    March 11, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  18. autocom

    This web site offers pleasant quality YouTube videos; I always down load the dance contest show video clips from this site.

    June 14, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Reply
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