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Chavez's legacy still dominates Venezuela

One year after his death, all can agree that the controversial president transformed Venezuelan politics.

Last updated: 05 Mar 2014 14:56
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Caracas, Venezuela - On the first anniversary of his death, the legacy of Hugo Chavez still dominates political life in Venezuela, his portrait plastered on government billboards and re-imagined on urban graffiti murals.

The former paratrooper's deathbed support remains a key foundation of legitimacy for his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, and an ongoing source of rage for opposition demonstrators.

In the minds of many in Venezuela's poor majority, Chavez is remembered, mourned and revered as something akin to a saint, much to the opposition's consternation. "He wasn't just a leader, he was a spiritual guide," said Analus Gerano, a legal consultant and supporter of Venezuela's socialist government, as he sat in a public square, watching videos of old Chavez speeches with a group of friends. 

"He was the only president who paid attention to the poor," street vendor Ana Gonzalez said. Her infant son wore the military fatigues of the former "comandante" as his carnival costume. "He was the best president we ever had." 

There are plenty who don't share these views yet share the same sense of passion - but in the opposite direction. "There was nothing good about Chavez - nothing," said opposition protester Maria Fernandez. "The people who support him are just being fooled. This country has no proper management."

March 5 marks the first anniversary of Chavez's death after a battle with cancer. His legacy, like the rest of Venezuela's politics, is contested. But there is no debate that he was a transformational figure. 

'Lasting impression'

When Chavez passed away, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff called him a "great Latin American" and a "great leader". Bolivian President Evo Morales said "Chavez is now more alive than ever" and even William Hague, the UK foreign minister, recognised him as someone who "left a lasting impression on the country and more widely".

Venezuela's Maduro rules in Chavez's shadow

Chavez first became a household name in 1992, after leading a failed coup attempt with other members of the military. "He captured the souls of Venezuelans in just 20 seconds of TV time by taking responsibility for the failure," Gerano said. Protest movements campaigned for his release from prison and in December 1998, he swept to power at the ballot box, promising social inclusion, a fight against corruption and a new concept of Venezuelan citizenship.

"Chavez taught us to love our culture and our patriotic symbols," said retiree Caridad Blanco. "I am a different person since the revolution." 

The son of a schoolteacher, his humble roots helped inspire a connection with long-ignored Venezuelans, scraping out a living in the hillside slums surrounding Caracas or in humid rural towns. Even his critics agree he brought Venezuela's problems of poverty and inequality into the public eye. 

"I understand why people feel so sad about Chavez," said Gabriela Alfonso, an opposition supporter and dance teacher. "I can understand why people connected with him emotionally; he was like Jesus to some people. But it would be great if Venezuelans could have an emotional connection with someone who could provide good jobs and security." 

During the Chavez period, between 2006 and 2011, Venezuela moved up seven spots on the United Nations' human development index, to 73rd out of 187 countries. By 2011, poverty had dropped to 29.5 percent compared to more than 48 percent in 2002, according to the UN economic commission for Latin America.

Today, Venezuela sees about 20,000 murders a year - among the highest rate in the world - and inflation is sky-high at 56 percent annually.

'Lost professionalism' 

For some, Chavez's biggest failure lays in the execution of his vision -  an inability to manage the particularities of the modern bureaucratic state - rather than the political values of his "Bolivarian revolution". 

Milos Alcalay said he witnessed these problems first-hand as Venezuela's ambassador to the UN and a former career diplomat. An initial supporter of Chavez, Alcalay became disenchanted by what he considered government ineptitude. "The diplomatic service has been filled with ideological commissars with no experience," Alcalay said.

While he came to disagree with many of Chavez's political decisions, a lack of what he considered basic statecraft was one of the worst tendencies. "You can have strong ideological positions in diplomacy. Take Cuba. You can agree or disagree with their actions, but their diplomats are professionals," he said. "We have lost the professionalism of diplomacy."

From 2007 until now, social investment has diminished, as have democratic liberties.

- Simon Rodriguez, leader of the Socialism and Freedom party

Venezuela holds the world's largest proven oil reserves, and the vast majority of government revenue comes from petroleum exports. During his tenure, Chavez tasked PDVSA, the state oil company, with distributing food and running social programmes. Oil production dropped. Former officials said Chavez often embarked on new political or social initiatives, pouring in funds, but then losing interest and leaving things adrift.

A short-lived opposition coup in 2002 and a crippling strike by anti-government oil workers increased Chavez's desire for centralised, almost personal, control over the state. The image of a strongman, rather than strong institutions, came to dominate national life. The judiciary, bureaucracy and electoral monitors lost most of their independence, according to the opposition. 

But the biggest change happened after 2006, according to Simon Rodriguez, leader of the Socialism and Freedom party, following Chavez's sweeping election victory to a third term in office.

Increasing nepotism?

"The chavista government can be divided into two clear periods. From 1999-2007, extreme poverty dropped and social assistance programmes had an impact on the population," said Rodriguez, whose minor party criticises the government from the left. "From 2007 until now, social investment has diminished, as have democratic liberties." 

Chavez formed the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in 2007, fusing together smaller parties and social movements to the dictates of Miraflores Palace, Rodriguez said. The elite surrounding Chavez prospered, nepotism increased and no one inside government dared question problematic policies or the leader's sometimes contradictory positions, he added. 

"Through management of the [controlled] currency, a small 'Boli-bourgeoisie' can amass a huge fortune in a short time. It is more lucrative [for new elites] to do that than to increase industrialisation," said the activist, who does not support Venezuela's traditional opposition. 

According to some supporters, Chavez's biggest victory was not political but emotional. Poverty and inequality dropped sharply in Venezuela, the government built hundreds of thousands of homes for the poor - literally cementing its social base - and opened new schools, universities and health clinics. But with oil prices increasing about 1,000 percent during the Chavez period, basic social investment should be expected.

On his death-bed, Chavez chose Nicolas Maduro, a former union official educated in Cuba, as his anointed successor. "If Chavez recommended Maduro, it's because he is capable of filing his shoes," said Erick Rangel, a tour guide and government supporter. Others aren't so sure.

A 'son of Chavez'

Campaigning as a "son of Chavez" and riding a wave of public sympathy for the departed leader, Maduro eked out an election victory a month after Chavez's death. But unlike his larger-than-life predecessor, Maduro does not stir the same adoration among supporters, while eliciting even greater animosity from detractors. 

"Maduro does inspire some love," said Gonzalez, the street vendor, "but it's not the same".

In his speeches, Maduro seems to confuse aggression with inspiration, replacing eloquence with volume, and substituting Chavez's often underestimated political brains with populist brawn. Within the socialist party, Chavez's dominance was undisputed. But observers believe Maduro faces a different situation. 

"The government is less electorally strong than ever and far more internally divided than when Hugo Chavez was alive," said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College. 

People & Power - Venezuela: Life after Chavez

Jose Gregorio Vielma Mora, the socialist governor of Tachira state where protests have been particularly fierce, publicly criticised Maduro's handling of the current political crisis in late February. He called the deployment of troops to the area "unacceptable", criticised "excessive use of force" by the National Guard and called for the release of jailed student protesters.

Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly, is seen as someone who wants Maduro's job, although the two have shown a united front in the face of recent unrest.  

With inflation and crime worse than ever, ongoing street demonstrations by the opposition, and heavy government borrowing despite high oil prices, some analysts believe Maduro is running out of political tools. Corruption and food shortages, the opposition claims, are eroding public trust and popular support. 

To some, Chavez's fully-grown daughters represent the worst of the new "Bolivarchy" - government supporters who grew rich through shady dealings during the oil boom. They continue to live in a mansion built for government dignitaries and apparently throw wild late-night parties. Local restaurants have reportedly refused to deliver food to the house, as they never pay their bills. But no one dares to send them packing. 

'History will tell the truth'

Still, despite setbacks, mismanagement and failures, there is no doubt that a majority of Venezuelans have fond memories of Chavez. His government won 18 of the 19 elections it contested, and even his critics admit Chavez had a unique political touch. 

"President Chavez and I were adversaries, but never enemies," said leading opposition politician Henrique Capriles following Chavez's death.

As Venezuelans mourn the first anniversary of his death, Chavez's legacy still defines much of the country's political discourse. 

"History will tell the truth about Chavez," said Gerano, the lawyer and admirer. But whose version of the "truth" will be remembered? That's still being debated.

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Al Jazeera
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