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The battle to define Hugo Chavez's legacy

The death of Chavez may have immediate regional implications, but his legacy will live on.

Last Modified: 07 Mar 2013 07:34
Mike Allison

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
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Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro accused the US of giving Chavez cancer and expelled two US diplomats [EPA]

Two days ago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died at the age of 58. It's clear that Chavez had the support of millions of Venezuelans and other people around the world during his life and in his death. It's clear that he loved the Venezuelan people and that they loved him. Chavez helped to bring down the poverty rate in Venezuela and moved to help the poor around the world. As a result, the Venezuelan people continued to return him to power through relatively free and fair elections.

However, I've never been convinced that he loved them more than he hated the United States or than he loved himself. While I admired his struggle against cancer these last few months, one couldn't help but be embarrassed by the hiding of his medical condition and his two month disappearance from the country over which he had been recently elected president.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez dies of cancer

He also made some important criticisms of the United States and the current global economic arrangements but then would blame the US for causing earthquakes in Haiti and lend support to murderous regimes and leaders throughout the world. He acted more out of a hatred for the US than he did solidarity for much of the world's most vulnerable. His anti-Americanism was on full display on the day of his death with Vice President Maduro's attacks against the United States for giving Hugo Chavez cancer and the expulsion of two US government employees.

It's also unclear whether the international institutions he sought to build were built on anything more than his personality and that they will continue after his death. ALBA has clearly been the most successful with CELAC and UNASUR barely getting off the ground.

What does his death mean for Central America? It's hard to say. The Guatemalan URNG [SP] issued a communique lamenting the death of el Compañero Comandante:

Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias is a living example for our people, for our party, and to the Guatemalan revolutionaries that simultaneously with our Venezuelan brothers and sisters, promise to continue working for the bright future of mankind.

However, the URNG is a marginal player, at best, in Guatemalan national politics. The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) in which it competed in 2011 won two seats. One went to Winaq and one to the URNG. They lost a close seat in Huehuetenango, a seat that they had won since 1999. Members of the Frente Nacional de Lucha [SP] (FNL) met with the Venezuelan ambassador to Guatemala on Tuesday to offer their condolences. Chavez's death is unlikely to have much of an effect on the Guatemalan left.

Relations with Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution have been much more important for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in neighbouring El Salvador. Chavez has been a big financial backer of the FMLN and of the communities over which its mayors have governed. FMLN officials have frequently travelled to Venezuela to show their solidarity with Chavez and his 21st Century Socialism.

As I wrote in a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, Chavez's departure from the political scene might actually help the FMLN win in 2014. ARENA and the Salvadoran media used the Chavez bogeyman to frighten voters into voting against the FMLN in the last few elections. We're not really sure how many voters were moved by the smear campaign, but every little bit is going to help in 2014. With Chavez's death, the Salvadoran right's possible warning that an FMLN victory will turn the country into the next Nicaragua doesn't sound nearly as ominous. On the other hand, the loss of Chavez will make an FMLN administration's goal of reducing El Salvador's dependence on the US much more challenging.

Speaking of Nicaragua, first lady Rosario Murrillo issued a government statement, oddly enough, in a cellphone statement broadcast on Sandinista media.

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Murillo called Chavez "one of the dead who never dies", borrowing a quote used by former Sandinista comandante Tomas Borge to describe slain Sandinista revolutionary Carlos Fonseca, who was killed in combat in 1976.

"Hugo Chavez is part of our daily commitment to continue building a future inspired by his example," Murillo said. "Never think that he is dead; he isn't dead. He grows in the hearts of the youth around the world. We see him in the children of Nicaragua who are learning what it is to be Christian, Socialist and in-solidarity."

While estimates seem to vary - I'm not sure that anyone really knows - Nicaragua has received $2.5 billion or so from Venezuela over the last several years. Daniel Ortega and the Nicaraguan government have used that support to fund a variety of social programmes and to consolidate power. Ortega is popular enough to stand on his own in Nicaragua although it's unclear how well the Nicaraguan economy will adjust should the next government in Venezuela change in any fundamental way its financial support to its Central American partner.

Honduras is holding national elections later this year. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of deposed president Manuel Zelaya, will represent the Liberty and Refoundation or Libre Party. Honduran elites mobilised to overthrow Zelaya in 2009, in many ways, because of his closeness with Venezuela's Chavez. Libre looks like it captured a significant number of votes but perhaps not enough to break the country's historic two-party system which is undergoing significant change today.

The battle over remembering Chavez has now begun. For some. like the Miami Herald's Andres Oppenheimer, he was this generation's Juan Peron of Argentina - a military coup plotter later elected president who flirted with fascism and socialism. Florida International University professor Guillermo Lousteau believes that Chavez will be remembered more like Ernesto Che Guevara. Lousteau told Oppenheimer that "Chavez will become a cultural icon: we will see T-shirts with Chavez's face, much like we see T-shirts with Che Guevara's face, but his influence won't go farther than that".

Hugo Chavez could also be remembered in the way that we remember Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz or Chile's Salvador Allende. Nearly every history written about Arbenz or Allende begins with "democratically elected" even if how they governed was not always democratic.

Given that Chavez only passed away on Tuesday, it's obviously too early to know how he will be remembered. The battle to define his legacy has just begun.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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