Whether one is mourning or celebrating with champagne, the death of Hugo Chavez marks the end of an era. It was a controversial, polarising era, but one that changed the political landscape nonetheless.
The hero of the poor revived Latin America’s left, openly challenged US hegemony and was a global crusader against imperialism. Yet he also managed to stay in power since 1999, created systems of social surveillance in his country, and attacked international mechanisms of human rights accountability.
Amongst the love-hate he generated and despite all his contradictions, the Chavez era opens new political possibilities.
Chavez’s irrevocable legacy
The political legacy of Chavez shattered Venezuela’s peaceful co-existence with inequality. Disrupting decades of political apathy, he brought the poor into electoral politics, and it will be difficult for future presidents not to take them into account ever again.
He put his country’s oil wealth to the benefit of the poor, implementing widespread redistribution policies. He invested in health and education, and created housing policy in a country where slums characterised urban expansion.
If he is mourned in the streets of Venezuela it is because he improved people’s livelihood. Today, Venezuela has the lowest indictors of inequality in Latin America, with a Gini co-efficient lower than 0.4 percent.
His influence has spread well beyond the borders of Venezuela. He exported the Bolivarian revolution to the Andean region, supporting like-minded governments in Bolivia and Ecuador. He not only revived populist government, but also invented a New Left in Latin America.
He went against the concentration of land and wealth that has historically characterised ex-slave societies in Latin America. His era represents an incontestable rupture with the economic and political dominance of national and international elites.
On the global stage, he publicly and overtly (if not always diplomatically) challenged US hegemony. He defied a US foreign policy of intervention in Latin America, providing alternatives to its neoliberal policies.
He was a champion of anti-imperialism, and a global counter-weight to US’ aggressive power politics. If calling President George W Bush the devil at the UN was not exactly cordial, it crystalises how Chavez opened spaces of dissidence with the US imperial-like approach to the world.
For all these reasons, Chavez was an important icon of counter-hegemony – in Venezuela, Latin America, and the world. His national fame was matched by international support. He was adored by people in popular neighbourhoods of Caracas and intellectual salons in Delhi, becoming the poster boy of much of the international left.
His death represents a loss beyond the political left, who will miss a powerful and outspoken leader. In Brazil, even conservative sectors regret the void he leaves behind: he was an important counterpoint to the US foreign policy in the region.
But Chavez’s era was not all roses. The fact that he stayed in office close to 15 years is an insight into his problematic approach to democracy. Chavez consolidated authoritarian form of government, dismantling institutional checks and balances, and weakening his country’s judiciary to extremes. Neighbourhood systems of surveillance, all-too remnant of communist regimes, developed across Caracas.
In a reverse of accountability, the state started watching (and punishing) citizens who got out of Chavez’s line. He gained the nickname of Hugo Boss because he made a redistribution-like form of authoritarianism fashionable.
His attack on human rights often generated uproar. The concentration of power meant an open disregard for basic civil rights. Perhaps, the most infamous case is the imprisonment of judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni, who released one of Chavez’s enemies whose pre-trial detention was in violation of Venezuelan law.
Afiuni became a political prisoner in 2009, and continuous condemnation by the international community has fallen upon deaf ears.
Then Chavez forcefully attacked regional mechanisms of human rights accountability. He claimed that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, one of the model courts to protect human rights in the world, interfered with national sovereignty. It made various political and institutional to raise their voice against this regional court and gained the support of neighbouring countries, encouraging state incompliance. Last year, he finally declared that Venezuela would withdraw from the organisation.
The fact that Chavez publicly praised Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad in the midst of horrific genocidal violence does not speak highly of his approach to human rights.
To top it all, embedded in Chavez’s rhetoric of anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberalism, is a heavy dependence on oil. This means that Venezuela’s economy de-industrialised was more prone to the “Dutch disease” of over-reliance on oil. It also means that all the leftist politics of redistribution were being implemented at the cost of an increased reliance on extractive economies, with all the ecological and human violence they encompass.
Looking for an alternative politics
Chavez’s personality was controversial, yet the polarisation he generated is inscribed in Latin America’s profile of social inequality. Authoritarian populism certainly has its downsides, and journalists are particularly aware of this.
But such governments have also been crucial in advancing socio-economic rights for poor working sectors in Latin America. It was, after all, the populist and authoritarian government of Getulio Vargas that created a minimum salary in Brazil back in 1939.
The problem is that Latin America is trapped between two antithetical options, the neoliberals and the neo-populists. Chavez was right to tackle social inequality in the region.
Latin Americans want governments that redistribute rights and opportunities so as to disrupt class, race and gender hierarchies. But his way of getting there was not what we aspire to. At the end of the day, the alternative of rational, efficient and truly popular left remains absent.
The alternative to the hegemonic, violent US state is not another violent state. The alternative to the dominion of the rich elites is not another political or legal dominion by new elites. The Chavez era represented an important moment of rupture in Latin America.
Yet we aspire to something greater. We aspire to a more creative form of decolonial emancipation. We aspire to counter violence without having to resort to violence, and believe in forms of government that are truly equal and ethical, that can do away with authoritarian, centralising state power.
Social redistribution does not need to come at the cost of fundamental rights. It can look like what the Zapatista movement is constructing in Chiapas, Mexico. The politics of change can look like what many indigenous movements are achieving in Latin America and the world.
The challenge now is to take the best of Chavez legacy and transform it into tools to invent true political alternatives.
Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.