Chavez: Despot or Saint?


Bhaskar Sunkara in Vice:

Everyone else seems to be either mourning at or dancing on Hugo Chavez's grave, but I’m feeling decidedly unmoved. And not out of some deep apathy. It’s just that the Chavez being invoked by both supporters and enemies can't be dead, because that man never existed.

One dead Chavez was a despot. Democratically elected over and over again, popularly reinstated after a 2002 coup, but still some sort of Stalin or mini-Pol Pot. (They both had that irresistible smile.) The other dead Chavez was a saint. Some demi-god sent from above to massage away our earthly suffering and sing us tender bedtime songs afterward. He could do no wrong.

These narratives are utterly incompatible, setting the showdown for a month's worth of heated Twitter sparring and inane web-comment dueling. Now, there's nothing I like more than a good fight, but I'm not picking a side. Or I guess I'm picking both.

In its 14 years in power, Chavez's administration was at once authoritarian and democratic, crudely demagogic and genuinely participatory. History is messy like that.

El Presidente was part of a long line of Latin American populists, the left-wing variety of which has always attracted cheering fan boys. And for good reason: It's the fiery rhetoric of Italian fascism tempered by the warm-and-fuzzy egalitarian core of Scandinavian socialism. And Chavez lived up to some of those socialist ambitions: He was more committed to redistributing wealth and power than just about any Latin American leader that came before him. His government reduced extreme poverty by 70 percent, millions got reliable healthcare and a decent education for the first time, and attempts were made to construct community councils and other organs of direct democracy.