Hugo Chávez was perhaps the most influential figure in Latin American politics over the past twenty years. Not only did he have an immeasurable impact on his own country–to the point of changing its name, from the “Republic of Venezuela” to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” He was also the first of the left-wing presidents that comprise the so-called “left turns” in the region. And to the end, nationally and internationally alike, he was no doubt the most divisive of figures. In the reaction to his death we see the intense popularity that he enjoyed among significant sections of the Venezuelan people, as well as the inspirational role he played for many as a standard-bearer for a fairer alternative to neoliberalism and US supremacy. But we also see Venezuelans celebrating his demise (albeit less openly in Caracas than at a distance, in Miami) and a more mainstream assessment of his legacy that stresses ambivalence at best if not outright hostility to Chávez’s excesses and idiosyncracies.
If nothing else, the Venezuelan President was also the most colourful figure we have seen in Latin America for a good long while. Literally as well as figuratively: in his bright red beret or his jumpsuits the vibrant shades of the Venezuelan flag, as well as in his political invective or his apparently impulsive gestures and mischievous antics. What other world leader would, from the UN rostrum in New York, describe the sitting US President (George W Bush) in these terms: “Yesterday the Devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today.” Or who else would leap at the chance of an international summit to present the subsequent US Commander in Chief (Barack Obama) with a copy of that classic leftist history, Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America? Chávez was exuberant, unpredictable, tireless, and both charming and annoying in equal measure. As Lula puts it in a fascinating homage, “he didn’t allow people to fall asleep.” Many of us, however, like a quiet life and King Juan Carlos of Spain surely spoke for many when he asked in frustration: “Why don’t you shut up?” But where the King is now enmeshed in scandal as the Spanish monarchy’s ratings plummet, Chávez seems to have had the last laugh, with even former foes grudgingly paying him their respects.
The Venezuelan opposition hated and despised Chávez. They barely understood why anyone would vote for him–which is one reason why he beat them soundly in every election he fought. Despite coming late to the democracy game–famously, he came to public prominence with an attempted coup d’état in 1992–Chávez quickly got the hang of it. For all the criticisms that he was some kind of autocrat, it’s best to see his continual efforts at mobilization (of his base) and antagonism (of his opponents) as part of a permanent democratic campaign. Indeed, far from the anti-politics of either technocratic neoliberalism or traditional authoritarianism, Chávez is perhaps best understood as the most consummate of politicians. He thrived on politics, in its purest forms: he was energized by its spirit of antagonism; he separated friends from enemies and sought to expand the ranks of both. The middle classes who saw him as such a threat to their livelihoods took the bait all too easily. They’ll find they miss him.
For if anything unites the rancourous Venezuelan opposition–and little does–it is their visceral distaste for the Comandante. Now that their bête noir is gone, they’ll have to face up to the fact that chavismo without Chávez is a little more complicated, and perhaps a little more robust, than they have assumed.