The death of Venezuela’s longstanding and out outspoken Hugo Chávez has led academics and analysts including historians, to attempt to come to terms with how far the polarising president fulfilled the manifesto of his Bolívarian Revolution. The populist agenda of his administration amassed widespread support amongst the working classes. Vehement and widely publicised condemnations of the United States made Chávez an icon in Venezuela and other nations with the shared experience of American-backed coups. He received particular support and admiration from certain other Latin American politicians. Memory studies remains a popular field of history and Chávez’s death raises some interesting questions. Will the popular support which has frequently been mobilised in the name of Chávez this past decade spin his legacy in an undeservedly positive light when compared to the relative lack of success of Venezuelan socialism in terms of alleviating educational concerns, poverty and class inequities.
After orchestrating an unsuccessful 1992 coup and concluding democracy was the path to realising Venezuelan socialism, Chávez achieved election amidst a failure of representation for mainstream parties, a flurry of political scandals as well as a significant economic downturn and drop in national living standards. The agenda of Chávez’s administration prioritised the welfare of the Venezuelan poor pledging the provision of food subsidies, redistribution of land and a redirection of profits from the lucrative nationalised oil business into the public health and education systems.
Detractors have been keen to point out the common lack of statistics provided since these campaign promises and continually claim the revolutionary rhetoric of Chávez’s government has not been evidenced in tangible and measurable results. Domestic figures have been levied against foreign critics, the halving of national percentages of persons living in poverty between 2003 and 2007 has been proudly espoused, yet critics have countered that improving Venezuelan living standards have resulted from a rising GDP tied to escalating global oil prices over this period which Chávez himself could not have claimed responsibility for. The issue remains that the success or failure of Leftist policies and the self-proclaimed victories of the thirteen year old Chávez administration have been frustratingly difficult to gauge from domestic and foreign perspectives, in turn these statistical blind-spots have both empowered supporters and sceptics.
The most divisive of debates have regarded legislation extending presidential terms amongst other amendments suggesting that Venezuelan democracy has decomposed to an illusion, a form of ‘competitive authoritarianism’. This position was strengthened in the eyes of many by Chavez’s renowned ‘paternal’ friendship with former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Surprisingly the Election Monitoring Centre have praised Venezuela for possessing one of the fairer democratic systems.
Despite difficulties in determining the fulfilment of the Bolívarian Revolution, rightly or wrongly, Chávez will almost inevitably be remembered as a great icon in Venezuela. Whilst domestic support was less than unanimous, Chávez entrenched his revered position amongst poor and working classes through rhetoric which marked changes from previous norms of elitist-neoliberal Venezuelan politics. Francisco Rodríguez, a former analyst of the Venezuelan National assembly surmised that ‘Venezuelans tend to vote their pocket books’, an indication that Chávez’s multiple elections merely coincided with periods of economic hardship when socialist policies offered the most hope to the impoverished.
Whether Rodriguez’s assessment of Chávez’s electoral success is correct it is unlikely to be reflected in the national memory, his dying in office from a long drawn-out struggle with cancer following a successful re-election campaign will likely anoint him as a political martyr amongst his lower class followers. The regime’s recuperation of power following a 2002 coup and seemingly successful public reforms made the administration appear to be an anomalous success of South American socialism. Current shortfalls including inflation and resource shortages facing may be laid upon successor and new president Nicholás Maduro.
Regardless of political accomplishments, in the national memory the circumstances of Chavez’s death and the constant invocations of his fellow Venezuelan who liberated most of South America from the Spanish, Simon Bolivar, he may have just immortalised himself as a revolutionary of the same creed.