JHR: Chavez will be remembered despite ‘dictatorship’

Image via Flickr
Image via Flickr

Despite a two-year battle with cancer and a conspicuously long absence from the public eye, the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez last week still came as a shock. Always a polarizing figure, the debate about how to define him — as a demagogical dictator or as a revolutionary — was renewed with his passing. The answer, however, isn’t so black and white.

After leading a failed coup in 1992 and spending two years in jail, Chavez won his first election in 1998 with an astonishing approval rating of 80 per cent. This would dramatically decline over the next four years, however, in reaction to his early heavy-handed governance. He rewrote the constitution, giving the president control over all three branches of government, the right to rule by decree and the right to rule in perpetuity when claiming two-thirds of the vote.

According to Human Rights Watch, Chavez consolidated power within the Supreme Court by appointing justices who supported his mandate and punished others, effectively curtailing any check on presidential power. Media that offended the government or served to “ferment anxiety in the public,” were harshly reprimanded. Members of both the press and the judicial system were victims of unlawful arrest and detention.

Obviously repressive in defense of his regime, Chavez did leave Venezuela better off than he found it in some ways. The Guardian’s Datablog shows extreme poverty was reduced from 23 per cent to eight per cent and unemployment halved to just over seven per cent. Gross domestic product per capita and agricultural output both increased. The worst failure of Chavez was one he admitted to — crime. The country boasts the ugly prize of the highest violent crime rate in South America.

Records aside, the prevailing image of Chavez the dictator was mostly earned from his open rejection of the ruling ideology. A devout socialist, he decried capitalism as “the way of the devil and exploitation.” Coming from a poor background, the plight of the proletariat was always part of his campaigns and policies. Outside the country, he refused free trade agreements with the United States, opting instead for Latin American organizations, Mercosur and ALBA.

In 2008, Chavez handed Barack Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, a chronicle of U.S.-backed insurgency throughout Latin America. By that point, Chavez was clearly aware that his policies of land expropriation, resource nationalization and social programs for the poor were exactly what had antagonized American interventions throughout Central and South America previously.

Indeed, an updated version of Galeano’s book would have to feature Chavez himself. After a 2002 coup attempt that at first seemed internal, The Observer revealed it had been orchestrated by the Bush administration with the help of the same people who had been involved in the Reagan-era insurgencies in Central America. Chavez was considered a problem that needed to be rectified, a man who was sewing ideas that America refused to swallow in the new millennium, just as they refused before.

Though that was over a decade ago, the dominant sentiment still remains. Time magazine’s Tim Padgett provided just such an example in his Chavez retrospective, describing a leader who was “reckless and arrogant,” “a vulgar populist” and a “blowhard.” Petty name-calling aside, his most accurate sentence was this: “history isn’t likely to remember Chavez as fondly as his followers will.”

And that is exactly the point. What America or the rest of the world thought of Chavez is ultimately irrelevant. In fact, Chavez turned his attempted vilification into a battle of Biblical proportions — he became the little guy fighting the good fight against the American boogie man that had forcibly impressed itself on the autonomous nations of Latin America for decades.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans flooded the streets to commemorate not just the death of a man, but the death of a larger than life symbol of defiance against the dominant powers that so often win without even facing a battle.

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Article corrected on 14/03/2013



  1. I see now the confusion as the sentence originally appeared as “the ruling ideology of empire” and was changed to “ruling ideology.” Those two words likely make the sentence more clear.

  2. Anthony: The choice to use the word Dictator in the title was the choice of The Concordian, not of JHR. I don’t refer to Chavez as a dictator, in fact, my argument is that the notion that he was a dictator came from his rejection of American neo-liberal capitalist policy.

    Brian: This refers to your question as well. His painting as a dictator is because he rejected “the ruling ideology of empire,” that of America’s attachment to neo-liberal capitalism and globalization. The statement about press freedoms was made only to give context to some of the criticisms levelled against him. This is the stated position of Human Rights Watch, which I attributed. I fully agree that the private media committed egregious errors in its anti-Chavez rhetoric and did play a large part in the attempted coup. In 600 words, however, I chose not to focus on this specifically. 

    I don’t think it’s accurate to refer to his rule as a dictatorship by any means. I can see how that was confused by the title, but I think the main point is clear: Chavez was named a dictator because it was the easiest way for the United States and other dominant powers to belittle the policies he undertook. 

  3. I am surprised JHR is labelling the late Hugo Chavez a “dictator”. Chavez won 15 out of 16 elections that we’re held in Venezuela since 1998, all of which were supervised by international monitors. In the 2012 presidential election, Chavez took 54.5% of the vote with a 80.4% voter turnout. His political party also won the vast majority of state elections later that year as well. As for the legitimacy of the election process in Venezuela, former President of the United States Jimmy Carter said of them in 2012: “As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” If we are to hold JHR’s standards for what constitutes “dictatorship” I wonder how well Canada would fair given that the Harper government holds virtually all the power when his party received only 39% of the popular vote with a voter turnout of 61.4%. Our court system and Charter of Rights also unfairly advantage the rich, as corporations with their army of lawyers can cover the legal costs of going through the courts when the rest of us can’t. Food for thought, if a government came into power in Canada who tried to reform the parliamentary system to make it more democratic, would you not think that conservative forces in this country would try with all their might to label what they are doing as undemocratic and use all the media power at their disposal to harshly criticize and delegitimize it? Lets not forget that much of the media that strongly criticized Chavez and called him a dictator were the same that fed us Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction without holding up those lies to the actual facts.

  4. This is a weird position coming from JHR. I think calling Hugo Chavez a dictator is false.

    Chavez has one of the best, if not the best, track record when it comes to democratic elections. Even while his numbers were going down throughout the year, they still beat the vast majority of elected leaders in the world and this through elections that the Carter Center deemed democratic.

    Concerning the constitutional changes in 2007, they are not so different to that of the US or Canada (upper-level government appointments, transfer of power to executive branches in matters of taxation and transportation) and no degrees can supersede constitutional law.Also, you didn’t mention that in the new constitution, the Venezuelan president is recallable upon a receipt of a signed petition of 20 percent of Venezuelan voters, after half a term in office has passed. I’d like to see Canada integrate this feature. In 2004, there was a recall referendum. The opposition organized the petition and even though it was proven that the petition was invalid (cats, dogs and dead people signed the petition), Chavez was still game for the referendum.

    On the question of the media, you didn’t mention that they played a significant role during the coup. When people heard about the coup, they came down onto the streets (which is how the coup was defeated), though the media chose not to report the fact that tens of thousands of people were protesting the coup in front of the presidential palace. The media that was “harshly reprimanded” were ones that were proven to have committed grave journalistic errors throughout the years, notably the dissemination falsehoods (let’s not forget that time they manipulated footage showing chavistas “shooting at opposition protesters below an overpass” when there were actually shooting at a gunman on a rooftop), openly calling for an insurrection against Chavez, and, in some cases, his assassination. More space was given to community-based media, instead of media owned by oligarchs.

    Moreover, I don’t know if I’m missing something, but I find one of your statements convoluted, “[T]he prevailing image of Chavez the dictator was mostly earned from his open rejection of the ruling ideology.”

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