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[Newsmaker] Chavez leaves uncertain legacy

He may have been a divisive figure, but late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has always been clear about how he wants to be remembered: a revolutionary standing up to the cruel and imperial United States and its cronies.

As if to confirm this self-styled image, he told the Associated Press in 2007 that he admired the movie “Gladiator,” in which a lone fighter confronts an empire.

Charismatic and populist, he took on Venezuela’s elite while retaining the propensity for impromptu marathon speeches so common in the Latin-American left.
Hugo Chavez. (AFP-Yonhap News)
Hugo Chavez. (AFP-Yonhap News)

But he is perhaps most famous for his short, sharp attacks on former President George W. Bush, calling him “Mr. Danger” and a “donkey,” and saying that the podium where the U.S. leader had stood still carried a whiff of the devil.

Such sharp words won him popularity in the region and further afield among disgruntled anti-Americans and even Hollywood liberals.

At home this popularity was bolstered by an ability to identify with the disenfranchised majority’s needs. He was elected president four times and overcame the coup that temporarily ousted him in large part thanks to popular support.

But he moved in a direction many long-term leaders lean toward, incrementally increasing his power and rigging the government scales in his favor. By the time of his death Tuesday, Venezuela had no effective opposition party, a politicized judiciary and unlimited presidential terms, while both Freedom House and Reporters without Borders have lambasted its press restrictions.

His legacy is a mixed bag. He leaves behind increased literacy and significantly reduced poverty ― a two-edged sword for his successor, who will now have to satisfy a politically engaged and expectant working class while making the most of these benefits.

But crime is rife and the economy leaves concerns. The country is still massively polarized and Chavez relied on oil money to fund his populist policies. He raided the kitty of the state oil firm, using it to invest more in social programs than into its primary business.

As a result, the company has been left ill equipped to exploit Venezuela’s huge offshore oil wealth. Its accounts are secret and its staff chosen on the basis of politics rather than expertise.

At the same time, Chavez’s regional popularity was boosted by the subsidized oil he pumped to Caribbean and South and Central American neighbors ― particularly Cuba ― seemingly in part to thumb his nose at the U.S.

If his successor feels the need to stop this policy, and to use the extra money to invest in the company, it could cripple the Caribbean ― and the smell Chavez leaves behind may not be entirely of roses.

By Paul Kerry (paulkerry@heraldcorp.com)
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