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The good, the bad and the ugly: Hugo Chávez and the international left

So Hugo Chávez is dead. After rumour upon rumour swirling over past months, including a claim last week from the former ambassador of Panama that Chavez had actually died on 30 December, this morning Venezuelan…

Hugo Chavez was a problematic poster boy for the international left. David Fernandez/EPA

So Hugo Chávez is dead. After rumour upon rumour swirling over past months, including a claim last week from the former ambassador of Panama that Chavez had actually died on 30 December, this morning Venezuelan vice-president Nicolas Maduro formally announced Chávez’s passing, at the age of 58, following a long battle with cancer.

You can expect the think-pieces on Chávez’s legacy to begin to flow in no time at all. Take them with a grain of salt. While in the mainstream media, Chávez was all too often presented as some sort of villain, he was a more complex figure than this.

This complicated legacy is no more evident than in his relationship with the international left.

Chávez and the international left

Chávez’s election to presidential office in 1998, with 56% of the popular vote, saw the beginning of the Latin American “pink tide” - a move to the left across the region, so named as the tide was not “red” - that is, communist - but the lighter “pink” - socialist.

The international left saw great promise in Chávez’s victory - a clear “no” to the Washington Consensus and its imposition of US-style capitalism, open markets and privatisation.

Here was a leader who was willing to take a stand against the creep of neo-liberalism, and offer a new way of thinking about how to live politically.

The good

Chávez lived up to his promise in many ways. The left admired many of his successes, such as bringing down unemployment and increasing the life chances and material wealth of the poor through high investment in education and health.

More exciting was his style of “participatory democracy”, seen in the building of the Bolivarian Circles and Communal Councils, which were decentralised, loose-knit political organisations of workers’ councils that deliberated on important local issues like health and water.

As Steve Ellner has written, there is little doubt that Chávez brought about “the mobilisation and incorporation of massive numbers of the formerly marginalized in the decision-making process”.

Titans of the academic left were quick to befriend or praise Chávez. Noam Chomsky visited Venezuela and claimed, “the transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact if these projects are successfully carried out”.

Ernesto Laclau also visited Chávez and offered his full support to his Bolivarian project. Slavoj Žižek admired Chávez’s willingness to grab state power for the left.

The bad

Yet with the good comes the bad. As Chávez’s time went on, those on the left who defended liberal democracy became wary about some of his abuses of power.

Amongst other issues, he concentrated power in the executive, successfully increased the term limits for the president, allegedly withheld social insurance from supporters of opposition parties and closed down opposition television stations.

Chomsky turned on his friend, claiming that Chávez was leading an assault on democracy.

The president’s demonisation of his enemies also became wider, more vitriolic and worrying. While Chavez’s original targets were the old party elites, he went on to target the domestic opposition, then finally the “imperialist conspiracy” spearheaded by the United States.

The conspiracy mindset was nicely illustrated by assertions this morning that Chávez was “attacked by disease” by the US, something Chávez himself suggested in 2011.

Beyond this, Chávez got friendly with leaders who were no friends of democracy or the left, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar al Assad and Moamar Gaddafi, who he called “a great fighter, a revolutionary and a martyr”.

The legacy

Chávez’s legacy will remain mixed. There will be those who celebrate the man’s great achievements, his ability to envision and attempt to put into place “another world”, and his wider attempt to lead the Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America. There will be those who turn their attentions to other Latin American leaders in his wake, such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, or Rafael Correa of Ecuador, as paragons of radical socialism.

There will also be those who remember Chávez as a ruthless authoritarian leader, a “Marxist tyrant” or “communist dictator”. They will point to his abuses of the liberal safeguards of liberal democracy, his muzzling of the press, and his thirst for power.

The real answer probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. While the left found a hero initially in Chávez, it became harder and harder to defend him, to look the other way as his time in office went on. As Latin American scholar Kirk Hawkins put it, Chavez’s was “a semidemocratic regime headed in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.

While Chávez will likely be remembered in the Western media for calling George W. Bush “the devil” at the United Nations in 2006, there is much more to the man. In remembering Chávez, the left will continue to have conflicting feelings about how their poster boy fell from grace.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Geoffrey Edwards

    logged in via email

    "The real answer probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes."

    The real answer would seem to be at these extremes rather than some imagined middle. There seems no contradiction in celebrating his successes and bemoaning his transgressions.

    Anything else seems a falsification, not a real answer.

    Facts do not negate other facts.

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    The real test of Chavez will be in the sort of society he leaves behind... whether there is a continued pink tinge and an alternative path to the IMF straightjacket, in which mass participation increases and expands, whether democratic freedoms - not, by the way, the freedoms demanded by the local bonsaied Rupert Murdochs - can be extended and strengthened. Far too early to guess. But an interesting and charismatic leader who leaves big boots to fill - no doubt at all.

  3. Peter Dawson

    Gap Decade

    I think it would be very naive not to treat his illness and death as suspicious. He's not the first person to die a nasty death after publicly insulting a member of the Bush family. (The comedian Bill Hicks was another.) But it wasn't only the Bush clan who wanted him out and had the power to do something about it.

    It's his relationship with the international right that is of most significance. In 2002 he survived a US backed coup attempt against his democratically elected government. That coup attempt sets the context for many of his actions in the years that followed.

    An important documentary was made about the coup attempt:

  4. Shane Hopkinson

    logged in via Facebook

    Its a bit hard to balance concrete gains for the poor:

    According to the World Bank poverty cut from 60% down to 25%, extreme poverty — regular hunger, malnutrition and lack of shelter — down from 30+% to 6%, millions getting regular medical care for the first time, subsidised staple food, land reform and much more - something the neoliberals say is impossible) as well as experiments in participatory democracy - against *allegations* of denying insurance to opposition members, extending term limits…

    Read more
  5. Kim Darcy


    Actually, the really answer is that Chavez died early; before he got the chance to carry out the real horrific atrocities and impoverishment that ALL Marxist leaders whose power is based largely on the cult of personality end up carrying out.

    1. Luke Herbert


      In reply to Kim Darcy

      Actually, the real answer is that Chavez's legitimacy was based on popular support from Venezuela's poor. Have you ever heard the saying "Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt"? I think it would do you well to apply it to your online persona.

    2. Shane Hopkinson

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Luke Herbert

      Indeed Luke.

      Yesterday’s NY Times had an intriguing take on Hugo Chávez’s new constitution:

      “We are witnessing a seizure and redirection of power through legitimate means,” said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, co-author of a best-selling biography of Mr. Chávez. “This is not a dictatorship but something more complex: the tyranny of popularity.”

      "The tyranny of popularity" sounds like how all elites regard any kind of popular democracy.

    3. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Shane Hopkinson

      Poor people - folks without shoes - actually get to vote in Venezuela? How did the forces of freedom and democracy let this happen?

      And then they voted for a "dictator" apparently. A marxist butcher who died before he could launch his full reign of terror! My goodness! Where was the army? Where was the church? Where's that file on Chile?

      This is just democracy gone mad.

    4. Baz M

      Law graduate & politics/markets analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Dear Peter, as always once again made me laugh with the oh god so true impression on my face.

      Marxist atrocities, seriously when will this delightful fascist humour stop..

  6. Nathan Lyons

    Graduate Student at Australian Catholic University

    Thanks for this piece, Benjamin.

  7. Tim Niven
    Tim Niven is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Chinese Student and EFL Teacher at Tzu Chi University, Hualien City, Taiwan

    Benjamin, feels like a reasonable attempt at balance, but I don't think you've got your finger on a number of issues there, but most strikingly:

    'Chomsky turned on his friend, claiming that Chávez was leading an assault on democracy.'

    That's a deceptive characterisation, quite shallow thinking, and incorrect according to Chomsky himself. Here's Chomsky talking about that article you linked to:

    ''The Guardian/Observer version, as I anticipated, is quite deceptive. The report in the NY Times…

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  8. Eugene Schofield-Georgeson

    Lawyer/PhD Student

    Lest we forget the 'Caracazo' in which as recently as 1989, the pre-Chavez US puppet regime of Carlos Andres Perez, slaughtered 3000 pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Caracas after suspending the Consitutution.

    Sure Hugo might have had his censorship pecadillos and a penchant for dictatorial excess but are we really seeing things in historical perspective here?