The last official photo of Hugo Chávez shows him surrounded by his two daughters, María Gabriela and Rosa Virginia. It’s a tableau of Renaissance proportions (and probably Photoshopped) that reminds followers of a saintly leader ready to be resurrected, his daughters already mourning the loss of their earthly father but preparing him to be transported to his next life. Whether Chávez can be resurrected through the election of his self-appointed heir, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, remains the next test for the cult of Chavismo that arose around this former paratrooper and failed putchist.
The iconography of a fallen Chávez should not be interpreted as the end of an era, even combined with the death of the 58-year-old leader on March 5, when he was cut down at the height of his power by cancer. The foundation laid by this praetorian populist will endure. Chavismo as a political movement was widely seen by Venezuelans and by other leaders of the region as truly autochthonous, a force that hit the sweet spot of anti-Americanism at the right time and place in U.S.-Latin American relations. His unique blend of regionalism—he used the image and name of South American liberator Simón Bolivar, who sought to unify Hispanic America in the early 19th century—helped to create political clones like presidents Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Like Chávez, these leaders have attempted to gut democratic rule by using democratic institutions as a cover for more authoritarian actions, which include stifling a free press and packing the courts with partisan followers.
Hugo Chávez knew how to push every button that would provoke a U.S. response to his regime. He nationalized U.S. oil companies and he made common cause with some of the most repressive leaders around the globe. His friendships with the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, Iranian leader Mahmud Ahmandinejad, and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad were especially troublesome; they were deliberate attempts to challenge U.S. counter-terrorist efforts after September 11 by cavorting with known sponsors of state terrorism. Qaddafi even sent emissaries to Caracas as his regime was falling to see whether Chávez would help him out and circumvent international sanctions.
Eventually, the U.S. government got smart about how to manage this blow-hard populist who not only gutted the institutions of democracy to consolidate his own power, but also managed to further the schisms between the United States other countries in this hemisphere by using his petro-diplomacy to buy friends at a time when U.S. assistance to the region was on the decline. He used his nation’s oil wealth to prop up the economically ailing government of Raul Castro. Venezuela provides 97,000 barrels of oil per day to keep Cuba afloat. Chávez also invested in projects that would win him supporters in some of the poorest nations of the Caribbean and Central America. Citizens of Nicaragua praised his largesse, allowing taxi-drivers and members of the Sandinista party to gain access to cheap gasoline in a country with no source of fossil fuel.
That his relationship with Cuba became central to his own leadership is not surprising. As a young renegade officer, Chávez devoured the leftist literature of his generation. His veneration for the tactics of his mentor, Fidel Castro, provided the oxygen for his own vision of a socialist Bolivarian state. The barter of oil for doctors worked well in that it gave Chávez a tangible benefit to deliver to his poorest citizens. Ironically, he used his oil wealth not to promote education or repair aging infrastructure, but to bring medicine from Cuba to his own country for a rapid infusion of good will. Of course many people were healed by the hands of Cuban doctors and given sight by the cataract surgeries that were once outside the reach of most poor Venezuelans. But at the end of the day, what Cuba did for Chávez was to give him legitimacy with some of the world's worst offenders of human rights rather than provide lessons about educating people and improving their lives.
In assessing the Chávez era one thing is clear. His presence will be felt for a long time as elections in Venezuela go forward in the next 30 days. It would be hard for the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, to overcome a strong advantage that Nicolas Maduro has at this point in time. It’s an open question whether Maduro can keep the country together in the face of tremendous economic challenges—from food shortages to currency problems and an oil industry that under-performs yet is its main revenue source. Couple this with a crime rate that is among the highest in South America, with 73 murders per 100,000 persons per year, and you have a nation that is on the brink of a disaster. While an ailing Chávez distracted the public from the real issues of state, it will not be easy to continue the cover-up.
When the official mourning period ends, the tears have dried, and Chávez is finally laid to rest alongside the body of his hero, Simón Bolivar, the contrasts between the true liberator of a nation and a self-selected despot will grow clearer as Venezuela’s economic future grows more dire. Chávez’s cronies will no longer have the ability or the charisma to overcome a democratic opposition that yearns for a capable state.
Americans often confuse elections with democracy. We have never fully understood that elections do not necessarily create citizens. Venezuelans have a steep hill to climb. That nation must move beyond the ballot box to the serious task of repairing the damage to its judiciary, its legislature, and its press. This transformation may be long in the making, and for now, the United States must brace itself for a long period of rebuilding a relationship that might best be brokered by other allies in the region like Colombia or Brazil. The real losers in this game will be precisely the poor who clung to Chávez’s promises but never really understood the price the nation paid for his form of demagoguery.