When Hugo Chávez died earlier this week, the human race lost one of its most divisive, contradictory and charismatic members. Chávez approached life with a knowing wink and a firm handshake. When he talked, he talked big and when he acted, people hid from the violent protests that inevitably followed. If you think Chávez was just another South American despot, read on:
Getting into Power
Chávez was the President of Venezuela for fifteen years but he was so much more than that. His election to the Presidency in 1998 shattered the stranglehold of the upper class elite over Venezuela. The oligarchy-owned media were so afraid of him they wrote stories alleging he was a cannibal. Who ate children. Journalists in Australia may allege that Tony Abbott has a problem with women but at least they don’t claim he eats them. Chávez’s voter base was made up of the poor, who wanted someone to finally notice the fact they were poor, and the middle class, who were worried about becoming poor themselves.
At his inauguration, not content with the ordinary vows that every other lame President makes, he swore to create “a new republic [that] will have a Magna Carta befitting these new times”. The dude does not muck around. By 1999, two referendums had been successfully passed and Venezuela had a shiny new Constitution, with democracy and freedom and everything.
The new Constitution had a lot of upsides, including rights to trifling little matters like education, housing, healthcare and food. It’s indicative of the previous governments’ total lack of interest in the people that these things actually had to be written down. The new Constitution also increased the presidential term, allowed presidents to be recalled by referendum and added a two year term limit. Less exciting for democracy, it gave the President the power to legislate on citizen’s right, gave the military a government role and created a unicameral legislature by combining the Congress and the Senate…which makes Venezuela about as democratic as Queensland. Ouch. As per the new Constitution, every single official was re-elected in one big mega-election in 2000. Chávez won easily – do you see a pattern yet?
Chávez didn’t let any time go to waste the second time around either. He immediately set in motion a wide-reaching social welfare program known at Plan Bolívar 2000, which involved 70,000 army officers going out into the streets and repairing infrastructure, providing health care and selling affordable food. After that he committed his entire salary to a scholarship fund and sold off all his limousines and government airplanes. By now, his approach to President-ing sounds like a bleeding heart first year political science student that refuses to wear shoes. “Can’t we just, like, give everyone food? Also, communism, like, could totally work.” Having caused immense upheaval in just a few months, he dusted himself off and went out to meet as many world leaders as he could embrace in his manly arms.
Then he started his own radio television shows where he mostly took calls, told jokes, and espoused his socialist philosophy. Kind of like old Soviet propaganda, but you don’t get shot for changing the channel.
Staying in Power
If you haven’t noticed by now, Chávez is really awesome at winning votes. Suspiciously awesome even. In a fifteen year reign, he only lost one electoral contest, a referendum on extending presidential powers in 2007. Eventually people began to question if maybe, just maybe, his tactics were less than above board. Seriously, even Phar Lap lost occasionally. The problem, according to Slate, is that Chávez was never a dictator in the traditional sense. He didn’t stuff ballot boxes or make people disappear in the middle of night. He just quietly centralised power until it was impossible to defeat him. Formidable opponents were persuaded not to run. Gerrymandering ensured electoral success. Millions in oil revenue mysteriously made it into election coffers.
People tend to get upset when you pinkie swear not to start a dictatorship and then do it anyway. Chávez’s former best friend, Francisco Cárdenas, ran against him in the 2000 election on the grounds that he had become autocratic. Presumably, Chávez subsequently de-friended him on Facebook but not before a humble-brag election win status. Later, Chávez’s education plan lead to mass protests which came to a head on 11 April 2002. Twenty people were killed in the violence and 110 injured.
In the confusing aftermath, anti-Chávez military officers did what South American military officers do best and staged a coup. Seriously, South America is all about coups. In fact, Chávez couldn’t even complain too much because he himself staged a coup in 1992 against President Pérez. Chávez was unsuccessful and imprisoned for two years, until he was freed by the next President, literally after making a promise not to coup again. In Venezuela, if you haven’t staged at least one coup, you’re not trying hard enough. Chávez stepped aside but the coup’s leader Pedro Carmona made the fatal mistake of abolishing the constitution. Turns out, people don’t support you if you’re even shittier than the guy you ousted. Mass protests ensued and Chávez returned to power three days later.
In the wake of the coup, he moderated his views somewhat and sought to take a more centrist economic approach. Then the opposition tried to have a referendum to recall him and all bets were off. Chávez roared into January 2005 with a new found “Up Yours” mantra, declaring an ideology of “Socialism of the 21st Century”. Having won a referendum to abolish term limits, he took up his fourth Presidential term in 2012.
What made Chávez so…Chávez? He was born to lower middle class parents, the second of seven children. 1955 was a bad time to be Venezuelan. Crippling poverty meant that, despite being employed as school teachers, his parents could barely afford to feed all their children. To Chávez, Les Miz was basically a documentary on his childhood.
At seventeen, Chávez entered military school and began reading about Simon Bolívar. Bolívar was a natty early 19th century gentleman whose hobbies included freeing South America from Spanish rule. Instead of putting an I Heart Bolívar poster above his bed, Chávez took his man-crush to another level. He formed a secret revolutionary society named after Bolívar. He named his social welfare program after Bolívar. He would have changed the name of the currency to the Bolívar, but a previous leader beat him to it.
Essentially, Bolívar believed in democracy but not too much of it. He enjoyed human rights and social justice. Chávez borrowed these beliefs and added a healthy dose of education and military-civilian unity to formulate his own philosophy, now known as Chavismo. While Chávez declared himself a socialist, he seemed to be all talk and no trousers. For all his autocratic tendencies, Venezuela was never a true one party state or about to abandon capitalism in its entirety (we’re looking at you, Cuba).
Unlike Bolívar though, Chávez was staunchly anti-American. At the General Assembly in 2006, he referred to George Bush as the “devil, the owner of the world”. This must have confused poor Bush, because who wasn’t even sure what a Venezuela was.
Chávez left behind one of the more stable governments in South America (even with the small business of that coup). However, under his reign, homicide rates doubled and crime skyrocketed. On an average weekend, more people are killed in Caracas than Baghdad or Kabul. Those are warzones, for anyone who just woke up from a ten year coma. Venezuela has one of the world’s highest rates of inflation, largest fiscal deficits, and fastest growing debts. Its infrastructure is crumbling around it. Turns out, Chávez may have been a good showman but was not so good at running the show.
His friends included Gaddafi, Assad and the who’s who of people who are not on America’s Christmas card list. President Ahmadinejad of Iran claims that Chávez will aid Jesus Christ during the apocalypse. Apparently, this was meant to be a compliment? Sean Penn and Ken Livingstone claims they’ve lost a friend. I mean, can you even imagine what Chávez’s birthday parties would have been like?
In the wake of Chávez’s death, Venezuelan officials have made increasingly bizarre statements about US attempts to destabilise the country, presumably by planting a tumour in Chávez while he slept (that’s just…not a thing people can do. Not even the CIA). What his death means for the powder-keg of Venezuelan politics will play out in the coming months. Personally, our major hope is to see “Don’t Cry for Me Venezuela: the Chávez Musical”, in cinemas in 2014.