Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died this week of cancer at age 58, was beloved and reviled, bombastic and provocative, a flamboyant figure who was vastly influential in his country and throughout the region.
The former paratrooper turned populist promised to use Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to improve life for the country’s poor. By most accounts, he did just that.
From 1997 to 2011, he cut the percentage of Venezuelans living in moderate poverty from 54 to 31 percent, and those living in extreme poverty from 23 to 9 percent, the World Bank says. He greatly reduced illiteracy, set up medical clinics in slums and working-class barrios, and established discount grocery stores.
But even as he wielded his power to rally, energize, and protect his country’s poor, he also used it to reinforce his position, attack his critics, and censor the media. He passed laws that extended his time in office, as well as measures that allowed him arbitrarily to suspend television and radio stations. He stacked the courts with his supporters.
And he waged a long, theatrical war of words with the United States, palling around with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and embracing leaders such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His anti-U.S. rhetoric drove the George W. Bush administration crazy, but it also helped spearhead a reassessment by Latin American leaders of their relationship with the global superpower to the north.
For better or worse, Mr. Chavez pushed for regional integration closer to home, helping set up organizations — such as the Union of South American Nations — that intentionally excluded Washington. The U.S. decision to support a 2002 coup that briefly led to his ouster only deepened his hostility toward Washington.
Mr. Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is expected to face an election within 30 days and, if he wins it, a bleak economic future, rising crime rates, and a polarized nation. Unlike the former president, Mr. Maduro — a onetime union organizer who served as foreign minister — may lack the charisma and political capital to win broad support and stave off political opponents.
It’s to be hoped that whoever leads Venezuela next will understand that the best way to win support and preserve the gains of the unfinished Bolivarian revolution of Mr. Chavez won’t be by attacking those who disagree with him, but by ensuring that all Venezuelans, rich and poor, have a voice in the government.
— Los Angeles Times