BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — I loved Comandante Hugo Chavez. I loved him not because I’m some sort of pinko populist, but because he makes teaching Latin American politics so much more fun and fascinating. He provided so many great teaching moments to share with my students.
Since the 2002 coup, he has given me a steady stream of new material. His anti-American, and especially anti-George W. Bush, views became near obsessions. Chavez believed that the United States was plotting to assassinate him, or even launch a full invasion of Venezuela. Now Vice President Nicolas Maduro claims that enemies, including the US, caused Chavez’s cancer.
It is with this fear mongering that he was able to capitalize on Venezuelan nationalism and on popular anti-Bush sentiments. Indeed their well-documented rivalry very likely helped Chavez get re-elected by a huge margin in 2006.
At times, Chavez’s name-calling was entertaining, especially since his insults seemed so hypocritical. He called Bush a pendejo (“dumb-ass,” though literally it has something to do with pubic hair), "Mr. Danger" and "The Devil.” He criticized the Bush administration for interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, especially influencing elections; yet Chavez, his own way, did the very same thing.
He voiced his support for the leftist candidate in every presidential election in Latin America. In some cases, he provided financial support and/or free or inexpensive oil and fertilizer to supporters of his favored candidates.
Chavez claimed to be against free trade agreements and against trading with the United States, yet Venezuela is our fourth largest source of petroleum, and the United States is Venezuela’s most important trading partner, according to the US State Department.
Petro politics and political corruption go hand-in-hand. Ironically, Chavez came to power by claiming to fight corruption. In 2001, Transparency International, an anti-corruption non-governmental organization, ranked Venezuela 70th on the Corruption Perceptions Index. By 2006, Chavez’s actions had effectively dropped Venezuela to 143rd, behind only Haiti on the list of most corrupt nations in the Western hemisphere. And by 2012, the two were tied at 165th place.
Venezuela has had its share of coups and dictators, but Venezuela is a constitutional democracy, albeit with quirks and problems. Throughout Chavez’s presidency, he permitted political opposition, but kept it suppressed and contained. Press freedom is circumscribed and several journalists have been killed under Chavez’s rule.
The wackiest thing about the media in “Hugolandia,” however, is Chavez himself. For several years, Chavez starred in “Aló Presidente,” a one-man variety show broadcast on all public television stations. Typically, it ran for several hours.
Chavez gave speeches, extemporaneous talks on politics, economics and philosophy. Sometimes he would even sing or read love poems.
Chavez was obsessed with the media and his image. He tried to control cable and satellite channels, threatening to shut down any station he perceived as a threat to Venezuela’s political institutions and stability; if criticism directed against him or state institutions became too poignant, vocal or negative, he pulled the plug.
Chavez accomplished much during his rule, as most megalomaniacs with a messiah complex tend to do.
Venezuela’s petroleum industry is by far the country’s biggest revenue generator. Many experts see an inverse relationship between oil wealth and democracy. The more dependent a country is on oil revenues, the less democratic and more authoritarian the political regime. Political elites in such countries can use petro-wealth to increase their own power, often co-opting or buying off the opposition.
It is unclear how his death will affect US-Venezuelan relations. Serious instability is one possibility as opposing candidates vie for control of the lucrative oil resources. Another possibility is a less-charismatic, more repressive type of regime.
One thing is certain; Venezuela after Chavez will not be the same. They broke the mold after they made Chavez; he’s not going to be replicated any time soon.
“Hugolandia” was a strange world indeed, and it will be interesting to see how it is transformed as Venezuela adjusts to life after Chavez.
For me, this wonderful source for academic fodder is now gone; I will likely be in mourning for quite some time.
Vincent T. Gawronski is an associate professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala.