Summarizing Hugo Chavez’s complicated and often contradictory legacy as the leader of Venezuela is largely an impossible task. Observers credit him with incredible accomplishments as well as monumental failures. Chavez cleaned up the drinking water and empowered the working poor, but critics hold him responsible for the skyrocketing crime rate that destroyed Caracas and forced thousands of middle class Venezuelans to leave the country.
For some, Chavez was a leader whose policies dramatically improved education, but others vilify his oversight of Venezuela’s overcrowded and dangerous prisons.
Much like his best friend Fidel Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chavez was uncritically lauded by many on the American left, and impulsively denounced by many on the right. Americans rarely understood Chavez as the multi-dimensional man he truly was.
Dichotomous perceptions aside, Hugo Chavez’ legacy will most likely be his wild personality. He was a president who performed in power.
However, Chavez’s performance antics were not those of an actor, as much as they appeared to be. In fact, according to those close to him, Chavez brought his genuinely fiery personality everywhere he went.
Chavez’s late-into-the-night television speeches quickly became regular occurrences after his election in 1998. His purposefully controversial accusations leveled at the United States quickly granted him international fame. A loud voice, snappish and unrelenting tone, and a crude sense of humor defined Chavez as a polarizing international figure, but in a country self-defined by wild soccer fans, fast and flashy dancing, and spicy food, Hugo Chavez was a national favorite. As an editorial the March 9 Economist put it, Chavismo turned out to be a “remarkably successful formula” in which Chávez won four elections by margins ranging from “sweeping to comfortable.”
Chavez was left with a Venezuela rich in oil. His policies, across the board, worked effectively to increase Venezuela’s wealth and international status. This success bolstered his image and made Venezuelan people to listen to him on TV and radio. His performances brought people coming back again and again, and soon, a performer was born.
This legacy will live on because, even in a world of Castro, Kim Jong-il and Vladimir Putin, Chavez was a performer in a league of his own. In fact, he made the rest pale in comparison, looking like amateurs against his wild tirades.
Chavez was brash, and consistently targeted his opponents directly. His language and ferocity made him convincing and divisive, commanding audiences. By creating this spotlight, he mastered a formula for exploiting socioeconomic inequality in order to demonize his opponents. Without his performances, he would not have been able to do this.
The wild and sometimes trashy talk-radio feel to Chavez’s public declarations are abundant. Consider for example when he claimed in 2008 that Sarah Palin was a beauty queen being forced into politics against her will, or called Halloween ‘gringo terrorism’, or, suggested that 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated in private and kept private by the Bush administration.
Perhaps the most ridiculous statement came in 2006, when Chavez compared Hitler favorably to George Bush. “The imperialist, genocidal, fascist attitude of the U.S. president has no limits. I think Hitler would be like a suckling baby next to George W. Bush.”
Hugo Chavez was a bit of a nut. But he was proud of it. He loved the attention and he will certainly be forever remembered for demanding it and commanding it to the end.