Controversial socialist hero killed by cancer

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s combative and charismatic left-wing president, has died in office aged 58. Is this the final blow for state socialism? Or will his controversial ideas live on?

Outside Venezuela’s presidential palace, a shocked crowd stood vigil. Some mourners wore T-shirts bearing the revolutionary slogan, ‘Go forward commander!’ Some hugged one another, tears in their eyes. But in the distance the noise of fireworks and celebrations was heard.

Such was the divisive nature of Venezuela’s flamboyant president Hugo Chavez, who has died from cancer aged 58. To his devoted supporters he was a visionary leader guided by compassion for his compatriots. To his enemies he was a dangerous, puffed-up demagogue driven only by his all-consuming ego. All agree that he was a unique, larger-than-life figure, whose legacy will echo far beyond the borders of his native land.

In America and Europe, Chavez will mostly be remembered for his outlandish and outspoken criticism of the capitalist West. ‘Imperialist America’, he said, was ‘the biggest menace on Earth’. Its leader George W Bush (who he nicknamed ‘Mr Danger’) was 'a coward, a killer, a drunk, a liar’ and ‘a donkey’ – not to mention Satan himself.

Chavez’s outrageous rhetoric won him a worldwide reputation as America’s irritant-in-chief. Any enemy of the USA was a friend of his, from Iran’s fundamentalist rulers to his fellow Latin American socialists.

America returned the rhetorical fire, blasting his crackdown on free speech. During his time in office Chavez has closed down over 30 media outlets, imprisoned opponents and packed the courts with revolutionary loyalists.

Yet in his own country Chavez is widely and genuinely adored. Why? Because of his ambitious projects to improve the lives of the poor. He diverted Venezuela’s vast oil revenues to welfare, hospitals and schools, with impressive results. In ten years poverty was halved, education spending doubled and child mortality fell by a third.

He became a hero of the international left, who credit him with reigniting the dying flame of socialist revolution. And all within the framework of a working democracy: Chavez has been elected four times since 1999, in a process one international observer described as ‘the best in the world’.

Left in the lurch?

Many leftists are inspired by Chavez. His success, they say, proves that democracy and socialism can coexist. In a world dominated by big business and free markets, Venezuela offers a radical vision of truly fair, truly equal society, governed by and for the people. Chavez may be gone; but his ideas could yet change the world.

Nonsense, respond others: Chavez was nothing new. With his utopian bluster and his tyrannical tendencies, he was simply the final gasp of the old, discredited ideology of state socialism. It is not only Chavez whose death we mark today, but that of socialism itself.

You Decide

  1. Does state socialism have any place in the modern world?
  2. Is limited freedom of speech a price worth paying for big improvements to standards of life?

Activities

  1. Write an obituary of Hugo Chavez, including your own judgement of his legacy: was he a tyrant, a hero or a buffoon?
  2. ‘Socialism is dead.’ Hold a class debate and put this proposition to a vote.

Some People Say...

“Jesus Christ was the first socialist.’ Hugo Chavez”

What do you think?

Q & A

So a leader of some far-off country has died. Why should that matter to me?
For one thing, Venezuela has some of the world’s largest untapped reserves of oil. As fuel becomes scarce, whoever controls these reserves will have leverage all over the world. So although Venezuela is neither rich nor particularly populous, it is not as insignificant as you might think. But perhaps more important than that is the influence of Chavez himself.
And what would that be?
Chavez’s belief in state socialism has influenced other Latin American rulers such as Evo Morales of Bolivia, and some see a regional drift towards the radical left. And socialists further afield are hoping that the rest of the world will follow – though capitalism looks fairly safe for now.

Word Watch

Venezuela
Situated on the northern coast of South America, Venezuela is a complicated country plagued by inequality and violence but blessed with huge reserves of oil. It is now officially known as ‘the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’, after Chavez’s revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar.
Cancer
Chavez was first found to have a tumour two years ago, and has suggested (to widespread ridicule) that the US may have been somehow responsible.
Demagogue
A leader who retains power by pandering to popular prejudice and the emotions of the masses.
Imperialist
The USA does have much of an empire in the conventional sense, since it controls few territories beyond its borders. But some, especially on the left, believe that America’s military and economic dominance over the world is no different from the behaviour of previous empires.
Satan himself
In a speech to the UN the day after Bush had spoken there, Chavez famously crossed himself and proclaimed: ‘The devil has been here... and it still smells of sulphur.’
Iran’s fundamentalist rulers
Iran is governed by strict Islamic laws which place huge restrictions on its citizens, especially women. Chavez has also cultivated alliances with other widely-condemned rulers, including Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Vast oil reserves
Venezuela has long been dependent on oil for much of its wealth, but Chavez came to power at a particularly fruitful time: with oil prices high and plenty of newly-tapped reserves, he arrived in office with over $1 trillion to spend.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.