Hugo Chávez Frías was the president of Venezuela from 1999 till his death in 2013. He was immensely popular, winning three general elections by landslide majorities and losing only one referendum election during his fourteen-year tenure. His popularity derived in large part from his perceived persona as the champion of the people, a common man who seized power from the political elite to protect the interests of his own. While at first sight this may appear to be true, a closer look at his presidency reveals a somewhat different reality.
Champion of the Poor?
As opposed to previous governments, Chavez’s regime was the first to focus on helping the poor. For instance, at public events Chavez would invite everyone to hand him personal petitions for his consideration. In the evenings, he would then read through them and select a few to be actioned. Besides helping a few lucky individuals, it’s unclear whether this created any long-term social benefit. However what is clear is that these tactics made poor people think Chavez truly cared about them, turning them into diehard supporters. In a country where 80% of the population is considered poor, tactics like these helped cement Chavez’ popularity. This raises the question: was he really interested in helping the poor, or just getting more votes?
Perhaps Chavez’ most famous social policies were his so-called ‘social missions’. These missions were aimed at tackling the main issues affecting the poor, from lack of healthcare to lack of education to lack of housing. ‘Mission Ribas’, for instance, was set up to teach adults literacy skills and arithmetic. While this was a worthwhile cause, it fell short of addressing the root causes of adult illiteracy such as reforming the schooling system. This gives rise to accusations that Chavez was only interested in delivering quick fixes in order to win elections. After all, it’s interesting to note that Chavez introduced social missions in the run-up to the 2004 recall referendum when many believed his presidency was under serious threat. Some critics see this as more than just coincidence.
Regardless of his treatment of the poor, where Chavez clearly failed his people were in his handling of the economy. He presided over the biggest oil boom in the country’s history, but failed to take advantage of this golden opportunity. Rather than using the surplus oil funds to invest in different industries and create a robust and diversified economy, he made Venezuela even more reliant on oil. Under his watch, oil exports grew to 96% of the country’s revenue and domestic production plummeted to record lows, causing sporadic shortages of basic products, and sending inflation through the roof. The poor were hit hardest by these changes, as their cost of living soared and they had to queue up for hours to buy food from supermarkets.
Another disappointing aspect of Chavez’ regime was his disregard for basic freedoms. Obsessed with the media, Chavez had his own TV talk show every Sunday called ‘Alo Presidente’ which would often last for several hours at a time. His media involvement, however, became more sinister when he started closing down TV channels and radio stations that spoke up against the government. Nowadays, all the main TV channels broadcast vast amounts of government propaganda. Chavez was also known to imprison people without a fair trial. A famous example is the case of Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who granted bail to a personal enemy of Chavez and suffered the consequences. When Chavez learnt of this, he arranged for her to be jailed and she remained in prison for several years.
Arguably the most controversial moment of Chavez’ administration was the aftermath of the 2004 recall referendum. To arrange this referendum, opposition politicians collected a petition with three million signatures. After winning these elections by a slim majority, Chavez sought to exact vengeance on his opponents by using the petition to systematically discriminate against all those who had signed. He made sure they were denied jobs in any government-controlled company, which in Venezuela means most companies, and as a result livelihoods were destroyed. To this day the petition, which has come to be known as ‘La Lista Tascon’ (The Tascon List), is still used by the government to discriminate against opponents.
From the above, a clear picture of Chavez’ political motives begins to emerge. It seems his real goal was only to give the impression of making a lasting difference to his country, so as to secure the support of the poor majority and hence remain in power. This explains his obsession with TV and the media, which he used as a tool to create the illusion of progress. This also explains why he had no qualms with imprisoning and discriminating against those who opposed him. Underneath this illusion, the real situation of Venezuela has gotten significantly worse. The country now faces a host of serious problems: the highest inflation in the world; the risk of default next year; a chronic shortage of basic goods; one of the highest murder rates in the world; a growing list of political prisoners. This is Chavez’ legacy, and it reads more like that of a villain than a hero.