He compared George W. Bush to Hitler and called him “the devil himself” and even warned that exporting Halloween to Latin America amounted to “terrorism.” He bashed “imperial” American policies quite assertively and said Bush left “a smell of sulphur” when the latter exited the UN General Assembly after a speech. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the latest fallen angel of America’s bogeymen- Hugo Chavez, the most controversial populist leader in the fertile Latin American “charismatic leaders” ground. Laden, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, and now Hugo Chavez- the band of anti-American boys have ended.
Ever heard of a regime which gets stronger with more and more opposition? That was Hugo Chavez’s new-age authoritarianism in Venezuela. Part provocateur, part CEO, and part electoral wizard, Chavez had updated tyranny for today. There were no mass executions or concentration camps in Venezuela. Civil society had not disappeared, as it did in Cuba Scarface-style after the 1959 revolution. In fact under Chavez’s reconstitution, Venezuela could still accommodate opposition, elections, a feisty press, and a vibrant civil society. Venezuela, in short, appears almost democratic.
However, if democracy means checks on the power of the holder of political office, Venezuela didn’t even come close. Chavez filled the Supreme Court with Chavistas, as the pro-Chavez revolucionarios would call themselves, got the entire army up his alley and supervised media content. Quite naturally, his power seize did not go unopposed- resulting multiple massive marches, pot-bangings and even a small-scale coup. But his inclusive rhetoric, missionary-image politics and lavish spending allegedly drew the poor man’s support: Chavez was the bona fide Robin Hood of Venezuela. Yet that’s not the whole story- polls dampening the Chavez Hood theory show that at least 30% of the poor disapproved (safe to say many more had abstained from voting). He initiated some of the largest spending budgets in the history of developing countries without making a substantial mark to lower poverty. In fact, Chavez’s relationship to the poor marked his style of dictatorship- competitive autocracy, or un-overwhelming majority support. Moreover, Chavez was perceivably sympathetic towards the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other radical organizations. A large number of professionals and others left their country beginning after Chavez became president in 1999. Many did not agree with his socialist government, became frightened of soaring crime or sought better fortunes abroad.
Outside Venezuela, Chavez was known to attack Washington’s Americanization excuse of globalization. Chavez sought to antagonize President Bush by saying that Washington only wanted to control Venezuela’s oil. Thus with the excuse of “saving Venezuela from the wrath of authoritarianism”, President George W. Bush had targeted Chavez by funneling democracy aid to his opponents since 2001.
President Bush used the bully pulpit to challenge Chavez as well. During his public appearances, the president frequently mentioned Chavez’s policies and how the world should isolate him.
Truth is, White House attacked not only his outsized personality but aimed to cripple Chavez’s vision of leading a Bolivarian revolution in Latin America, i.e. a left socialist movement based on 19th century revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar. Chavez was uncooperative regarding U.S. regional policies on counternarcotics, free trade, and support for democracy and was an ally to Fidel Castro, Cuba’s anti-American figurehead. The anti-American sentiment coming from the south concentrated the steam the White House already faced from the Middle East. The revolution also opposes the war in Iraq and is skeptical of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). USA was losing another oil source fast.
Now with Chávez death, South America is void of leftist leadership. As Venezuela – and Latin America as a whole – moves on in the post-Chavez world, one thing is clear: the region will most likely not see a leader as polarizing as Hugo Chavez for a long time. From Central America to Tierra del Fuego, the leaders of Latin America’s new left — some of them populist nationalists who revel in defying the United States pledged to carry forward the torch on his funeral. A handful of Latin leaders thrived under Chavez’s large ideological umbrella – in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua – but even larger nations such as Argentina and Brazil felt his gravitational pull on their economies. Flowery tributes flowed in.
Could Chavez’ death bring closer relations with the U.S.? Perhaps, but any relationship repair will take some time, and Venezuela did not get off to a great start. On the same day Chavez died, Venezuela expelled two U.S. Embassy officials it said were plotting to destabilize the country. While the U.S. State Department isn’t holding its collective breath, it would like to see better relations between the two countries in the post-Chavez era. That would enable the United States to leverage Venezuela against Iran, otherwise allies since 2012, as USA continues attempts to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons.