Mixed emotions were expressed when it was announced that President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela died on Tuesday, March 5th. Chávez, known for his bombastic rhetoric against the United States, established himself as the leading figure of the Latin American Left. He was elected on the promise of the ‘third way,’ a blend between socialism and capitalism, and he brought many changes to Venezuela during his fourteen years of power. With his death, Chávez is leaving behind a mixed legacy that deserves to be examined before predictions are made about the outcome of the special presidential election that must be held within the next 30 days according to Venezuelan law.
Optimism surrounded Chávez’s first election in 1998. The Venezuelan public rallied around the charismatic leader’s platform of improving the quality of life in a country known for political corruption, high crime rates, and immense wealth disparity. Upon taking office, Chávez held a referendum on changing the Venezuelan constitution adding in necessary human rights protections. Such provisions garnered overwhelming support from the public that wanted a fresh start for democracy. The people then voted in favor of the constitution, confirming Chávez’s widespread popular support and unsurprisingly, reelected him to another six-year term in 2000.
Not everyone was enchanted with Chávez’s government’s policies, however. He faced a military coup in 2002, similar to the one he staged against then President Carlos Andrés Pérez as an army Lt. Col. in 1992. That same year, Chávez also faced a large strike from the country’s state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA). The repercussions against the dissenters in both cases were swift and harsh that drew a distinct line between his loyal supporters (Chavistas) and the opposition. This was just a hint of things to come. Over time the Venezuelan government continued to violate its own human rights protections and prosecuted those who criticized Chávez and his agenda.
To solidify his power over the opposition, he and his allies in the National Assembly added seats to the Supreme Court and filled them with loyal Chavistas. This court made its support of the government’s agenda its top priority, regularly ruling in favor of the government and against the opposition, dissenters, and non-governmental organizations, including human rights organizations. In the 2005 elections, Chavista loyalists won all of the seats in the National Assembly because the opposition boycotted the elections alleging corruption and fraud. A year later, Hugo Chávez was re-elected to the presidency with a solid majority (63%) of the vote. While the elections were democratic, concerns about fraud and suppression of opposition were well documented.
With his allies in firm control of the legislature, Chávez received powers to legislate by decree for 18 months. During this time period, he began a wide sweeping plan to create a socialist state. He nationalized Venezuela’s largest private electric company and curtailed free speech by signing an agreement for a state take-over of Venezuela’s largest telecommunications company. He also refused to renew the broadcasting license of Radio Caracas Television—the country’s oldest private media network after the media outlet had aired a video of Chávez’s energy minister advising his employees at PDVSA to quit their jobs if they did not support the government. At the end of 2007, the Venezuelan people voted against Chávez-proposed amendments to the constitution, but that did not stop his populist agenda. To the dismay of the local and global business communities he announced the nationalization of the state’s cement industry and the country’s largest steel producer.
The Chávez government continued its ambitious agenda by proposing a referendum that would abolish term limits in 2009. The referendum passed, after which Chávez declared he would rule for at least another decade. News about Chávez’s health problems was made public in 2011 amidst the expansion of his populist agenda. Many people and media outlets were distracted by his health concerns instead of evaluating the efficacy of the policies enacted by the government. Meanwhile, human rights activists, indigenous communities, and the press received a crushing blow when Venezuela withdrew from the American Convention on Human Rights in September of 2012. While battling cancer, Hugo Chávez sought re-election in October of 2012 and was able to defeat a younger and charismatic Henrique Capriles. The presidential elections were again tainted by allegations of fraud brought against Chávez and his supporters.
Over the course of his presidency, Chávez was revered by many of the poor whose lives he improved and disdained by the elite, the business community, journalists, and human rights defenders. Using profits from oil production to fund social programs, Chávez’s administration was able to bring many people out of poverty and procure a more equal distribution of income. According to the CIA Factbook, the Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, had dropped in Venezuela from nearly .5 in 1998 to .39 in 2011, rivaling only Canada for a more equal distribution of income in the Western Hemisphere. However, the nationalization of oil fields has made the economy more dependent on oil revenue and has made production less efficient with production levels dropping over the past five years. Impending nationalization also threatens direct investment from other foreign countries and corporations.
However, any voice of dissent has been curbed by the ever-decreasing freedom of speech under Chávez. Under his rule, the government has expanded state media coverage from one outlet to six and has significantly marginalized the private media. Outspoken critics were subject to human rights abuses and often jailed. Most famously, Chávez jailed government critic Judge María Lourdes Afiuni in 2009 after her conditional release was granted in accordance with Venezuelan law and was supported by a recommendation from United Nations human rights monitors. Judge Afiuni is still under house arrest at this writing. Chávez also restricted the involvement of the international human rights community within Venezuela when the Supreme Court declared that organizations receiving foreign funding could be tried for treason. The National Assembly also passed legislation that would prohibit organizations that “defend political rights” or “monitor the performance of public bodies” from receiving international funding—their primary, and sometimes only, source of funds. This has made the government less transparent and jeopardizes at-risk portions of society.
In relation to the upcoming election, Hugo Chávez did handpick a successor, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro. The opposition candidate from this past October’s presidential election, Henrique Capriles, is Maduro’s likely opponent. Loyalty to the Chavista movement and the “sympathy” vote have been cited by some analysts as potential factors that could affect the outcome of the upcoming special election. While these are important considerations, the most important factors that the Venezuelan people will weigh at the polls are their personal experiences under the Chávez government and their current quality of life.
Contributed by Max Ivan Rava, an affiliate of the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, Latin Americanist, and policy analyst.