As Venezuelans yesterday began seven days of mourning for their charismatic, controversial president Hugo Chávez, reaction elsewhere to his death has run along predictable lines, with Cuba, Ecuador and Bolivia leading the chorus of praise for a leader they saw as the pre-eminent standard-bearer for “21st century socialism”. Barack Obama’s message of condolence avoided any praise for the dead man but President Michael D Higgins rightly singled out Chávez’s achievements “in the area of social development and poverty reduction”.
Charming, eloquent, irreverent and a natural television performer, Chávez remained popular among a majority of Venezuelans throughout his 14 years in power, comfortably winning re-election last October when he was already ailing with the cancer that killed him. He certainly improved the lives of millions of his fellow citizens, cutting poverty by half and greatly improving access to health care and education for the poor. He used much of the massive revenues from the oil industry he nationalised to fund social programmes and his success helped to inspire peaceful political upheavals across South America that have left the continent a better place.
These successes are, however, only part of a record that has left Venezuela with one of the worst crime rates in the world and the economy in a shambles, with 20 per cent annual inflation, sluggish growth and a ballooning debt. Despite his rhetoric about democratic participation, Chávez centralised power around himself, packing the judiciary, eliminating checks and balances to his own power and intimidating the independent media. His foreign policy became more eccentric over the years as he embraced regimes such as that in Iran, partly on account of a shared opposition to US influence. Chávez saw himself as a latter-day Simon Bolivar, Latin America’s Liberator, but his brand of socialism is now less in favour in the region than the more moderate, gradualist approach that has seen Brazil become a global player in recent years.