I must admit, I was shocked when the e-mail a colleague had written me flashed on my desktop yesterday. “Chávez is dead.” It wasn’t like I wasn’t expecting it. But like the Chavista advisors that staged the bizarre, incoherent press conference shortly before they announced the Venezuelan President’s death, I was oddly taken aback.
In my defense, unlike them I didn’t have the responsibility—or advantage—of preparing the last near-three months. Amazingly, despite the lead time, in what was later revealed to really be their first post-Chávez press conference, Vice President Nicolás Maduro and the cabinet seemed completely out of sync—first an interminable series of introductions and then incredible allegations of U.S. intervention. And then—almost as an afterthought hours later—the announcement that Chávez was dead.
For the last decade or so, being witness to the Chávez government made me feel like I had a front-row seat to the sort of Latin American history that I had studied as an undergrad and grad student. This time, though, there were real human beings and their lives at risk. But it still—I’m embarrassed to say—felt thrilling.
I sort of came of political-analyst age in the Chávez era. Oddly, I’ll always appreciate the beret-wearing putschist for that.
I remember when I arrived in Washington DC in 1995. Many people said that the region had gotten boring; we all seemed to be marching toward free trade and democratic bliss.
And then came Hugo Chávez. I was visiting Venezuela for a trip for the National Endowment for Democracy in 1998 when he was running for president. At the time, his opponents were a motley crew: a former Ms. Universe; a Yale-educated politician who arrived at political rallies on a white horse; and a 70-year-old traditional politician of the center left. At the time I was sure I would have voted for this charismatic figure, Chávez. My cost-free support for the former coup-plotter was bolstered when a prominent businessman confided to me in hushed tones that he had met with candidate Chávez in a closed-door meeting with business leaders and that he had listened, seemed to understand and quietly supported their cause. “The thing is,” he said, “you put that Rolex on his wrist [and all the perks of power] and he’ll moderate.”
Seemed like a good strategy to me. Vote for the outsider candidate who would clean up the annoying elements of the past, but still get a moderate outsider.
Only it didn’t work out that way.
I saw it when I heard Chávez speak in Washington DC shortly after being elected. While charming, he repeatedly compared himself to Christ and painted his battle with the ancien regime in the most Manichean terms. I remember walking out of the conference thinking, “This isn’t going to go well.”
And it didn’t. The former coup-plotter set out to not just correct the injustices and corruption of the past but to tear down the old system, demonize his enemies and establish nothing to replace the old. The result was, at best, an institutional vacuum. At worse it is anomie. Skyrocketing crime and murder rates, urban decay and growing evidence of narcotics-based corruption in the government was the result.
All along, the government was turning its sights on the international community and human rights. From international support for civil society to local human rights groups, Chávez and his supporters were trying to roll back international oversight and norms. And while they scored some successes, more than anything, their great success was in buying the acquiesance of other regional governments (in the name of solidarity) or many international NGOs (in the name of ideological sympathy, cowardice or a desire not to be seen as aligned with the United States or the squalid oligarchs of the past—as President Chávez effectively labeled them).
Honestly, what I saw in the last 14 years was a sad reversal of pro-democratic consensus, a re-opening of Cold War divisions, and hypocrisy. On the one side, I saw a willful turning of a blind eye to human rights abuses in Venezuela and to threats on the international system. On the other side, I saw the old-time Cold Warriors defend old-time coups in the name of anti-Chavismo.
Fourteen years later, pockets of Latin America are worse than they were before. The result of the collapse of traditional, exclusionary political systems—brought about by the repeated exercise of democratic elections and the expansion of democratic inclusion has brought change to region. That is ultimately a positive development, even though it brought presidents in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador of questionable democratic intentions.
What Hugo Chávez brought and gave voice to, though, was a unique anti-American and anti-institutional bent to the revolution.
Without him, the question is if those leaders who followed in his wake will remain on the same anti-institutionalist, anti-human rights bent.
And for me (and others?), the last 14 years have reminded me that the events playing out in the region now and even before—when I studied them—involve real human beings, real decisions, and real trade offs, that are far more complicated than the books portray them. As much as we all like to have a ring-side seat at history, it’s worth remembering that there are real lives and consequences. Hugo made me forget that at times.