Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chávez: Is His Legacy Open to Interpretation?

Written by Angelica Miramontes

Assessing the death of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's President of fourteen years, the only common thread among all media sources is that Chávez had a bold presence in Latin American politics, making him a controversial figure about whom everybody has their own opinion. With different terms thrown around to describe him―authoritarian to socialist, dictator to liberator―it was, and remains, difficult to really place a finger on the true legacy he left behind. But some questions should be asked before any talk of legacies can. Why is he important? How is it that one controversial leader made such a splash in the media as a representative of Latin American power? How do we use our own values to base our opinions on Venezuelan politics? These questions and others remain clouded with uncertainty that has emerged with the scandal surrounding the election of Chavez's successor, President Nicolás Maduro.

If there is anything that we can learn from the media's varied coverage on the life and death of Chávez, it's that politics anywhere is a game of personal values, rhetoric, and popular opinion in the media. In today's modern nation/state system with representative governments and "democratic" elections, power is given to those who have the best grip on public approval and get the most votes (at least that is the general idea of how it should be, although there are many examples of ways countries have worked otherwise). With Venezuela as a specific example of a state with very real problems (like poverty, utilization of revenue from oil reserves, and now internal polarization when it comes to politics, among others), it is difficult to see how government will be able to appease the people in the midst of all of this change.

The presence of Hugo Chávez in the global political scene has been interesting, especially the ways he gained, kept and used power. Starting in the Venezuelan military in 1971, then pursuing an interest in politics, Chávez's attempted a military coup in 1992 to oust then President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who was making deals with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during an economic bust. Although the coup ended in failure, Chávez was still able to come back to politics after two years of imprisonment, and won the presidency for the first time in 1998. He would end up leading the country for fourteen years, until his death.

Throughout his presidency Chávez championed, through political policies and relationships with other Latin American powers, a brand of socialism that calls for internal unity and development in the region. Sharing a common history of colonialism, the idea was that the countries in Latin America would be able to support themselves without Western influences, especially the US. With the support and comradery of other presidents like Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, former president Lula da Silva of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Raúl Castro in Cuba, and others, this kind of unity would come to give democracy a whole new face in Latin America. This new Latin American brand of government is called the Bolivarian Revolution (named after Latin American revolutionary Simón Bolívar) which Chávez used as platform to call for unity on the South American continent to stop outside western influences from interfering with Latin America, and to disperse resources within the region in a more egalitarian way. Without doubt, Chávez was the figure who would be the most outspoken for these changes to occur, and he came to represent this new type of political thought for the rest of the world. All of these ideological platforms are of a very distinct type, and like in the rest of the political world, were fought against by those who didn't identify with these values.  

Stopping there, before any names would be tacked onto Chávez in widespread news coverage, in terms of what we already know, where does Chávez stand in our personal system of values? Does he represent a liberator of an entire region at one ideological extreme, a power-hungry authoritarian at the other extreme, or is he somewhere in the middle? Our own ideologies, the access we have to information, and a slough of other factors, determine where we stand politically, so it is imperative for us to do some self-reflection before coming to any conclusions about the impact and legacy Chávez had on Latin American politics and Venezuela. In a debate that is polarizing, it is also important to see where the other side is coming from. In the end, there must be convincing arguments on both sides for the discussion to be so heated. The legacies of Chávez lie in these very ideals and disputes. Which side of history he falls on will depend on the person who is writing. Will it be a person who mourns or celebrates Chávez's death?  At the end of the day, it is like this with all forms of media: the ideas, beliefs, and experiences one has determine their world view, and it is important to understand that every person is different. What is being written will always have its biases, and its own contextual meaning within the mind of the writer. It is up to us to determine what we think for ourselves, not  one or two articles from the same sources with the same perspective.

Politics is a very contradictory game in which candidates claim their election will result in the uplifting of the entire population in question, but often the candidates have their own set of interests that wouldn't actually serve all the people. There really isn't one way to make everybody happy. This was reflected in the reactions to the death of Hugo Chávez, and will definitely be one of the things that will be most remembered about him. As The Guardian very accurately put: "…he (Chávez) pursued one overriding (if not paradoxical) objective: making Venezuelan society less unequal and more democratic, while remaining in power long enough to do so." The challenge lies in always questioning what perspectives politicians and the media are using, and how it ties into our own ideologies. The other challenge is always acknowledging the other side of the argument, to take seriously what the "opposition" is saying and determining where their ideas come from. While it is very easy to read one article on a topic, to believe everything that one source tells us, there is value in knowing that there isn't only one way to look at things. The black, the white, and the grey must be looked at to understand what's really going on.