Since Hugo Chavez's death was announced a war of words has erupted in Venezuela and abroad for control over the definition of his legacy. Was Chavez an authoritarian thug? Was he a bold and authentic representative of the world's exploited and downtrodden? Was he a human rights violator or a human rights defender? A champion of the underdog or a bully? Depending on what you read or where you are tuning in, he was one of these things or the opposite, and occasionally he was several at once. The debate will rage for years and millions of dollars will be spent in hagiographic exercises or in efforts to demonize the man. One thing, though, can be agreed upon from the outset—conflict and confrontation was the defining factor of Hugo Chavez's political existence and it will also be his legacy.
Chavez burst onto the Venezuelan political scene in 1992 when he tried to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Carlos Andres Perez—a socialist leader beloved by the likes of Fidel Castro, Francois Mitterand, and Spain's Felipe Gonzalez. The Chavez plot was to kill president Perez and his family and then subject Venezuelan society to a cleansing complete with proscription lists sentencing enemies of the state to death for various unspecified crimes. Chavez failed, but after a brief stint in prison he traded his military fatigues for a suit and exploded onto the electoral scene, winning the 1998 presidential election in a landslide.
Historians and pseudo-historians favorable to Chavez have spent the better part of his 14-year rule assuring the world's intellectuals that, domestically, Chavez embodied the spirit and struggle of a neglected population of Venezuela's underclass that was ignored in a 50-year duopoly that never shared Venezuela's oil wealth. They have used every metric at their disposal to claim that, on balance, Chavez has been a significant step forward in Venezuela's development. Beyond Venezuela, his defenders delight in how he was an impish and daring voice against what they see as a North-South divide; that Chavez stood up to the United States on behalf of the world's poor and downtrodden.
The alternate view, briefly summed up, is that Chavez was a narcissistic power-hungry authoritarian who presided over a corrupt criminal enterprise he called a government. This view maintains that Chavez divided Venezuela into two warring factions while he and his cronies looted the country's oil wealth and embarked on diversionary foreign policy exercises that lumped Venezuela in troubling and sympathetic relationships with the dictatorships of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Belarus. Sadly, there are fewer articulate and honest critics of Chavez than there are dishonest sycophants.
The public relations struggle over Chavez is not new but this period will be its fever pitch. Chavez partisans both inside and outside of Venezuela are aware that as long as they can convince world opinion that everything that preceded Chavez was terrible—or at least as bad—then allowance can be made for the faults or crimes of his government.
Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, writes in The Nation: "Every sin that Chávez was accused of committing—governing without accountability, marginalizing the opposition, appointing partisan supporters to the judiciary, dominating labor unions, professional organizations and civil society, corruption and using oil revenue to dispense patronage—flourished in a system the United States held up as exemplary." In other words, the previous governments were appalling. There is some truth to what Grandin says. That's why Venezuelans polled in the 1990s favored an illegal coup and yearned for a strongman. Chavez was happy to oblige.
However, a major modifier that Grandin and other Chavez supporters like Pomona's Miguel Tinker-Salas, and Drexel's George Ciccariello-Maher, choose not to emphasize is the sheer scope of Chavez's sins.
Venezuela's pre-Chavez democratic governments were messy, inefficient, and corrupt. However, there were term-limits: presidents could only serve one term and would have to wait a decade out of office before seeking re-election. Government included checks and balances to the point that Carlos Andres Perez (who Chavez tried to assassinate) was impeached for corruption in 1993. Judicial appointments were previously made by factions from various political parties—unlike under Chavez who, first, stacked the Supreme Court and, then, personally threw judges who disagreed with him in prison (the most prominent one, a female judge, alleged that she was raped there). Critical television and radio stations weren't shut down and labor unions marched and were able to strike without going to prison under the earlier regime. Under Chavez, the persecution of union leaders was frequent.
Both monetary policy and the oil wealth collected by the central government had historically been subject to audits and congressional oversight from a bicameral body. Under Chavez, none of the above was allowed. Accountability became non-existent. In 2012, Transparency International declared Venezuela the most corrupt country in the Americas. From this perspective, waste due to mismanagement of the economy and theft from government coffers during Chavez's 14-year rule far exceeds the economic evils under all Venezuelan governments during the twentieth century. Combined.
Completing a list of Chavez's excesses, especially those that starkly contrast with the governments that preceded him, would be an exercise that could fill several encyclopedias. Unfortunately, there is no institution or public relations team providing a counter to the confrontational Chavez apparatus, whose talking point hinges on re-writing Venezuelan history and stressing that if the Chavez project fails then Venezuela would regress to an unimaginable past.
Throughout the 20th century it was common practice among propagandists and apologists of both left-wing and right-wing dictators to use this Manichean approach—pointing to scapegoats of an unimaginable past that would pave the road to rewriting history. Fortunately, beyond the walls of a dictatorship and especially after they crumble, history tends to put propagandists in the place they belong.
Ironically, the most articulate voices in exposing Chavez have come from those who, initially, appeared to give him the benefit of the doubt. The best two examples are Brian A. Nelson, author of The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chavez and the Making of Modern Venezuela, which was named one of the "Books of the Year" 2009 by The Economist, and Rory Carroll, former Guardian correspondent in Venezuela and author of Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela. Both these authors' research led them to conclusions that contradicted their own ideological positions, but by being honest intellectuals, they were able to accurately report on some of the most politicized episodes of recent Latin American history. To some on the left, they might remain mere turncoats to their political and ideological roots. Yet, this is precisely the key to the conflict over Chavez's legacy; it isn't about empirical evidence, it's about politics and power.
That human rights and liberal democracy had a rough time under Chavez is beyond question to the reasonable observer. And it remains to be seen whether after his death the situation will improve or further slide into authoritarianism. What can be definitely counted on is that partisan hacks will continue to engage in a full throttle defense of El Comandante, truth be damned.