Like his idol, Fidel Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was one of the most garrulous and pugnacious leaders Latin America has ever known. That makes his death in Caracas on March 5, at age 58, after a long and secrecy-shrouded fight with a cancer whose type he refused to disclose, feel all the more incongruous: Chávez, who for all of his 14-year rule was as loud and ubiquitous a fixture in Venezuela and Latin America as salsa music on the sidewalks, departed the stage in uncharacteristic silence after not having been seen or heard from publicly for three months.
Chávez liked to call himself a “21st century socialist,” and he hoped that being democratically elected would obscure the fact that he didn’t govern all that democratically. It didn’t. In reality he was a throwback to the dogmatic and authoritarian 20th century socialism of Castro, and to the 19th century caudillo tradition of Chávez’s demigod, South American independence hero Simón Bolívar. Critics viewed him as a vulgar populist given to gratuitous Yanqui bashing and an erratic and messianic retro-revolutionary whose country’s vast petro-wealth let him indulge his Marxist nostalgia. Supporters, by contrast, praised him for toppling Venezuela’s criminally corrupt oligarchy, steering much of Venezuela’s oil riches to the barrios for a change and enfranchising its poor, reopening the door for the Latin American left.
Still, whatever Chávez’s legacy is, Washington and the rest of the world need to remember the unmistakable reasons for his rise to power — chief among them a failure to build the kind of democratic institutions in Latin America that can close the region’s unconscionable wealth gap. That flaw still lingers, which is why the memory of Chávez should too.
Next Douglas Engelbart