Recognizing Hugo Chavez’s Divisive Legacy

The death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez on March 5 brought a flurry of mixed feelings to the surface here in the United States. The many that were not familiar with Latin American politics received the news with ambivalence.

Soon after the news broke, I received many texts similar to the one sent from my mother: “Hugo Chavez died. Was he good or was he bad?” That was the question that lingered on long after his body grew cold. Even in his native country of Venezuela, the vote was split on the man that ran the country for more than 13 years.

Raised by school teachers in a rural village in Venezuela, Chavez went on to join his country’s military academy at age seventeen where, it is said, he witnessed the disparity between poor and rich. A populist, he was influenced by Simón Bolívar, who was one of the chief figures in the struggle for independence against Spain in South America.

In 1998, Chavez ran for president on the platform of social justice and reforms for the country’s economic and social programs. He went on to win the election with about 56 percent of the vote. A few years later, when a coup threatened his presidency, Chavez almost resigned after massive protests that left twenty dead. The incidents were captured in the Irish documentary “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

Chavez won the next election and his last election by large margins, and though foul play was suspected, election results were certified as valid.

Even skeptical Venezuelans found it hard to completely dismiss a leader that helped the poor in his country. During his tenure, the unemployment rate decreased, and so did extreme poverty.

Though many note he was a champion for the poor in Venezuela, others are glad they are rid of the man that saw the nation’s murder rate almost double.

In the United States, people had harbored negative feelings toward Venezuela’s late president in light of his clear disdain for President Bush and the Iraq War. He even called President Bush “the devil.”

Chavez once ran into Michael Moore and told him it was an honor to meet someone who President Bush “hated more than him.” Chavez was the antagonist of American ideals and the U.S. capitalist system, and even went so far as to declare in 2011 that capitalism and imperialism may have eradicated life on Mars. Relations with Venezuela were strained at best.

So was Chavez good or bad?  As in most situations, it depends on who you ask, especially here in the United States. His legacy is divisive, and we’ll see what is to come for U.S.-Venezuelan relations in the long term. No one can deny that Hugo Chavez’s death brings the possibility of an improved relationship with a less incendiary and controversial leader — that is, unless Vice President Nicolas Maduro, a firm Chavez supporter, wins the special election set to take place in the coming weeks.

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