As with any controversial leader and self-proclaimed revolutionist, opinions are split on Chávez’s legacy. Will he be remembered for his hugely influential contribution to the Latin American socialist movement? Or will he be remembered for his contested economic policies and perceived dictatorship?
Undeniably, one of the greatest memories of Chávez will be his dedication to the improvement of social welfare for Venezuelans. As a man loved by millions, he quickly realised that in order to effect his socialist vision, he needed to empower previously marginalised populations. Groups that included women and homosexuals, were given a voice in the voting process.
Chávez’s initiatives in the Bolivarian Revolution saw the addition of 6,000 new polling stations, making public participation more accessible. His policy of using oil revenue to provide free education and health services, was supported by the masses. To his credit, on the 14 occasions that his agenda was put to the national vote, he won 13 of those times – even with an increased electorate.
…illiteracy rates fell from 7% to 5%…
His social mission to help the struggling poor through welfare and education policies, had significant success. World Bank statistics state that illiteracy rates fell from 7% to 5% between 2001 and 2007. Further, the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line fell from 62% in 2003 to 29% in 2009, engraving his legacy as president of the poor.
But Chávez’s socialist reign was not without its tensions. He was anti-establishment and bold in standing up to the American and Western power by demanding less interference in the internal politics of Latin America. In 2006, with reference to foreign policy and speaking one day after President George Bush, Chávez took to the world platform of the UN to state that “the devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulphur still today”. His proclamation was met with sustained applause by the UN and strong bipartisan criticism in the US.
…the Human Rights Watch condemned his alleged intolerance to political dissent…
In Venezuela, Chávez’s legitimacy was often called into question amidst claims that his leadership lacked transparency, at both electoral and legislative levels. However, accusations of corruption did not stop there – Chávez’s human rights record also suffered harsh criticism. In 2008 the Human Rights Watch condemned his alleged intolerance to political dissent and tightening on journalistic freedom of expression. These concerns were further compounded in 2010 when Amnesty International objected against several politically motivated arrests.
Patronage from misused oil revenue was a common criticism leveled at Chávez. Additionally, he was accused of eroding judicial independence by appointing partisan supporters. Some argue that this allowed him to govern without accountability, creating whisperings of a dictatorship. This concern only deepened in light of his public association with known totalitarian leaders.
…there is no doubt that his legacy will be one of influence…
Without doubt, people’s reaction to Chávez’s passing last Tuesday has been divided. Some champion his social missions in Venezuela, whilst questions surrounding the legitimacy of his presidency will resonate with others. One thing is clear though, regardless of whether you’re a fan or not of Hugo Chávez, there is no doubt that his legacy will be one of influence. Some might dare to go as far as to say legendary.