Loved by some and hated by others, Hugo Chávez was arguably one of the most influential Latin American leaders in recent history. After his death earlier this month and with new presidential elections coming up on April 14th, now is an opportune time to analyze what the man who liked to portray himself as a friend and advocate of the poor, did and did not accomplish.
Chávez’s reign started in 1998 when he won the presidency using his typical populist rhetoric, proclaiming he wanted to create “optimum prosperity for the fatherland”. He subsequently launched his “Plan Bolívar 2000” named after Simön Bolívar, a military and political leader who fought for Latin American independence from the Spanish empire in the nineteenth century. The plan encompassed rewriting the constitution and putting it up for a referendum. For this purpose, a Constitutional Assembly was created, for which elections were held in 1999. Its first meeting took place in August of that year, when Chávez urged the members to produce the new constitution as fast as they could, kindly providing his own draft to give them a head start. The plenary sessions that were subsequently held were eventually abandoned in favor of twenty-one specialist commissions tasked with defining and rewording the separate articles of the constitution. So much for the will of the people being heard..
The powers of the Constitutional Assembly, which had now become the country’s supreme authority as far as most jurists were concerned, seemed to be at odds with those of the democratically elected Congress. To make matters worse, Chávez declared a “judicial emergency” and appointed a nine-member commission with the power to dismiss the Supreme Court, resulting in its president resigning in anger, declaring the “Supreme Court was now dead” and “the democratic system in danger”. The final outcome of the political standoff was that the opponents of the government in Congress agreed not to pass laws that might obstruct the work of the Constitutional Assembly.
Furthermore, Chávez blocked the approval of articles referring to the freedom of the press and “the right to life”. The final version of the constitution, while including a so-called “right to work” and supposedly guaranteeing “full care and social security benefits” for senior citizens, made no mention of such basic rights as self-ownership or freedom of the press. Nonetheless, nearly 72 percent of Venezuelans voted Yes, giving the president the green light to move forward with his plans.
The referendums and re-elections might lead one to think that the Venezuelans are a free people who were perfectly content with the reign of “El Presidente”. Those re-elections, however, left many Venezuelans wondering time and time again where the votes had come from or whether their votes were being properly registered by the electronic voting machines. Those concerns cannot simply be dismissed as unjustified claims made by sore losers either, considering the lack of transparency, lack of independent electoral observers and the closure of the consulate in Miami to prevent the city’s large opposition voting bloc from having their voices heard. Such measures would make any election unfair if not outright illegitimate.
A closer look at the effects of Chávismo on the country and the daily lives of its citizens reveals why opposition against the late president may have been stronger than anyone was supposed to know. Part of the people’s discontent has to do with the economic chaos caused by Chávez’s national-socialist policies aimed at micro-managing every aspect of Venezuelans’ lives. In many ways the economic policy pursued by the Chávez government for many years is a classic example of how some government intervention invariably and inevitably leads to more and more intervention, until the Leviathan decides to just go the whole nine yards. In the case of Venezuela, the results included the nationalization of “strategic companies” deemed too important to be owned and controlled by foreigners, a massive loss of purchasing power and devaluation upon devaluation of the bolívar followed by shortages of foreign currencies, most notably U.S. dollars. Strict currency controls were then implemented aimed at stopping the black market from supplying dollars, further aggravating Venezuelans’ misery, whose consumption consists for 70 percent of imported goods. None of that stopped Chavez from using state oil funds to finance his latest re-election campaign, though, thereby leaving his political successors and the entire country with serious budget deficits.
Despite his professed benign intentions, Hugo Chávez leaves a country in ruins and a people in despair. Let’s hope the next Venezuelan president will do more than pay lip service to the plight of the country’s vast poverty-stricken underclass, If the new elect knows anything about history, he might give free market capitalism a try.
 Richard Gott, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. (London: Verso, 2005). pp. 136-137
 Richard Gott, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. (London: Verso, 2005). pp. 146-147.
 Richard Gott, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. (London: Verso, 2005). p. 147