The tragedy of Hugo Chavez was that his genuine concern for Venezuela’s poor was accompanied by a deep authoritarian streak. Chavez, who died Tuesday, became a bogeyman of the American right because he confronted US business interests, and of the State Department for taunting and defying US administrations of both parties. But Chavez is more properly judged by the mixed results he brought the people of Venezuela — greater well-being for the poor, but also the quashing of legitimate opposition and free expression at a time when much of Latin America is moving in a more democratic direction.
The Venezuela that Chavez served as a military officer was dominated by an elite clique that largely ignored needs of the broader population. After failing at his first attempt to gain power through a coup, he ran successfully for president. Once in office, he began using his country’s vast oil wealth to improve the lot of the country’s poor. According to Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, Chavez cut poverty in half and extreme poverty by 70 percent.
His support for the poor did not stop at Venezuela’s borders. Since 2005, Venezuela’s state-run oil company, Citgo, has donated about 200 million gallons of heating oil to low-income families in the United States, including 60,000 in Massachusetts. Those donations implicitly needled the United States for tolerating the kind of inequities that Chavez had vowed to stamp out in Venezuela, but they also served a genuine need.
To consolidate control over Venezuela’s most important industry, Chavez raised taxes on US oil companies, and nationalized projects of Exxon and ConocoPhillips. Such moves earned him the enmity of the Bush administration, which backed a coup against him in 2002. Chavez survived, and felt further emboldened to form alliances with US enemies, including Syria and Iran.
Thus, he looms larger in the American imagination than the record warrants. Right-wing commentators have likened Chavez, who fed his own people, to Kim Jong Il, who starved North Korea’s. Chavez was a provocateur who gleefully taunted the United States, sometimes to the detriment of his own nation, but he wasn’t the unmitigated tyrant that his most vociferous detractors have claimed. Hopefully, his death will clear the way for better relations between the United States and Venezuela.