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Best of 2013: Losing Chavez the indispensable


Hugo Chavez behind a microphone at the UN, listeningWith President Hugo Chavez's death Latin America has arguably lost the most influential political leader of the last two decades and has lost one of those men that in Bertolt Brecht's prose are the 'indispensible ones'.

Caudillo is a uniquely Latin American political term that goes back to the XIX century, and during his almost 14 years in power President Chavez became its modern embodiment. With a mix of colorful rhetoric, authoritarianism and a penchant for class confrontational narrative, Chavez resurrected the image of the old caudillo, a charismatic leader able to create a symbiotic relationship between el pueblo (the people) and the government.

And unquestionably the people were at his heart. Chavez has been the champion of the socially and economically marginalised since he came to power in 1999 under the banner of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. And he put money where his mouth was. The level of poverty, a definer of this oil rich nation, decreased thanks to a decade of social investment. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean the investment reached US$400.000 million.

The black and mulatto, the majority of the 29 million Venezuelans, worshipped him. To them Chavez was a paternal figure while for the 'blonde ones' — as he referred to the minority white elite — he was a merciless class enemy.

The connection with the people was heightened by his brilliant use of non-commercial media. His Sunday radio talk show Aló Presidente (Hello Mr President) had thousands of followers among the poor. He was media savvy. He challenged the right-wing commercial media system — accused of being behind the failed and shambolic coup of 2002 — and established TeleSur, a pan-Latin American television network that was, as he once uttered, 'a voice from Latin America and not from Atlanta'.

With a few exceptions, most western media demonised him. He was portrayed as a dictator and his government was regularly branded as a 'regime' — forgetting that he was democratically elected in vigorous political contests that outshone many in western nations. His anti-imperialist narrative made him the bête noire of Washington.

Chavez transformed the political landscape of Venezuela in a dramatic way. He broke the hegemony of Venezuela's traditional political parties — the Christian Democrat COPEI and the Social Democrat Democratic Action. Muddied up to their necks in cronyism and corruption, these two parties from 1958 to 1999 took turns to control and embezzle funds from the oil lubricated state coffers. Chavez left a more democratic society.

And along the way he also transformed the Latin American political landscape. Chavez saw himself as the heir to the legacy of Simon Bolivar, the pan-American leader and hero of the Latin American independent movement from Spain. The Chavez 'Bolivarian movement' was his most ambitious undertaking. It was the foundation of his 21st Century Socialism, an economic, social and political alternative to what he saw as a decomposed capitalist system.

As a good Bolivarian, Chavez didn't want to make this transformation alone. He sought the elusive unity and collaboration of Latin American leaders. He seduced them — especially left wing governments — with his anti-imperialist rhetoric and with the vast resources of oil at his disposal.

The result was a Caribbean storm of integrationist initiatives, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, Bank of the South, Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

Nicolas Maduro, a 51 year-old former bus driver, took over power as soon as the death of Chavez was announced. He has big shoes to fill. First of all, he will have to face an imminent showdown with the centrist Henrique Capriles — defeated by Chavez in last October's election. 

However Maduro's most urgent task is to maintain the integrity of the Bolivarian movement. Without Chavez, Maduro will have to fight hard to avoid the chaotic rise of internal factions, including the less 'Chavista' and more nationalist faction represented by some prominent military officers.

The death of Chavez is the death of the first truly Latin American caudillo of the 21st century and it is also a marker for the modern history of the region, creating a pre- and post-Chavez chapter. And while the preservation of his legacy remains to be seen, Chavez's memory will be preserved in the many streets of Latin America soon to be named after him. That is for sure. Because that's the way Latin Americans honour great leaders.

Antonio Castillo headshotAntonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and academic. He is the current Director of Journalism, RMIT University. This article was originally published on 5 March 2013.

Topic tags: Antonio Castillo, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela



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Existing comments

We have Foveaux Street in east Sydney. Is that an indication of the way in which we honour the memory of our heroic forefathers? Give me a bus driver any day!

Claude Rigney | 08 January 2014  

It is typical for Eureka Street to keep all critical comments hidden. It is the most undemocratic media currently on the net. Shame!!

Beat Odermatt | 09 January 2014  

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