Chavez’s Legacy

February 28, 2013

By Jim Treadway

Chavezpanel
As cancer threatens Hugo Chavez’s life, an expert panel considered his legacy before a sold-out audience on 26 February.

“He’s this wonderful presence [in person],” remarked Rory Carroll, who spent from 2006 t0 2012 in Caracas as The Guardian‘s chief correspondent for South America, and whose latest book Commandante profiles Chavez in depth.

Western media, Carroll said, often offered a “polarised simplistic version, like Chavez is the demon, he’s blood thirsty, some kind of semi-Stalinist character, which was ridiculous, or he’s this messianic character who is delivering the poor from hell and he’s building a shining city on a hill, which was equally as ridiculous.”

“He is amiable,” The New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson agreed, “and quite a fun interlocutor.”

But Anderson and Carroll, along with Diego Moya-Ocampos, a political analyst who used to practice law in Venezuela and event host Richard Lapper, the Financial Times‘ Latin America editor from 1998 to 2008, were dismayed by the promises Chavez made to fix Venezuela.

After 14 years, inequality has reached a gothic degree in today’s Venezuela, noted Anderson; hospitals are Dickensian, Carroll said – “people are selling bandages, sheets . . . there’s no bulbs . . . you’re crunching over broken glass, there’s malandros [thugs] in the corridors, maybe with guns”; the prisons are awash with automatic weapons, and have largely been overtaken by their prisoners.

Anderson commented: “The revolution made common cause with a kind of thug culture, that I don’t know how they’re going to undo at this point . . . violence is off the charts.”

Chavez championed the masses, but Moya-Ocampos saw democracy in tatters:

“[Chavez] has systematically undermined democratic institutions. . . . What we have in the end is just one institution in place: the armed forces – the only institution in Venezuela with the capacity . . . to obtain certain outcomes. . . .

Everyone wants to believe: ‘Chavez! It’s a revolution going on in Venezuela! . . . We’re really tackling inequalities, we’re really beating poverty issues!’ . . . No. It’s not true.”

Carroll agreed: “He was an extraordinary illusionist.”

“Is the Revolution one of Chavez’s illusions?” Lapper asked.

For the most part it was, the panel seemed to agree.

Carroll and Anderson still found value in Chavez’s defiance, however – be it to America’s domination of global decisions, or to haughtiness and racism suffered by Venezuela’s lower classes.

Anderson reflected: “There’s no doubt that, whatever else you say, . . . Chavez has had an extraordinary presence on the regional stage, and that he will have meant something.”

Carroll added:

“To some extent, [the revolution] is real. . . . A lot of ordinary Venezuelans feel there’s been a revolution, feel empowered by this government, and therefore in that sense, it’s real. Because for them, it’s written on their hearts, and that has value. I could [give] lots of anecdotes about people who just feel that now they finally have dignity, and the issue of poverty is [finally] center-stage, and that they don’t need to feel apologetic for being quite dark, or not speaking great Spanish. . . . In the longterm effect, how can you quantify that? No idea. But that certainly has value.”

Watch the discussion here: