Hugo Chavez’s legacy: the good, the bad and the ugly

The deceased Venezuelan leader leaves behind a mixed legacy. If his enemies are to be believed, Hugo Chavez was a tyrannical caudillo who terrorised his people at home and propped up dictatorships abroad. For his devotees, Chavez represented a push back against American domination and neo-liberalism. The truth is more complicated.

The deceased Venezuelan leader leaves behind a mixed legacy.

If his enemies are to be believed, Hugo Chavez was a tyrannical caudillo who terrorised his people at home and propped up dictatorships abroad. For his devotees, Chavez represented a push back against American domination and neo-liberalism.

The truth is more complicated.

The good

Under Chavez’s rule, wealth was redistributed and the living standards of the country’s poorest were raised to an extent previously unknown. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) found that from 2002 to 2010, poverty in Venezuela was reduced by 20.8 percent, dropping from 48.6 percent to 27.8 percent, while extreme poverty decreased from 22.2 percent to 10.7 percent.

Chavez also made impressive inroads in terms of closing the gap between Venezuela’s rich and poor. According to the ECLAC report, Venezuela has Latin America’s lowest Gini coefficient at 0.394. The closer the Gini coefficient is to zero, the closer a country is to total socio-economic equality.

The bad

Hugo Chavez has in the past drawn strong criticism from human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – organisations which can hardly be dismissed as agents of neo-liberalism.

In its 2011 annual report, Amnesty described Venezuela as a country where “those critical of the government were prosecuted on politically motivated charges in what appeared to be an attempt to silence them”.

Human Rights Watch said the “accumulation of power in Venezuela” under Chavez had allowed the government “to intimidate, censor, and prosecute critics and perceived opponents in a wide range of cases involving the judiciary, the media, and civil society”.

The ugly

Under Chavez Venezuela forged some pretty unsavory alliances – including the Castro dictatorship in Cuba and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Chavez was also an opponent of the Arab Spring, supporting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi until the end and siding with Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

Cuba is the country which has more than any other felt the direct influence of Hugo Chavez. By providing the regime of Fidel and later Raul Castro with subsidised oil at a rate of roughly 105,000 cut-rate barrels a day – about half of Cuba’s energy needs for petroleum – Chavez ensures that the Castro dictatorship retains its grip on power.

As the Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez has written: “It was precisely the rise to power of Hugo Chavez in 1999 that was the key element to the walking back of reforms”.

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