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Chávez leaves behind legacy of mediocrity
Hugo Chávez, the self-described revolutionary president of Venezuela who inspired equally fierce adoration from supporters and venom from his critics, succumbed to cancer at 58 yesterday.
Chávez attained the presidency in 1999 through advocacy of drastic economic and social reforms. His speeches emphasized the injustice of Venezuela’s crushing poverty and class divisions, winning the support of the country’s poor working class.
Upon winning the election, Chávez announced that the “resurrection of Venezuela” was underway, and quickly organized the drafting of a new constitution creating free health care, education, environmental reforms and other human rights guarantees.
Promoting human rights is noble, until you choose to completely ignore them. This was the path Chávez comfortably traveled by his second term in office, undermining promises of freedom and social justice by doggedly pursuing the consolidation of government power and control over Venezuela’s government, economy and media.
Chávez packed Venezuela’s Supreme Court with supporters and pointedly ignored any concept of checks and balances. He used this control of the courts to silence critics of his administration, effectively turning the government’s legislative branch into an arm of his personal agenda.
The election also marked a new era of state control for Venezuela’s news media. Despite promising balanced, “democratic” content, his government suppressed private television channels in favor of government-run programming at every turn.
Public individuals critical of the Chávez government faced criminal charges, arrests and inhumane imprisonment. This pervasive culture of fear eventually silenced many of the government’s loudest critics.
The corruption of Chávez and his government was easily camouflaged by moderately successful anti-poverty and social welfare initiatives.
The so-called “Bolivarian Missions” launched by the Venezuelan government after Chávez took power successfully created a system of free medical clinics and schools, fostered widespread improvement of adult literacy and provided food subsidies to the nation’s poor.
But even these were exploited by the regime to further consolidate power, particularly through the threat of cutbacks on social programs if a presidential candidate other than Chávez was elected to office.
The subtle intimidation of slogans like “With Chávez everything, without Chávez nothing,” ensured that elections would go his way simply through the fear of a worse alternative.
In the end, it was this fear that enabled his rise to influence in the first place.
Venezuelans crippled by social unrest and a failing economy needed leadership, and Chávez took full advantage of their desperate call for progress by concealing his thirst for power in questionable trappings of populism.
When compared to the disastrous regimes of his predecessors, Chávez might seem like a step forward for Venezuela. But progress should not be defined as a jump from worse to bad, and a marginally benevolent dictator is still unquestionably a dictator.
Though his death casts the future of his country’s leadership into uncertainty, the fact remains that the people of Venezuela deserve—and have always deserved—someone better than Hugo Chávez.