Obituary: Hugo Chávez 28 July 1954 – 5 February 2013

Daniel Macmillen 11 March 2013

The announcement of the death of Hugo Chavez Frias, the President of Venezuela, prompted a flood of emotional reactions. In many ways, the commotion surrounding his legacy is a mirror of the leader’s own rhetoric: fierce, bombastic, and impassioned. The political inheritance of this colourful character, however, is far less clear-cut.

Born into a humble mixed-race family, he championed the causes of the poor and disenfranchised, using the world’s largest proven oil reserves to fund enormous programmes in healthcare, education and welfare. His administration instigated the fairest distribution of income in Latin America, reduced extreme poverty by about two-thirds, virtually eradicated illiteracy, and tripled access to public pensions.

Standards of living have improved for millions, restoring dignity to marginalised groups patently ignored by previous regimes. Within the region, he set out to shed the burden of American hegemony, uniting Latin American states through initiatives such as Bank of the South and the Union of South American Nations.

Nonetheless, spiraling inflation, a partisan judiciary, rusting infrastructure, alarming levels of violent crime, entrenched corruption, and the intolerant hounding of oppositional media did much to breed fierce antagonism amongst large sections of the population. His proximity to tyrants, from Lukashenko to Qaddafi, was also deeply at odds with his effusive lip-service to human rights and brazen scrutiny of Western foreign policies.

The effect of his absence on the restive politics of Venezuela and the region remains to be seen. He will be mythologised and denigrated, worshipped and vilified, but one thing is certain: Hugo Chavez leaves behind a remarkable footprint.

Daniel Macmillen