Chávez Legacy Polarizing, But Politically Empowering

Mar 8, 2013

Credit Luigino Bracci / Flickr

World leaders, athletes, and left-wing celebrities were among those who attended Friday's funeral in Caracas for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

"He produced in people profound feelings of love, affection, and loyalty, and of rejection and hate," said Charles Kenney, a University of Oklahoma comparative political scientist and an expert on Latin American democratization. "So for those who loved him, this is a very sorrowful time, and he is indeed, I think, seen as a martyr-like figure."

Venezuela's Supreme Court says Vice President Nicolás Maduro became acting president the moment Hugo Chávez died, and can run for president.

The New York Times reported earlier this week that Maduro has already taken on some of the characteristics and speech patterns of Chávez.

He has mimicked the president’s favorite themes — belittling the political opposition and warning of mysterious plots to destabilize the country, even implying that the United States was behind Mr. Chávez’s cancer. He has also adopted the president’s clothes, walking beside his coffin in an enormous procession on Wednesday wearing a windbreaker with the national colors of yellow, blue and red, as Mr. Chávez often did.

"As the heir to a martyr, one has to lift up the martyr, and so [Maduro] will do everything in his power to do that," Kenney said. "Chávez is going to have that status regardless, so it's in his best interest to follow along, and that seems to be what he's doing."

In a tweet, opposition leader Henrique Capriles called Friday's court ruling "a constitutional fraud."

Credit @hcapriles / Twitter

Kenney described Chávez as a polarizing figure, who gave recognition and a voice to people who never had it before, and in turn they viewed him as a savior of the country. But many others saw his government, and his personal brand of socialism, as an unmitigated disaster.

"He came to power with oil at $10 a barrel, and we've seen it steadily at over $100 for quite some time," Kenney said. "And one can see these revenues rising over time, yet, the government's ability to use that money effectively was somewhat limited. In terms of overall economic growth, for the period that he was president, 1999-2012, Venezuela ranks 18th out of 20 Latin American countries. Worse only were Guatemala and Haiti, and that's with all this oil revenue."

Kenney told KGOU's World Views some observers believe Chávez's strong anti-Americanism and rhetoric have created a space for moderates in Latin American politics. Kenney doesn't disagree, but says there's another angle.

"The fear of Chávez-like figure is now quite strong in many people in the region, and that kind of fear in the past is what has inspired undemocratic actions by the right," Kenney said. "So while he may have made moderates seem more reasonable, I think he's also given justification to people on the right to overreact."


Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.