Leader: The mixed legacy of Chávez

Perhaps no global leader inspires greater adulation and loathing than Hugo Chávez. To some, he is the last, best hope for socialism in an age of global capital; to others, he is an elected autocrat and demagogue. On page 20, Richard Gott defends the Venezuelan president from his detractors, while on page 23, the Guardian’s former Latin American correspondent Rory Carroll deems him guilty as charged.

The legacy of Mr Chávez, now confined to a hospital in Havana, where he is recovering from cancer surgery, is a complex one. Unlike many past Latin American leaders, he has consistently sought and won power through the ballot box. Elected as president in 1998 with 56.2 per cent of the vote, he survived a US-backed coup attempt in 2002 and most recently won reelection for a fourth time in 2012 with 54.5 per cent. He has never outlawed the opposition or conducted mass arrests. Yet, through judicial meddling, he has, whenever necessary, acted to eliminate threats to his rule. Leopoldo López, a potential presidential rival, was one of several figures barred from running for office on spurious corruption charges.

Mr Chávez’s social and economic record is similarly mixed. Under him, Venezuela has grown more equal and now boasts the fairest income distribution in Latin America. Yet the country’s economy has become almost entirely dependent on oil, while private-sector industry has been strangled by a dogmatic nationalisation programme.

Too often, Mr Chávez has appeared determined to retain power at all costs. Weeks after his illness prevented him from attending his fourth inauguration, he ignored the constitutional requirement to cede authority temporarily to his vicepresident, Nicolás Maduro, governing from his hospital bed instead.Whether or not he proves well enough to return, Mr Chávez should now transfer power to a leader better capable of managing Venezuela’s transition to the social-democratic economy to which the majority of its people rightly aspire.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez