Requiem for a Despot: the Death of Hugo Chavez
President Hugo Chavez, the acerbic tinpot who declared a Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, demonized America, and resurrected tired leftist politics throughout Latin America, died Tuesday of cancer. Strongman and Vice President Nicolas Meduro announced the death saying Chavez died about 4:30 p.m. local time.
During his 14 years in power, Chavez made a career out of trashing capitalism and the United States and fomenting unrest and chaos throughout South America. He polarized Venezuela through divisiveness and fear mongering and ascended to power using a brew of boorishness, thuggery, racism and class envy cloaked in nationalistic and socialist rhetoric.
Like other dictators, he first led a failed coup in 1992 and was jailed but eventually was elected president in 1998, after which he managed to outlast a coup attempt in 2002 and thereafter to consolidate his power and to achieve billionaire status for himself and select members of his family.
Strutting around in army garb or blazing red, he showed up on television or radio on a daily basis to harangue his enemies and lecture his followers with turgid, long winded speeches espousing his views on everything from music to gardening.
Always the kleptocrat, Chavez felched his country's oil resources and declared open season on its wealthy citizens to fund state food programs, "free" housing, health care and education, and other redistribution schemes which did little to reduce poverty despite the squandering hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the votes of his loyal Chavistas in a series of questionable elections.
Predictably, as he began running out of businesses to nationalize and other peoples' money to prodigalize, professionals fled the country, inflation gutted the economy and the homicide rate rose astronomically to one of the world's highest.
Chavez developed cancer and underwent surgery in Cuba in 2011 to excise what he called a tumor in his pelvis. Further surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments proved unavailing in treating the cancer which Chavez curiously never described in detail as to its origins.
Despite his illness, Chavez ostensibly continued to reach out to his followers in the past few months through telephonic speeches and Twitter postings. Nonetheless, he was rarely seen in public before his reelection last October and was last seen in December as he boarded a plane for Cuba for more surgery.
Chavez's absence from public view provoked consternation among his opponents and mounting concern among his supporters as suspicion grew in recent months that he had died before taking his oath of office in January, which would have required immediate elections according to Venezuela's constitution. His hand picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, has taken over and will be the ruling socialist party candidate in elections which the government has said will be called within 30 days.
Throughout his reign, "El Comandante" pursued his dream of a socialist United States of South America, to be ruled, presumably, by him. He idolized Fidel Castro and sought to emulate every leftist dictator since Lenin by casting himself as the noble David in opposition to the United States as the world's capitalist Goliath.
While his sycophants hyperbolized him as the most gifted in a long line of Latin American revolutionaries, he cloaked himself in the typical trappings of a grandiose dictator. His image and slogans are plastered all over Venezuela and he carefully and ruthlessly placed himself at the center of a Hitlerian personality cult, often declaring, "I am Venezuela," and delighting when his followers chanted "I am Chavez."
He routinely cancelled all programming on state run television to entertain himself with hours-long disquisitions about his own greatness and to demonize his enemies, including capitalists in general and the United States and Jews in particular. These rants often descended into little more than loutish home movies which everyone was expected to watch lest they later be asked what he had gone on and on about. Chavez had opinions about virtually everything and people were expected to know what those were and to agree with them no matter how absurd.
Throughout his rule, Chavez was apparently able to buy support through welfare programs and giveaways aimed at keeping enough dumbed down, impoverished, dependent voters to assure his reelection. While there is no suggestion yet that Chavez ran death camps or promoted genocide, he had no problem jailing or exiling political opponents, stifling any opposition, and encouraging his followers to intimidate and denounce anybody who disagreed with him.
He continually spewed the usual tired utopian socialist bromides about community, equality, and a leaderless society while personally doing little more than seizing land and other property and gifting it to family members, political allies and supporters. While he claimed to preside over a free and democratic nation, he controlled every aspect of government and micro managed every aspect of society. Ultimately, little changed in Venezuela during his rule other than the redistribution of wealth to cronies, gutting of the middle class and perhaps the alleviation of some poverty at the very low ends of the spectrum.
Chavez was a master at promoting deadly sins such as greed, anger and jealousy as badges of honor to be worn proudly by "the people" in their struggle against the specter of capitalism. He began like so many other military dictators with a failed coup in 1992 which landed him in prison from which he plotted his comeback.
Chavez was born in western Venezuela in 1954 one of six brothers who were the sons of school teachers and who have amassed great personal wealth and political power over the course of his rule.
Once a promising baseball player, he joined the military after becoming enthralled with Fidel Castro at an early age and became determined to emulate Bolivar and bring socialism as he saw it to Venezuela. Along the way, he had three children by his first wife and another by his second wife, whom he divorced in 2004.
In 1998, he became Venezuela's youngest president at the age of 44, smashing the existing two party system and replacing it with his socialist party. He later redrafted the country's laws and constitution to his liking; although he had little problem violating even these rules when it suited him.
After being elected in 1998, he aligned himself with communist regimes such as Cuba, disenchanting many of those who had voted for him. In 2002, it appeared he would be toppled in a coup supported by massive street demonstrations; but he was restored to power with the help of the military after his street thugs and security forces opened fire on demonstrators, and the coup's organizers were unable to consolidate enough support to take over the government.
After the failed coup attempt, Chavez became further emboldened and reached out to virtually any rogue regime which shared his hatred for the United States, no matter how abhorrent or criminal. Among his closest allies were Saddam, Muammar Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-il and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
While Chavez always maintained that Venezuela was headed inexorably toward some socialist ideal, he did little to change things and ruled virtually as a dictator throughout his years as president of Venezuela.
Given Chavez' totalitarian control over Venezuela, it will be interesting to see if his government survives his passing.