Skip to main content

Chavez used force of personality to win votes, influence leaders

By Simon Hooper, special for CNN
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
  • Hugo Chavez seemed an unlikely convert to democracy
  • He will be remembered for presence on world stage
  • Chavez inspired leftist leaders in Latin America

Editor's note: Simon Hooper has worked as a journalist covering international news, politics and sports for websites and publications, including CNN, Al Jazeera, the New Statesman and Sports Illustrated.

(CNN) -- Hugo Chavez was always a leader with one eye fixed on his own place in history.

In his frequent bombastic moments, the late Venezuelan president liked to imagine himself still in power in 2021, the bicentenary of his nation's independence, and as a latter-day Simon Bolivar, the Caracas-born soldier-statesman who liberated much of South America from Spanish rule and remains one of the continent's most revered sons.

Some saw in Chavez's overseeing of the reinterment of Bolivar's remains in a grandiose new mausoleum -- perhaps with his own fading health in mind -- an attempt to forge that connection in monumental form.

Hugo Chavez, influential leader with mixed record, dies at 58

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets actor Sean Penn after a meeting at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on March 5, 2011. Penn thanked Chavez for the support given by the Venezuelan government to his nongovernmental organization, which benefits victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez greets actor Sean Penn after a meeting at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas on March 5, 2011. Penn thanked Chavez for the support given by the Venezuelan government to his nongovernmental organization, which benefits victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
Chavez's famous friends
Photos: Celebrities and Hugo Chavez Photos: Celebrities and Hugo Chavez
2006: Chavez calls Bush 'the devil'
The relationship between Chavez and U.S.
Ban Ki-moon reacts to Chavez's death

Yet, it's only now, with Chavez's premature death Tuesday at age 58, that we can begin to assess the legacy of one of the early 21st century's most politically gifted but divisive figures and his self-styled "Bolivarian Revolution."

Having once served time in jail for leading a failed coup, Chavez perhaps made an unlikely convert to democracy.

Yet, through a blaze of landslide elections and referenda, he placed his fortunes in the hands of the poor and the marginalized, demanding their votes as a first step towards building a new political order that would work in their interests.

Chavez's initial 1998 election victory was hailed by the vote observers of the U.S.-based Carter Center as "a true demonstration of democracy at work" and "a peaceful revolution through the ballot box."

In that year, Chavez won 56% of the vote on a 65% turnout. When he earned re-election in 2006, his support had swelled to almost 63% on a near-75% turnout -- the high watermark of his electoral fortunes.

Between the two, Chavez defied an attempted coup in 2002 when hundreds of thousands of his supporters poured down from the hillside barrios of Caracas in protest, and a 2004 opposition-orchestrated referendum on his leadership made possible by the constitution introduced by Chavez himself in 1999.

Chavez leaves a revolutionary legacy

"A strange dictator, this Hugo Chavez," wrote Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano at the time of that referendum. Galeano is the author of a leading dependency theory interpretation of Latin American history, "The Open Veins of Latin America," that Chavez gave to U.S. President Barack Obama as a present after he won election.

"This tyrant invented by the mass media, this fearsome demon, has just given a tremendous vitamin-injection to democracy, which, both in Latin America and elsewhere, has become rickety and enfeebled," Galeano wrote of Chavez.

Once in power, Chavez diverted revenues from Venezuela's oil industry into a series of healthcare, education and anti-poverty initiatives known as misiones, opening subsidized supermarkets and clinics -- many staffed by Cuban medics -- in the country's poorest communities.

Between 1998 and 2006 the percentage of Venezuelans living below the poverty line fell from 50.4% to 36.3%, according to statistics from the World Bank's Databank. Infant mortality fell from 20.3 per thousand births when Chavez came to power to 12.9 by 2011, according to the same source.

Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office. Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office.
Political career of Hugo Chavez
Photos: Political career of Hugo Chavez Photos: Political career of Hugo Chavez
Hugo Chavez's 2009 interview with CNN
Vice president: Hugo Chavez is dead
Hugo Chavez's legacy

Education also became more accessible, with the number of children enrolled in secondary education rising from 48% in 1999 to 72% in 2010, according to UNESCO figures.

Visiting Caracas ahead of the 2006 election, I met a friend who had recently graduated from a newly established public university which charged its students just 300 bolivars a term, at the time the equivalent of about 15 cents.

Previously, he explained, students in higher education had to pay about 1 million bolivars a month to go to a private university. As we walked, he pointed out a stall selling orange juice for 500 bolivars a glass. "Look at that," said my friend, "education under Chavez is cheaper than orange juice."

iReport: Share your thoughts on the death of the Venezuelan president

Yet it will be for his interventions on the world stage that Chavez will be remembered beyond his homeland.

Outspoken and often wildly undiplomatic, Chavez thrived on the intransigence and widespread international unpopularity of the George W. Bush-era White House, never more so than when he referred to his then-US counterpart as "the devil" in addressing the U.N. General Assembly in 2006.

In Latin America, he provided inspiration for the rise of a generation of leftist leaders, notably Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and breathed fresh life -- and oil supplies -- into Cuba's anemic revolution. Others in Brazil and Argentina benefited from the renewed sense of regional confidence and solidarity that Chavez brought to the table.

He also had a deft appreciation of the mischievous power of gesture politics, sending "humanitarian aid" in the form of discounted fuel to one of the most deprived areas of New York's Bronx in 2005, and signing a gas deal with London in 2007 that funded cut-price bus fares for a quarter of a million of the British capital's poorest residents.

In the more nuanced Obama era, Chavez cut a less assured and less influential figure, particularly as his health problems forced him to step back from the limelight.

His longstanding willingness to seek common cause with any regime also at odds with the West -- Iran, Syria and Belarus among them -- also came with considerable cost for his credibility, most notably in his enduring loyalty to late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The world reacts

At home, too, Chavez's scorecard remained blotted by the chronic failure to tackle the violent crime that make Caracas one of the world's most dangerous cities, by complaints about press freedom and economic mismanagement, and by the gradual blurring of elements of grassroots participatory democracy with a less savory streak of populist authoritarianism.

Ultimately though, any judgment of Chavez's merits and failings will largely come down to political taste, with enough evidence to make for compelling argument on both sides.

What is not in question is the formidable force of personality and political skill that enabled him to unite and hold together a broad leftist alliance always bubbling below the surface with ideological idiosyncrasies and internal divisions, and of the deeply personal bond of loyalty that Chavez commanded among the millions who made up his red T-shirted chavista power base.

Whether that coalition holds together in the absence of the charismatic individual that forged it, and what replaces it if it fractures, may be the fundamental question that shapes Venezuela's post-Chavez future.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Simon Hooper.

Part of complete coverage on
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?