Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, died on March 5 at the age of 58, two years after revealing his cancer diagnosis.
As the grandson of Cuban immigrants, my first reaction was to wonder how on earth former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro managed to outlive his best bud Chavez. Castro’s smoked at least 1,000 acres of tobacco. But I digress.
Chavez was a dominating figure in Latin American politics. He was unwilling to surrender to the “Western way” of doing things and often criticized the greed so often seen in the capitalist world. His amendments to the Venezuelan constitution often addressed human rights. Along with Cuba and Iran, he stood up to nations like the U.S. for their intrusive policies. For this, his many supporters praised him.
But Chavez’s numerous opponents accused him of fixing elections; censoring the media and the citizens of Venezuela; manipulating and oppressing the people; and leaving his state in an impoverished, crime-ridden condition. Chavez led a socialist government from 1999 to 2013, winning four consecutive elections. And though the process was democratic, some remain skeptical that Chavez played a fair political game.
Maybe there’s a bit of truth in both views. The entire world doesn’t have to operate the same way as the U.S. does, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with Chavez wanting to strike out his own path, even if it’s one many Americans might disagree with. But it’s unacceptable to overlook the crimes of Chavez in order to praise his way of doing things. If what his opponents have accused him of is true, Chavez cannot be considered a political hero, even if he managed to accomplish some good as well.
Like Castro, Ahmadinejad, or the beloved man-god Kim Jong-il, Chavez was an associative figure, one that is hard to replace, like or hate. On April 14, Venezuela will conduct a presidential election, though it’s difficult to say where it will lean politically or what the future holds for the country.