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The passing of Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez

On Tuesday 5th of April 2013, as I innocently logged on Facebook, I saw this status from a friend studying politics: ‘Chavez, I never quite understood if he was good or bad’. Curious, I soon found out why he had made that statement. As I thought I was spreading the news, everyone actually already knew: that day, Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan President for fourteen years, had died of cancer.

The story of Hugo Chavez is the story of a man who maintained throughout his political life, an ambiguous relationship with power. Two missed coups: one in 1992 and one in 2002. In 2002, he violently represses a protest. In 2007 he bans an opposition channel named ‘RCVT’.

Whether he was a nice guy or a devil, photos and videos of Venezuelan people this week reveal that before anything, he was popular. Chavez’s death among the people was indeed experienced as a tragedy. It is not surprising that Nicolas Maduro, vice-president, temporarily president until upcoming election, announced on Friday the 8th of April that the “Comandantes’s” body will be able to be seen for at least seven days more, so that ‘all the people can see him without limitation’. Millions have gathered in Caracas, the capital, to see Chavez lying in state, crying ‘We are all Chavez’.

Chavez has created a division within the Venezuelan people. Those who mourn him relate to him due to his modest background and see him as a saviour from the claws of poverty. The leader indeed reduced poverty by nearly 50% and reformed profoundly the country in terms of health and education. Inheriting his political combat from Simon Bolivar’s legacy, he was seen as the liberator of his peoples.

Others believed that he was a populist autocrat who, indefinitely holding on to power through somewhat democratic elections but also through constitutional modifications, emptied the content of democracy in Venezuela.

The story of Hugo Chavez is the story of a contested figure; he was idolized just as much as he was hated, or not taken seriously. He had a pet parrot (who wore a red beret, like his master) who was named Simon Bolivar. He claimed that the ‘Yankee Imperalists’ (to be understood as the United States here) gave him cancer.

He inaugurated an audacious political style, affirming Latin America’s independence from the United States. The only time he ever shook Barack Obama’s hand was in 2009 during the 5th summit of the Americas. In fact, he seized the occasion to offer him as a present a Spanish copy of Open Veins of Latin America by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano which tells the plight of Latin Americans, forever subjected to European and American domination and exploitation.

The question now is: how do you operate a transition after a democratic dictator? The opposition parties point fingers at Maduro, claiming that the people haven’t elected him, suggesting another Coup d’Etat masterminded by Chavez from his tomb. However, the last poll, held a little before Chavez’s re-election in December seemed to reveal that Maduro would be the favourite anyhow.

The story of Hugo Chavez is also the story of a man who seemed to never want to admit to himself or to his people that he was gravely sick. In this struggle for his life, he tells his people in 2011 that he has been operated for cancer. In 2012, re-elected in October, he then announces in December that he is experiencing a relapse of his sickness and has to be treated in Cuba. He was recently re-elected for a fourth-presidential term in December 2012, before being transported to the military hospital in Caracas this month.

It’s too bad. With all this commotion around Chavez’s death, hardly anyone noticed that the 5th of March 1953 was also the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death. Socialists and their love for ceremonial art…

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