Death Comes for el Comandante: Hugo Chávez (1954–2013)
By Tim PadgettMarch 05, 2013

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Caracas on Nov. 27, 2009

Like his idol, Fidel Castro, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was one of the most garrulous and pugnacious leaders Latin America has ever known. That makes his death in Caracas today, March 5, at age 58, after a long and secrecy-shrouded fight with a cancer whose type he refused to disclose, feel all the more incongruous: Chávez, who for all of his 14-year rule was as loud and ubiquitous a fixture in Venezuela and Latin America as salsa music on the sidewalks, departed the stage in uncharacteristic silence after not having been seen or heard from publicly for three months.

But Chávez’s demise is likely to spark a constitutional upheaval inside Venezuela, where he and his socialist, anti-U.S. revolution controlled the world’s largest oil reserves and where an electorate bitterly polarized over his heavy-handed governance must now hold a new presidential election within the next month. The most hotly debated issue is sure to be Chávez himself and his frenetic legacy — whether his firebrand reign in the end represented an advance or a setback for the Latin American left.

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Chávez called himself a “21st century socialist.” In reality he was a throwback to the dogmatic and authoritarian 20th century socialism of Castro, Cuba’s former dictator, and to the 19th century caudillo tradition of Chávez’s demigod, South American independence hero Simón Bolívar. Chávez hoped that being democratically elected would obscure the fact that he didn’t govern all that democratically. It didn’t. So it’s tempting to dismiss him as an anachronism, a vulgar populist famous for gratuitous yanquibashing — for calling then U.S. President George W. Bush a malodorous “devil” at the U.N. in 2006 — an erratic and messianic retro-revolutionary whose country’s vast petrowealth let him indulge his Marxist nostalgia.

Chávez was all of those things. But if he was a leader behind his times, he still managed to influence them. Voters don’t make a radical like Chávez their head of state unless they’re mad as hell, and his stunning ascent in fact altered the western hemisphere’s conversation when it needed to be altered. When Chávez was first elected in 1998, post–Cold War Latin America was awash in free-market reforms. Those changes were necessary, but their negligent implementation only widened the region’s already epic inequality. Chávez’s bellicose neo-statism was hardly the antidote, but his Bolivarian revolution, which steered Venezuela’s oil riches to the barrios for a change, was a wake-up call. It reopened the door for the Latin American left — and, fortunately, more moderates than Marxists walked through it — including former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — whose capitalist-socialist “third way” has since helped narrow the region’s wealth gap and brought countries like Chile to the brink of development.

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Leftists like Lula, in fact, are the genuine 21st century socialists, and their rise made the more doctrinaire Chávez less influential well before his cancer was diagnosed in the summer of 2011. Ironically, you can trace that decline back to September 2006, when oil prices were soaring and Chávez was at the height of his power and popularity at home and across the developing world. He could taunt Bush at the U.N. and hear applause from Caracas to Karachi — yet in a TIME interview the day after that speech, he all but forecast how his global and regional relevance would wither from then on.

As he drank a succession of guayoyos, or cups of Venezuelan coffee, Chávez told me with his famously caffeinated conviction that he now planned to turn even harder leftward. “I no longer think a third way is possible,” he said, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. “Capitalism is the way of the devil and exploitation. Only socialism can create a genuine society.”

After winning another six-year term by a landslide three months later, Chávez did turn further left. But chasing the mirage of ideological purity, be it capitalist or socialist, too often creates its own demons, especially authoritarian government and mismanaged economies. Chávez was never quite the dictator his critics claimed, and he did reduce Venezuela’s inexcusably high poverty — a large reason he won re-election last October despite Venezuela’s growing economic and security problems. Even as cancer made it hard for him to campaign, he remained the nation’s most popular political figure and defeated his opposition challenger by 11 points. Nonetheless, thanks to his own reckless and arrogant impulses, history isn’t likely to remember Chávez as fondly as his followers will.

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It’s less likely to recall him as the crusader who toppled Venezuela’s criminally corrupt oligarchy in 1998, and more as the demagogue who led a failed but bloody coup in 1992. Or as the President who oversaw disastrous property and business expropriations, “media responsibility” laws that made insulting el comandante a criminal offense and the elimination of presidential-term limits that he hoped would let him rule for life. It will view him less as the reformer who enfranchised Venezuela’s poor and more as the blowhard who presided over food shortages, the world’s highest inflation rate and South America’s worst violent crime rate. Less as the Bolivarian who worked for Latin American integration and countered U.S. hegemony in the Americas, and more as the polarizer who hurled sophomoric insults at Washington as well as foes at home — like his centrist opponent in last year’s election, Henrique Capriles, whom he called “a low-life pig” during a national TV address.

From the Plains to the Putsch

Either way, it’s not so surprising that Chávez favored the communism of Castro over the centrism of Lula. Born in rural Sabaneta, Venezuela, in central Barinas state, on July 28, 1954, Chávez grew up poor on the llanos, or plains, raised largely by a grandmother instead of his teacher parents. In Barinas he absorbed the sort of nationalist Marxism that got a boost in 1959 from Castro’s revolution in Cuba. Chávez learned to demonize the admittedly imperialista U.S. of that era and to deify Caracas-born Bolívar. He exalted the llaneros, the oft-defiant plains cowboys embodied by his great-grandfather, who had led a revolt against an early 20th century dictator.

Chávez’s schoolmates called him Tribilín, or Goofy, and made fun of his rustic shoes. But like so many Venezuelan lads of his social class, he found redemption in baseball (he was a good enough pitcher to get a tryout from the pros) and the army, where his Bolivarian self-image and his resentment of Venezuela’s venal, Washington-backed upper crust helped form an officer poised for rebellion — and convinced of his own grandiose destiny. As Venezuelan journalists Alberto Barrera and Cristina Marcano note in their Chávez biography, Hugo Chávez Sin Uniforme (Hugo Chávez Out of Uniform), the military cadet had a knack for drawing “parallels between landmark events in his life and historic events” involving Latin American icons like Bolívar (whose remains Chávez would exhume in 2010 for a macabre autopsy).