Moving beyond the spin on the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez

A few years ago the journalist Bart Jones wrote one of the best biographies in the English language on the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Writing for the National Catholic Reporter, Jones recently reflected on Chávez’s legacy stating that:  

The image of Chávez as crazed dictator is more cartoon caricature than realistic portrait. His government, like any, had its flaws. It didn’t do enough to combat crime, corruption and bureaucracy. It was too centered on “El Comandante” as a one-man show. And Chávez didn’t just debate or defeat opponents. He insulted them and sought to verbally annihilate them.

The surprisingly poor showing of his less charismatic anointed successor, Nicholas Maduro, who won the April 14 election to replace him by less than 2 percentage points, underscored the weaknesses of the Bolivarian Revolution, and where it needs to improve.

But Chávez also did some positive things rarely noted. For the first time in Venezuela’s history, he redirected its vast oil wealth to the poor majority. He sent thousands of Cuban doctors into slums, where they lived and provided free, 24-hour basic medical care. He launched a massive literacy and free education program, giving maids a shot at a high school diploma and others a college degree. Poverty was cut in half.

Above all, he gave the poor hope.

His supporters would argue that these and other initiatives amounted to fulfilling the social justice teachings of the Roman Catholic church.

In pre-Chávez Venezuela, a tiny elite controlled the oil wealth. They lived in gated mansions and flew off to Europe while the majority lived in tin shacks and struggled to eat.

It was an unsustainable social structure, not to mention -- Chávez and his supporters would say -- un-Christian. It was bound to collapse someday and easily led to the rise of a firebrand like Chávez who turned the established order upside down.

Posted on May 30, 2013 .