One is bound to get fascinated by Hugo Chavez due to his ideals of democratic socialism, a unified and independent Latin American continent, anti-imperialism, and anti-neoliberal globalization. For all left-wing partisans, the man cuts an enigmatic figure due to his defiant attitude towards the Western nihilism. Hugo Chávez, born in July 28, 1954 in Barinas, worshipped Simón Bolívara. The face of the modern Venezuela is based on Chavez’s struggle to achieve the Bolivar's vision of a democratic society, with real rights for all its citizens and a commitment to eradicate disease, illiteracy, malnutrition, poverty and other social ills, yet the struggle is still underway. This spitfire leader has his fans as well as critics, at home and abroad. US and European Union see Chavez as a danger to global oil prices and regional stability, while there are others who hail his bilateral trade practices, economic reforms, and reciprocal aid agreements. One thing is certain, he can’t be ignored.
Dubbed as "Washington’s biggest Latin American headache”, Hugo Chavez loves to rub America the wrong way. Be it his speculation that America spurred the earthquake in Haiti through the use of its tectonic weapons test, or that the then Bush administration backed a failed 2002 coup against Chavez government. He chose to stand ‘against’ the Bush administration after the latter’s post 9/11 instigative and even claimed that the 9/11 attacks were master-minded by the Bush Administration itself as a pretense to launch the so-called ‘war on terror’ on Iraq and Afghanistan. Chavez is one of the most outspoken critics of the US government and his allegiance with the likes of Iran and others is giving sleepless nights to his neighbors in the US and Europe. He warned Condoleezza Rice against provoking a rattle snake like him. He even shunned Hillary Clinton by dubbing her a ‘blonde Condoleezza’. Venezuelan ties with the Obama administration have fared slightly better than Bush’s, whom Chavez dubbed as ‘the devil’ (which has also been coincidently his alias on twitter). His provocations to America to mess with him have only increased his popularity.
Chavez is no David to the goliath, as contradictions exist between his ideals and actions.
The biggest criticism against Chavez is how he has used democracy to come to power in 1998 but then has misused it to get reelected concurrently in 2000 and 2006. He couldn’t seem to break from his military identity and his need for society to be in orderly and hierarchical military structures. Considering liberal democracy to be a ‘rotten mango’ that needs to be re-sown, Chavez is ruling the region like a monarch, if not like an autocrat, and aims to do so for an indefinite period of time through a voter approved constitutional amendment. In Pakistan too, we have had a taste of dictatorial democracy and a democratic dictatorship in shape of numerous rules bending the constitution to their own whims and will.
Chavez’s confidence and defiance of the imperialistic owe to the economic tipping point: control of the hemisphere's largest oil reserves. Backing his ideals of cooperation among the world's poor nations and alternate economic models, he has given discounts, billions in loan and financing on Venezuelan oil reserves. However, decline in crude oil prices and global recession have made the benevolence run out, as now Venezuela is fighting its own battle of food shortage, production decline, and 50% currency devaluation. The Venezuelan economy, which experienced the world's highest growth rate from 1950 to 1980, is now showing a sluggish trend. Many of his social programs run be under patronage of different “missions”, such as subsidized food, free medical assistance, literacy training, and education, are staggering and the masses are feeling the brunt. According to the 2008 "Corruption Perceptions Index" released by Transparency International, Venezuela ranked 158 out of 180. How well the Chavez administration is able to resolve this economic crisis, while maintaining its regional independence and radical stance, is to be seen.
Chavez’s popularity has waned considerably, yet many of the loyalists blame the corrupt officials around Chavez more for the country’s troubles. His critics also argue that much of his charisma is media generated. There are 300 pro-government radio stations, subsidized papers, and five TV stations; meanwhile the opposition has access to just one television station and another cable station. Nevertheless, the pro-Chavez faction argues that the viewer ratings tip in favor of the opposition run channel. He also runs a four hour duration show, Alo presidente, telecasted on Sundays. He didn’t even shy away from jumping on the twitter bandwagon and hired a staff of 200 to manage his account. It took Conan O’Brien and Bill Gates months to gather 800,000 followers on twitter and Chavez 100,000 followers in just two days and after two tweets. He sees his media campaigns nothing short of a battlefield and he is going to leave no stone unturned to conquer it.
His tendency to lock horns with the US and gain global sympathy shows that the man cannot be ignored. No matter how outlandish and his theories and how partial his views sound, his anti-US, anti-imperialist stance and outspokenness are paid attention to because many of the developing countries are aweary of the US excesses as a super power, and they welcome a strong voice that questions, challenges and defines and isn’t easily shaken into mute and unquestioning subservience.
He is a charismatic, colorful leader, yet there is a hyperbolic and at times theatrical quality to him. The quest for greatness of a nation can turn into a quest for greatness of self, which is narcissistic and has its own pitfalls. Bolívariam has given way to Chavezism; after all, the Latin culture has a long standing tradition of hero worship. Chavez himself has always been a hero worshipper and an ardent fan of Fidel Castro, and Pablo Neruda among many others. The shortfalls of his reign point to the gap between ideals and pragmatism. Ideals ignite revolutions; revolutions harbinger change, but in order for that change to gather momentum and be long lasting, actions and perseverance are required. Revolution is rhetoric; sustainability of change is what matters. We must remember that personalities and ideals don’t make history. And this goes for all world leaders, democrats or autocrats, who are more like Ozymandias standing of sands of time that are rapidly shifting.