Skip to main content

Chavez leaves a revolutionary legacy

By Mariano Castillo, CNN
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1041 GMT (1841 HKT)
  • Experts weigh his legacy
  • Chavez touted transformative Bolivarian Revolution
  • Country was heavily dependent on oil revenues

(CNN) -- Charismatic and combative, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cultivated a larger-than-life appearance. But even after 13 years in office, his legacy may be more fleeting than his outsize personality suggested.

Chavez, 58, died Tuesday afternoon, according to the country's vice president. Chavez had battled cancer.

Supporters and opponents alike can name ways Venezuela has been transformed while Chavez was in office -- poverty is down, crime is up, polarization has become the status quo -- but the changes may not be as ingrained as they seem.

The cornerstone of Chavez's presidency was the Bolivarian Revolution, his ambitious plan to turn Venezuela into a socialist state. The most visible symbols of the revolution were the numerous social "missions" aimed at eradicating illiteracy, distributing staple foods and providing health care in all corners of the country.

Hugo Chavez's legacy
Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office. Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office.
Political career of Hugo Chavez
Photos: Political career of Hugo Chavez Photos: Political career of Hugo Chavez
A look at the life of Hugo Chavez
Hugo Chavez's 2009 interview with CNN

Social programs were not new to Venezuela, but Chavez elevated them in scope and prominence.

"The most positive legacy that Chavez has is that he put his finger on a legitimate grievance that many Venezuelans have: social injustice," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research and policy center in Washington. "Whoever succeeds him is going to have to deal with that question."

iReport: Send your thoughts on the death of the Venezuelan president.

Chavez was elected and re-elected in large part thanks to support from the country's poor, who felt marginalized by previous governments.

He tapped into their needs and frustrations -- often through confrontations with the Venezuelan elite -- and promised that the country's vast oil wealth would be redistributed to the poor.

According to World Bank statistics, the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line declined from a peak of 62% in 2003 to 29% in 2009. In the six-year period between 2001 and 2007, illiteracy fell from 7% to 5%.

"The result is that going ahead, any future government is going to have to put this front and center," Shifter said.

This much was apparent during the last presidential contest, in which opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski criticized Chavez's missions for mismanagement but promised to fix them rather than do away with them.

In October, Venezuelans opted to give Chavez another six-year term.

"(Chavez) has definitely given an identity and feeling of self-respect to people who felt invisible and ignored," said Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. "The lasting thing about this is, people who benefited will continue to demand participation in the political and social system."

This political awakening among the lower classes, however, does not translate into a lasting solution to poverty, analysts say.

Chavez did not create a system to make these benefits sustainable, for instance, by not investing enough in infrastructure, McCoy said.

The president's programs provided assistance without creating jobs, Shifter said.

Venezuela's oil industry to bounce back?
Venezuela faces a challenging future
Venezuelans see hope post-Chavez
Hugo Chavez's 2009 interview with CNN

"This is not a sustainable model," he said. "It's a lost opportunity."

Chavez also will be remembered for undermining the checks and balances in his country.

Venezuela always had a strong presidency, and Chavez further consolidated power in the executive.

As the president wielded more power, institutions such as the electoral commission and the judiciary were politicized and stacked in Chavez's favor.

Gone were the two parties that traditionally alternated power. In its place came one party, and one man.

"His presidency shattered the political universe that existed before," said Charles Shapiro, president of the Institute of the Americas and former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela during Chavez's tenure.

The government centered on Chavez, and his followers became known as chavistas.

"Too often he has been portrayed as a clownish character, but to the people who support him, he is a rock star and very capable politician," Shapiro said.

The fervor of his followers, combined with the disdain of the upper classes, created a polarization in Venezuela that runs deeper than anything blue or red in the United States. Supporters and opponents of Chavez "in many ways deny the other side that they have the right to hold their views," Shapiro said.

He stirred nationalistic sentiment and popularity by picking fights with the "imperialist" United States and its allies among the Venezuelan opposition. He used his combative speeches to drive a wedge between the working class and the elite in his country.

One former high-ranking U.S. State Department official recalled a meeting with Chavez in the early 2000s where the two sides had a "fairly good" conversation.

"In person, one-on-one, he can be very charming. He's smart; he can be accommodating," the former official said.

But immediately after the productive meeting, Chavez appeared on television, "totally mischaracterizing" the conversation.

It was a Chavez trait that U.S. officials saw repeatedly.

"He just gets carried away. There's something that animates him, and he moves into this demagogic, accusatory mode," the former official said.

But Chavez's fiery and divisive style is not assured to become a hallmark of future leaders, even if his party retains power.

"It's a classic problem of a charismatic leader," the former State Department official said. "His authority is based on his personal appeal to his supporters, and there are very few people who would be able to replace him."

Just as important as the things he changed are the things Chavez didn't change.

Under his watch, the country's dependence on oil revenue continued. A new model of state capitalism didn't bring to fruition the promises of a revived economy. The government institutions, which were weak before Chavez, are politicized now but remain weak.

The fruits of Chavez's legacy, for good or bad, have not changed the course of Venezuela as dramatically as his public relations machine portrays.

Those who have studied Venezuela agree: Before Chavez, there were already oil funds being diverted to the poor. There was already the nationalization of some industries. There was always corruption and weak governmental bodies.

Chavez enhanced some of these policies and repackaged others and added his own anti-American flare to it.

"I don't think he's been as much of an innovator as people seem to say, because there is a history of redistributive politics in Venezuela," the former State Department official said.

Most of what Chavez has accomplished can be undone, even if not overnight, the analysts said.

"This is simply a sad situation where there was a lot of promise and a lot of hope and a lot of possibilities, but his appetite for power and disdain for institutions has made it unsuccessful," Shifter said.

Part of complete coverage on
Hugo Chavez
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
split venezuela capriles maduro
Less than six weeks after President Hugo Chavez's death, Venezuelans will head to the polls Sunday to pick a new leader.
March 8, 2013 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
The poor, usually marginalized by Latin American politicians, became Chavez's main weapon.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
The plan to embalm the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may have hit a snag.
March 9, 2013 -- Updated 0331 GMT (1131 HKT)
The body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the latest in a long line of world leaders whose remains have been embalmed and displayed.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1038 GMT (1838 HKT)
Hugo Chavez, the polarizing president of Venezuela who cast himself as a "21st century socialist" and foe of the United States, died Tuesday.
What is your reaction to President Chavez's death? How do you think it will affect Venezuela's politics? How does is affect your country?
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 2307 GMT (0707 HKT)
CNN's Rafael Romo looks back at the life of recently deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1907 GMT (0307 HKT)
Venezuela has been transformed while Chavez was in office. Browse through the picture to explore his legacy.
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
A look back and the life and legacy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. CNN's Jim Clancy reports.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Hugo Chavez played key role in focusing attention on the poor. But Frida Ghitis says in the process of helping the poor, he undermined the democracy.
March 8, 2013 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Jesse Jackson: Chavez's death an opportunity for U.S. and Venezuela to heal relations.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
The death of the charismatic but controversial leader leaves many unanswered questions that Venezuela and the world must now grapple with.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 0135 GMT (0935 HKT)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sings with CNN's Larry King prior to his 2009 interview.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1406 GMT (2206 HKT)
News of Chavez's death drew impassioned reactions from around the world, as leaders and other public figures weighed in on his legacy.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 0724 GMT (1524 HKT)
CNN looks back at some of the more memorable things President Hugo Chavez said during his life -- like calling George Bush the devil.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1034 GMT (1834 HKT)
He began his career as a bus driver, then rose through the ranks to become a member of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's inner circle.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 0753 GMT (1553 HKT)
Chavez will be remembered for improving the wealth and political participation of the poor. But his death leaves an economy in tatters, some say.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 0333 GMT (1133 HKT)
Kevin Spacey, Naomi Campbell, Diego Maradona. Browse through the pictures of Hollywood icons and global superstars that met Chavez.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1041 GMT (1841 HKT)
Chavez cultivated a larger-than-life appearance. But even after years in office, his legacy may be more fleeting than his outsize personality suggested.
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 2240 GMT (0640 HKT)
Watch: In a 2009 interview, Larry King talks to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez about Obama and Venezeula's global role.
Get the latest news, analysis, commentaries and videos from Venezuela in Spanish language on CNN Español.