March 10, 2013

How Chavez changed Venezuela

He commanded the life of Venezuela like no one before him; even those who cannot mourn feel a vast emptiness.

By JUAN NAGEL Foreign Policy

CARACAS, Venezuela - Hugo Chavez died as he lived: shrouded in mystery, creating chaos and commotion, and leaving an indelible mark.

click image to enlarge

President Hugo Chavez lifted many Venezuelans out of poverty, but more importantly, he empowered them to realize that they could do anything, says author Juan Nagel. But Chavez, who died Tuesday after a two-year battle with cancer, did so at the expense of everyone else, Nagel contends.

2004 file photo/The Associated Press

click image to enlarge

Chavez sits before a painting of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar at the presidential palace in Caracas.

2001 File Photo/The Associated Press

His death leaves a void in the hearts of his many followers, but it also leaves his opponents in a daze. Chavez has been such a central part of our lives, of my life, that this is a blow to us as well.

I first began writing about Chavez in 2004. Of course, I was deeply concerned about what was going on in Venezuela, mortified at his ability to amass power and use it to amass even more power.

An opportunity arose to contribute to Caracas Chronicles, a respected opposition blog, and I jumped at it. Years of documenting the ins and outs of Chavez's antics have led to our recent book on the subject, "Blogging the Revolution."

Sure, there were good things. Chavez lifted many out of poverty, thanks in part to an oil boom that is ongoing.

More importantly -- and this is certainly not part of the oil boom -- he made millions feel like they mattered. He empowered people by making them realize they could do anything -- learn to read, get health care, earn a high school diploma.

Never mind that the actual effects of his policies are questionable, his followers felt like they were advancing, and that is a real and powerful thing.

Many who read this would think: That all sounds great, so why would you be opposed to Chavez?

Well, a lot of it had to with style. And there is nothing that Chavez cared about more than style.

Chavez helped the poor and made them feel empowered, but he did so at the expense of everyone else.

The poor, he asserted, are poor because someone else took their money. The poor are poor because the rich have been gouging the country's wealth, and here is Chavez coming to reverse that.

Never mind that many of his policies -- free gas, subsidized dollars for shopping trips abroad -- were just as pro-rich as the previous ones.

"Being rich is bad," became his leitmotif, and it was all code for something we understood: Anyone middle class or above, with light skin, and some education, is your enemy and does not belong in the country.

And so, an obsession was born. Every rant, every six-hour TV appearance in which he disparaged everything from foreign leaders to opposition politicians, was a cause for concern.

Every dismissal of people who disagreed with him was shocking, and it mobilized us.

People were being thrown in jail for political reasons, TV stations were being shut down for being critical of the president, and our sense of urgency was fueled by the fact that a majority supported this.

Chavez commanded the life of Venezuela like few people before him. We have always had caudillos, but never on this scale, with this amount of economic muscle, with these few checks and balances.

Simon Bolivar, Jose Antonio Paez, Antonio Guzman Blanco, Juan Vicente Gomez, Marcos Perez Jimenez -- none of our past caudillos' power comes close to what Hugo Chavez wielded.

And then he got sick. His appearances became rarer and rarer. His body began looking deformed, an obvious consequence of the heavy steroids used to treat his cancer.

He managed to win October's election in spite of a limited campaign, after which he boasted that the beating would have been twice as bad had he been healthy.

Perhaps he was right about that. But it doesn't matter anymore.

All the power and the money in the nation couldn't defeat the one enemy that couldn't be silenced.

As he departs for a (we hope) better world, the void he leaves is enormous.

Documenting Chavez has so consumed our lives, it's not joy or anger or sadness that I feel. It's the emptiness, the hollowness of victory.

After all, he may have won all the elections in the world and rubbed it in our faces, but we outlived him. May he rest in peace.

Juan Nagel blogs for the Caracas Chronicles.


Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)