Hugo Chavez’s legacy is still unwritten. History shows that reformers have long lasting impact when they leave behind successors who can protect and build on the changes they sponsored.
President Chavez was not perfect.
His fourteen years of rule were marked by administrative confusion, wasteful spending, and an erratic personal style. However, all of these failings were overshadowed by his consistent attempts to make life better for the average person and to shift power away from a parasitic aristocracy and give it to the vast majority of Venezuelans.
Since Chavez became president in 1999, the percentage of people living in poverty in Venezuela has fallen from 50% to 27% and the CIA World Factbook admits that “social investment has led to better living standards, including increased school enrollment, a substantial reduction in infant and child mortality, and greater access to potable water and sanitation.”
With his death comes an opportunity for new people with new talents and ideas to solidify these gains, continue to build popular participation in government, and improve any reform programs that are poorly managed. The opposition party, Table of Democratic Unity, representing the social and economic elites who used to run Venezuela for themselves, is a distinct minority party now. Its presidential candidate lost to Chavez by a wide margin in last fall’s elections, while Chavez-endorsed candidates were elected governors in 20 of the country’s 23 states.
Julius Caesar squandered his legacy as a leader of the reforming populares group by choosing as his lieutenant and successor the brutal thug Marc Anthony – a man incapable of rallying the common people (in spite of what Shakespeare wrote) or of peacefully participating in the Roman Republic’s electoral system. Franklin Roosevelt’s legacy was enhanced when Harry Truman’s victory in 1948 solidified the New Deal Coalition.
Now, Hugo Chavez’s successors in the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, a coalition of populist groups he brought together in 2007, must choose between working together to continue the reform movement or splitting apart to follow their own small ambitions. President Chavez’s legacy hangs in the balance.