After fourteen years at the helm of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has died. Though like all other dictators in history, Chavez’s passing from this reality into memory leaves a chance for his supporters to usher him into history as a “good” leader. As with other men like him, those of us who still love freedom must ensure that history and popular memory recall truth and not propaganda.
Born in 1954, Hugo Chavez chose the military as his career at an early age. As a young man, Hugo moved from his rural home to Venezuela’s capital Caracas for his education. It was during this time that Chavez witnessed the urban poverty and plight of the proletariat. The conditions reminded the young Chavez of his own childhood, and this fueled his goals of social justice. Also during this time, he discovered his two great heroes: the 19th Century Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar and the infamous Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
But perhaps the more important aspects of Chavez’s youth in Caracas involve his studying Latin American leaders and thinkers who advocated that the military play a key role in achieving Communist goals. In reality, many college students read books on political heroes or ideologies, but they remain inactive because they had not discovered a means to reaching those political goals. Chavez later formed a small, conspiratorial group within the military. Their goals were to bring those same revolutionary ideals about in Venezuela. Later, as a teacher in a military academy, Chavez used his post to fill his group with handpicked revolutionaries, while dispersing more drones into Venezuela’s military. The revolutionary opportunity finally arrived in 1992, during instability in Venezuela. The attempted government overthrow failed, and Chavez found himself and his comrades in prison. Two years later, he was released and subsequently restarted his political goals. He traveled to Cuba and met with another man who became his hero, Fidel Castro. Finally, Chavez attained the office of president via an election in 1999.
During his time in office, Chavez redistributed land and wealth, nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry, and instituted many other collectivist policies. In other arenas, Chavez “used legislation to clamp down on broadcasters and other media” and allegedly arrested political opponents, as well. On another note, similar to the likes of Gaddafi, Chavez decried the United States government’s “earthquake weapon” that caused the Haitian earthquake and “once said capitalism might have killed off life on Mars.” Chavez hosted his own strange television show and gave many people hope that he could make their dreams come true.
When we consider all this information, it should be clear how Chavez should be remembered: a collectivist authoritarian and an enemy of liberty and the free market, who forced his country down the road of Cuba and all other anti-liberty and free market nations. But how will the world remember Chavez? Now that we have examined Chavez’s life, let us look at the life and legacy of another Latin American revolutionary.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s life was significantly different from Hugo Chavez’s in a number of ways. Che was an intellectual, widely read in many branches of knowledge. The turning points in Che’s life were the now famous trips he took throughout Latin America. On his motorcycle, Che witnessed the “injustices” against the poor. Later, Che moved to Guatemala, where he met other Communists connected with Fidel Castro. Then, after moving to Mexico City and training with Castro’s revolutionaries, Che participated in the Cuban revolution. He went on to hold positions in the new Communist government in Cuba. In 1965, Che assisted Marxist revolutionary movements in the Congo. After failing in the Congo, Che went to Bolivia in 1966, trying again to instigate another Cuban revolution. During the operations in Bolivia, a CIA agent within the revolutionaries’ ranks supplied the Bolivian government with their position. Bolivian troops captured a wounded Che and executed him. Additionally there are other notable points in this brief history. Che Guevara was a sadistic killer (disregarding ideas such as trials, evidence, and due process) and was a racist, saying blacks are “indolent and lazy” and spend “their money on frivolities, whereas the European is forward-looking, organized and intelligent.”
Marxists and friendly leftists—along with legions of misguided romantics, students, and “intellectuals”—have ensured Che’s remembrance in history. The man of innumerable T-shirts, posters, and buttons endures nearly forty years after his death as an admirable man, one who should be emulated. They show Che as the intellectual with a solution to the world’s ills, and a man willing to implement those solutions himself. These accounts fail, however, to tell the complete truth.
When we view Hugo Chavez’s life, we see the potential for the same canonizing as with Che. There is a rise to prominence in Chavez’s story, from a poor rural boy to a leader of his nation, fighting for “the people” along the entire way. They both experience disillusionment in their youths and later participated in revolutions. Unlike Che, Chavez was his nation’s leader. And Chavez instituted many Marxist policies. In this area, Chavez might be remembered in the same way as FDR in America—supposedly a man who saved his country through shrewd political and economic measures. If Che Guevara, a sadistic murderer and racist, can possess such importance among such great numbers of people, then why not Chavez?
We know what Chavez did to Venezuela and this information exists openly. I see no reason why the left would not try manipulating history and painting Chavez in a positive light. After all, the statists have done it before with other men and regimes. This is not merely a call to lovers of liberty, rather it is to those who believe in telling the truth about history and the figures from it. Perhaps we may also hope the supposed scruffy, “iconic,” and youthful “good looks” apparantly key in spreading Che’s image might prevent Chavez from adorning a new generation of T-shirts, coffee mugs, buttons, and posters.
Christian Lopac | Wabash College | @CLopac