Hugo Chavez will miss the reckoning, the inevitable fallout from his 14 years as the president and old-fashioned strongman of Venezuela. His death on Tuesday came after a long illness, often shuttling to Cuba for cancer treatment. He may be best known in the United States for his appearances in the headlines, referring to George W. Bush as the “devil” in a speech at the United Nations or ruling amid the contradiction of condemning the American “empire” while collecting riches from oil sales to American customers.
Oil proved the cushion under the Chavez years, Venezuela with deep reserves. So did his rhetoric for the common man. He spoke often about his defiance of the “oligarchy,” his determination to achieve a “21st century socialism” that would improve the lives of the poor.
Give him his due, to a point. Chavez borrowed from Fidel Castro in bringing health care and adult education to those who long went without such access to better lives. In that way, he altered the debate. Hard to imagine the masses of Venezuelans neglected in the next presidential election now that their plight has been engaged.
Yet so much of what Chavez pursued amounted to little more than carelessness, his actions designed to promote his own glory, nothing more. His seizing of private companies and imposing price controls brought a mess. For all of the oil money, public works have been neglected, from the electrical grid to roads and bridges.
Where did the money go? Chavez practiced a brand of crony capitalism, corruption infecting heavily his rule, loyalty rewarded above all else, leading to drift and decline for the country.
Hugo Chavez leaves a legacy of incoherence. He spoke grandly to hopes and dreams, even stirred passions about social justice, and then acted in ways at odds with his words. Now Venezuela must cope with the aftermath, its oil resources still an asset, yet the wreckage of the Chavez years presenting much to overcome.