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What Will Be Hugo Chavez's Legacy?


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, remember that meteor shower in Siberia? Well, scientists are working to keep you safe from asteroids. And feeling the rhythm and the rapture - the deaf feel a symphony orchestra. But first...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Spanish spoken)

LYDEN: Yesterday morning, the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, was commemorated with festive music. Leaders from around the world gathered in Caracas, Venezuela, to say adios. Among them were Cuban President Raul Castro, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Reverand Jesse Jackson.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Spanish spoken)

REVEREND JESSE JACKSON: How do we measure a great leader...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Spanish spoken)

JACKSON: how he treats the least of these...

LYDEN: Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans paid their respect to Chavez's casket before the funeral, many of them crying and praying for their beloved leader. Chavez was called many things during his life: a dictator, comandante, tyrant. And while he was compared to Latin American revolutionary figures such as Simon Bolivar and Fidel Castro, it's Argentina's Juan Peron that he most channeled.

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Peron, like Chavez, he was a military man. Like Chavez, he was a coup plotter.

LYDEN: That's Argentine journalist Andres Oppenheimer drawing those parallels. And there are more.

OPPENHEIMER: Like Chavez, he flirted with fascism before turning to the left. And like Chavez, he was elected president and benefited from a huge commodity boom and started giving away money to the poor.

LYDEN: When Juan Peron was elected president in 1946, it wasn't just charisma that made the Argentinean popular.

OPPENHEIMER: Peron benefited from a huge commodity boom during World War II, as Chavez benefited from a huge oil boom. Remember, when Chavez took office, oil prices were at $9 a barrel. Several years later, by 2008, oil prices rose to $146 a barrel.

LYDEN: And Peron, like Chavez, found his constituency among the poor.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Argentina had two classes of society: the very rich and the very poor. Juan Peron passed up the wealthy landowners and planted the seeds of his coming power with the large mass of underprivileged. Argentina unwittingly voted into power a man who was to bleed it dry.

OPPENHEIMER: Much like Chavez in Venezuela, Peron basically discovered the poor in Argentina. He not only proclaimed himself to be a champion of the poor, but he started implementing social programs for the poor, things like benefits for women, benefits for the elderly, benefits for the unemployed. And he created a welfare state where he basically bankrolled hundreds and thousands, if not millions of people, put them in the state payroll. And that in a way helped many, many, many poor people in Argentina.

LYDEN: That's Andres Oppenheimer. He's a syndicated columnist with the Miami Herald. So to his point about endless speeches, when correspondent Rory Carroll came to Caracas for The Guardian, he soon found himself on the president's TV show "Alo Presidente."

RORY CARROLL: I was a relatively newly arrived correspondent for The Guardian, and he was the Venezuelan president, and he was basically at the peak of his powers. And he invited me onto his TV show.

LYDEN: Carroll was the subject of a rant, and the show went on for hours.

CARROLL: He was in the process of trying to abolish presidential term limits, and I asked him, would there not be a risk that there could be a creeping authoritarianism as a consequence of this? And, boy, he really took against that question. He, I mean, he scowled at me. And what came was basically a 30-minute tirade against me and everything that I purportedly represented: European cynicism, European monarchy, European old-world vice, the colonialism of Africa, genocide against oppressed peoples and so forth. And I was sitting there, all of this live on TV, I was the symbol of all of this.

LYDEN: And as Rory Carroll recounts, Hugo Chavez was motivated by the inequity that he saw in Venezuela.

CARROLL: He became angry, and he felt that Venezuela needed a new revolution. And this coup came to fruition in 1992 when he was a lieutenant colonel. And he had hundreds of accomplices and aides right at the palace. And, well, to cut a long story short, the coup was a complete military fiasco, total debacle. But there he is, you know, the author of this military fiasco. And in a two-minute segment that he went on television to surrender, he was brilliant. He was crisp. He took responsibility for the fiasco. And he said: We have not met our objectives - (Spanish spoken) - for now.

And this sent a signal to all of Venezuela that he would be back, that he was not finished. And it was on the basis of that that he stormed to the presidency, legitimately elected, only six years later in 1998.

LYDEN: What specifically did Hugo Chavez do for the poor?

CARROLL: Chavez did two things. He made them feel that they had a guy on their side, that he understood their problems, that he was one of them, he spoke like them, he looked like them. And they felt as long as he was in the presidential palace, they had someone looking out for them. And the second thing is that he did bring practical benefits, a lot of subsidies, a lot of handouts. So it was this sense of feeling, you know, he's my guy, plus I've got a bit more money in my pocket.

LYDEN: What do you think will happen now, now that we're past the funeral? What is Chavez's legacy going to be, do you think?

CARROLL: Chavez leaves a very fraught legacy for his successors because Venezuela is, in many ways, a ruin. The infrastructure had been neglected, is collapsing. Crime is out of control. Inflation is rising. And now whoever takes over from him is going to have to write the check and will have to try to fix the problems that Chavez left behind and take the blame for the problems that Chavez left behind. So it's a very fraught and, unfortunately, quite a bleak legacy.

LYDEN: Rory Carroll. His new book is called "Comandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela," and he joined us from Caracas.

We mentioned that Hugo Chavez believed himself to be the successor of Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century Venezuelan political leader who helped Latin America obtain its independence from Spain. Bolivar dreamed of uniting all of the countries of Latin America and making them economically independent.

Professor Eduardo Gamarra is originally from Bolivia. He teaches politics and international relations at Florida International University. He says Chavez came the closest of any Latin leader to Bolivar's ideal.

EDUARDO GAMARRA: You know, one might say that his legacy is going to be measured by whether that attempt to integrate Latin America survives.

LYDEN: Are there any ways in which Chavez was realizing this dream in a practical sense?

GAMARRA: He constructed a lot of, let us call them multilateral organizations in Latin America. One is an organization called Una Sud, which is a United Nations of the South. And the basic premise behind this organization, which was actually founded in Mexico and then it went to Venezuela and it just met in Santiago, Chile, was to have a forum where countries of Latin America would be able to speak freely without the interference, the intervention of both the United States and Canada. It was explicit about excluding those two North American countries.

And what's interesting, well, you know, this is sort of an attempt at realizing Bolivar's dream of a united Latin America. You know, Bolivar's dream was not to exclude the United States. Bolivar never made any mention of excluding the United States. And, in fact, Bolivar was a great admirer of the United States.

LYDEN: Nice statue of him right outside Central Park in New York City.

GAMARRA: That's right. Exactly.

LYDEN: Which countries do you think will be most affected by the death of Chavez?

GAMARRA: Well, that's an interesting question because, I think, you have to look at it in terms of countries that are in the Caribbean and Central America, which are countries that do not have any commodities that they can export to China or anywhere for that matter. Let's take Haiti, for example. Haiti receives approximately $40 million a month from Venezuela. And it's not conditioned assistance. It's not money that goes to, you know, NGOs or that it goes through government agencies such as what the U.S. does.

It goes directly to the Haitian government, and the Haitian government basically does with that money as it sees fit. And it has used its money wisely in terms of many social programs. And in my view, probably a lot of the social tranquility that you have in countries like Haiti owes much to these cash gifts from President Chavez.

LYDEN: So do you think that Latin America will ever see Bolivar's dream of unification come true?

GAMARRA: That is a dream that I'm afraid probably not in my lifetime. Now, there are so many tensions that persist. Yesterday afternoon, we watched the funeral of Hugo Chavez. It was very interesting because you had, for example, the president of Chile and the president of Bolivia seated side by side. They had been fighting, literally fighting, verbally fighting over the last month over a number of issues, one very historic. Bolivia lost a coastline to Chile. And the Chileans basically have refused to open up discussions about granting Bolivia access - sovereign access to the ocean.

So there are those kinds of issues that prevail. Latin Americans, while we talk a lot about regional integration, one of our biggest shortcomings still is this - I normally tell my students that it's kind of an illness, this illness of nationalism - profound nationalism has prevented national integration.

LYDEN: Professor Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University.

Peronism still thrives in Argentina even 60 years after Peron left office. Peronistas are the most influential party in the country today and currently in power. So what about Chavismo, the cult of Chavez? Journalist Andres Oppenheimer has a prediction.

OPPENHEIMER: You're going to have Chavismo of the right, Chavismo of the left, Chavismo of the center, Chavismo of all colors. Why? Because Chavez, like Peron, was a guy who gave endless speeches almost every day for hours at a time, sometimes for five, six hours at a time. And there are enough quotes by Chavez to justify almost anything. And a lot of people who were anti-Chavez until today, from today on, proclaim themselves to be Chavistas.


LYDEN: Next month, Venezuelans will go to the polls to elect Chavez's successor. Speaking tearfully at the funeral yesterday, the man currently at the helm, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, said he has big shoes to fill. You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.