By Ben Koller
Since being elected president in 1999, Chavez was one of the most polarizing figures in the arena of international politics. Adored by many Venezuelans for his charismatic leadership and social programs, he was equally reviled by many Americans for his anti-American rhetoric and controversial alliances.
Chavez’s supporters speak at length about his commitment to the people of Venezuela, particularly his programs dedicated to economic and social development. Using the slogan “Socialism of the 21st Century,” Chavez introduced a myriad of social programs designed to increase the quality of life in Venezuela and reduce poverty.
Chavez largely succeeded in this venture, reducing the poverty rate, raising the quality of life, and reducing income inequality and poverty. According to the United Nations, the poverty rate in Venezuela fell from 48.6 percent in 2002 to 29.5 percent in 2011. These efforts made Chavez extremely popular among many in Venezuela, particularly the poor and working-class population.
However, many condemned Chaves for his undemocratic government and anti-American rhetoric, as well as his controversial alliances with various governments.
Since taking power, Chavez has faced accusations of corruption and oppression in his government from both those inside his own country and various international organizations. Among the strongest criticisms of Chavez is that he illegally manipulated the judicial system and that he systematically suppressed freedom of expression in the Venezuelan media.
Chavez was also the subject of a great deal of criticism on the international stage, primarily for his anti-American rhetoric and his alliances with various oppressive regimes.
Chavez constantly railed against the United States for what he called their imperialist policies, taking every opportunity to oppose the U.S. and their capitalist policies.
Finding a common ground in their anti-imperialist sentiments, Chavez developed relationships with such rulers as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro (and later Raúl) and Muammar al-Gaddafi, known for their dictatorial governments.
During his last six months in office, Chavez became an increasingly divisive figure in Venezuela; he won re-election in October of 2012 with 54 percent of the vote (versus 45 percent for his opponent Henrique Capriles) a lower margin of victory than any of his other election victories. In that election, voter turnout was an unprecedented 80 percent, indicating that the race was more hotly contested than any of Chavez’s other presidential races.
With rising crime and economic woes, Chavez’s death leaves Venezuela bitterly divided with a future that is still up in the air. After Chavez’s death, his Vice President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in, and will serve as the interm president until after the April 14 special election. In that election, Maduro will be opposed by opposition leader, Henrique Capriles, who mounted a serious challenge against Chavez in the last election. As Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Maduro is considered the favorite to win the presidency, but Capriles will hope to build on his strong campaign from October.
Hugo Chavez was one of the most influential figures in international politics, and his death has prompted much discussion about his time as president as well as many questions about the future of Venezuela.
What lies ahead for Venezuela is as unclear as it has been in many years, and the world will be watching closely to see what path the country takes in the post-Chavez era.