Last Tuesday, March 5, the President of the Republic of Venezuela Hugo Chavez died after battling cancer for months. In Venezuela, the announcement of his death provoked scenes of despair, as Chavez was revered by many in his country. Meanwhile, some argued that no one should cry over the loss of the Venezuelan President who established an authoritarian regime in his country.
France did not escape the debate. Initially, the political elite were divided in their reactions to Chavez’s death. The first to respond was Parti de Gauche leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who traveled during the presidential campaign to Venezuela to receive the support of Chavez himself. Reacting to the announcement of Chavez’s passing, Mélenchon tweeted, “What he is never dies.” He also called a few days later in an attempt to stop anti-Chavez “hatred comments.”
More surprisingly, Chavez’s death brought him the support of the right-wing Gaullist Nicolas Dupont-Aignan who declared, “One of the great voices of the free world passed away.” Apparently Dupont-Aignan, who calls for greater national independence from the EU and NATO, appreciated Chavez’s opposition to the Latin American hegemony of the United States. Even Front national spokesman Florian Philippot acknowledged Chavez’s will and courage.
But the real controversy arose after the funeral. Overseas Minister Victorin Lurel, who represented the French Government in Venezuela, declared, “Chavez, he is de Gaulle, plus Léon Blum. The world would benefit from having more ‘dictators’ like him.” Later, the Minister justified his words, explaining that he evoked de Gaulle because of Chavez’s dominance over Venezuelan institutions and Léon Blum, a socialist Prime Minister from the 1930s, because he fought social injustice.
Such words were absolutely unacceptable for the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). Former Education Minister Luc Chatel took a rather different view on Chavez’s death, saying it was “for the better” for Venezuela. Several other right-wing personalities declared themselves ashamed of the declaration of Victorin Lurel. UMP leader Jean-François Copé even called Hollande to correct his minister, arguing that France should not support a dictator who allied himself with Iran and Russia.
Now, several personalities from the Parti socialiste (PS) have tempered Lurel’s words but the debate remains open: was Hugo Chavez the democrat who fought for social justice, or was he the excessive autocrat that ruled Venezuela through populism? Chavez was indeed a personality of great contrasts, able to insult the President of the United States at the stand of the United Nations General Assembly, as well as daring to nationalize the oil industry to finance ambitious social policies.
Of course, Chavez’s relation to democracy has not always been very clear. In the 1990s, he attempted a coup to seize power, but failed and was relegated to a term in prison. As President, he took strong control over the national media, making life for the opposition newspapers and TV channels extraordinarily difficult. He also starred in his own TV show, in which he answered direct calls from the public. And when faced with the two-term limit, he simply ordered a referendum to change the Constitution.
But the example of the referendum is revealing. During the twelve years he ran the country, Chavez respected the will of the people, a people that elected him in 2000 and in 2006. When Chavez asked for the authorization of a third term, the people granted his wish by referendum and then elected him again in 2012. And even though he insulted his opponent during the campaign, he won the election fair and square.
Still, his international alliances were problematic to say the least. In particular, his continuous support for Iran, Syria, Russia, and Cuba provoked the ire of the West. But on the other hand, many commentators are wrong to ignore the effort Chavez put into trying to solve social discrepancies in his country. The public opinion of the United States, for example, was extremely harsh on the Venezuelan President. The view Stateside perhaps indicates the continued relevance of the Monroe Doctrine, and the fact that Washington still considers South America as within its sphere of influence.
This international independence was another political success for Chavez, along with his social policies. But it can be said that this was done at the expense of the economy, revealing once more the uneven legacy of the Venezuelan President. Perhaps we ought to agree on this point: whatever one might think about Chavez’s policies, he should be recognized as an extraordinary and oftentimes excessive man who changed the destiny of his country.
Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own and are not indicative of LJP’s views.