"I will remain as long as God and the people command me to," said Hugo Chávez in 2008. At the time, the Venezuelan president and left-wing nationalist was at the apex of his power. Fifty-four years old and in office for 10 years, he self-confidently and energetically planned for the next decade as Latin America's longest serving head of state.
At the time, it was unimaginable that this gifted orator and former officer would be gravely ill by the time the 2012 presidential elections arrived. A year prior to that vote, Chávez had undergone the first of what would become four operations to free him of cancer. In recent months, his public image had come to be dominated primarily by reports on his health and further surgical procedures -- a significant come-down for a man who had presented a thorny challenge to the political elite of South America and who had seen himself as a bulwark against the US.
Now, Chávez has succumbed to his illness; Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the leader's death late on Tuesday afternoon shortly after news of an additional "severe" respiratory infection had been publicized. He was 58.
Maduro announced seven days of official mourning with a public funeral scheduled for Friday. New elections are to be held in 30 days. "It is a moment of deep pain," said Maduro, who will hold power until the vote. "His project, his flags will be raised with honor and dignity. Commander, thank you, thank you so much, on behalf of these people whom you protected."
Chávez' death marks the end of a dynamic life. The son of village schoolteachers from the town of Sabaneta in the state of Barinas, Chávez quickly rose through the military ranks to become a lieutenant colonel before rising to the presidency of the oil-rich country. As early as 1992, he made a grab for power in a failed coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. He was pardoned after two years spent behind bars. Thereafter, he sought a political path to power in Venezuela.
Reshaping the Country
It didn't take long. In December 1998 elections, Chávez won with a commanding 56 percent of the vote. He embodied a fresh new project, an alternative to the corrupt elite and to the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats who had alternated power for decades.
The project was to completely reshape the country, a Chávez-led reboot. He rewrote the constitution, disempowered the old parliament and replaced it with a new one, and concentrated power in his own hands. He handed top political positions to his closest confidants. Perhaps most importantly, he secured control over the country's most valuable treasure: oil. With Venezuela being one of the world's largest producers of crude, oil income was to be a significant element of Chávez' power, and he didn't shy away from nationalizing parts of the industry.
Chávez governed Venezuela as though it were his own private hacienda. Yet he nevertheless ensured that his rule was constantly legitimized at the ballot box. In total, he was able to survive four elections, an attempted coup d'etat and a nationwide referendum.
He wanted to ensure that when he left power, it would be on his own terms. When he sensed danger, he would slip into the role of guarantor for peace and order, as he did prior to his most recent election victory in October of 2012. He insisted to voters that, were he not elected, the country would descend into civil war. He ensured that the prophecy was no idle threat, delivering thousands of Kalashnikovs to his followers and strengthening the Bolivarian militias he created to patrol city slums. His justification, as so often, was the presumed threat of a US invasion; a guerrilla war would await them, Chávez claimed. In reality, however, the militias were little more than paramilitary squads designed to secure the president's hold over the country. They threatened both journalists and opposition activists.
Despite his illness and a growing opposition movement, Chávez managed to win the election last fall. But even then, it was clear that he was losing his grip. In recent years, Venezuela has been producing oil almost exclusively for export, yet had seen falling profits at home. Ultimately, Chávez had redirected such a large share of the revenues brought in by the state-owned oil company PDVSA into social programs and into his own campaign coffers that there was little left over for much-needed investment in the company's infrastructure. Oil production in the country has been sinking for years despite gigantic reserves.
Furthermore, there are acute shortages of some food items in the country, leading to rationing of the kind seen in Cuba, a country Chávez had always admired. Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, has become the most dangerous metropolis in Latin America with the highest murder rate on the continent.
His popularity had dwindled as a result. Whereas the country's middle-class had thrown its support behind Chávez in 1998 after he had cleaned up the corruption and greed of his predecessors, they had begun recently to turn their backs. Only the country's lower classes continued to support him. He had, after all, been the first Venezuelan president ever to pay them much attention, establishing generous social programs and creating 34 so-called "missions," aid and education programs funded with billions of dollars.
The missions ultimately became the backbone of his government; since 1999, Chávez has pumped fully €300 billion ($390 billion) into the system. According to state statistics, he was able to reduce the number of poverty-stricken citizens from half the population to less than a third during his rule.
That, surely, will become part of his historical legacy. As will his focus, following the neo-liberal 1990s, on the unjust dispersal of the country's riches and the exploitation of national resources by multinational companies.
He also infused leftists across Latin America with a new self-confidence, paving the way for Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador to win elections. Indeed, Chávez has long had an influence far beyond the borders of his own country. Since coming into office in February 1999, no Latin American leader has changed the continent's political landscape more than he has.
"Without Chávez, Latin America would not be the same as it is today," says the social scientist Heinz Dieterich, who was a confidant of the late president and one of the creators of "Socialism of the 21st Century," which Chávez sought to establish in his country and, if possible, to export elsewhere in Latin America. He suppliedboth Cuba and Nicaragua with cheap oil and generous economic aid; in both countries, the economy climbs and falls based on the amount of assistance they receive from Caracas. Haiti and many other small Caribbean countries likewise were recipients of Chávez's generosity.
He also looked further afield. With an almost messianic enthusiasm, he sought alliances with like-minded leaders elsewhere in the world and was happy to grant economic assistance in exchange for political friendship. The axis of this cooperation was ultimately formed by Belarus, Russia, Iran and China.
In his heyday, Chávez was omnipresent in his country. In his Sunday TV show "Aló Presidente" he would preach, parlay and polarize for up to eight hours live. He would assume the role of both entertainer and the nation's chief whip, espousing his liberation theology and his revolutionary rhetoric, waxing lyrical about the achievements of his government, giving history lessons or railing against the "empire" -- his term for the US. Chávez was a born showman, a marathon speaker -- Chávez was the narcissist of Caracas.
A Common Despot?
But it was hard to get a sense of the man behind this non-stop performance. His former professor at the military academy in Caracas once described Chávez as his cleverest student. His critics in Venezuela and abroad regarded him as either sick or as an egomaniac, a cold politician hungry for power who pursued a clear political program: to implement his Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and to carry it to the rest of Latin America.
There's no doubt that Chávez felt called upon to carry on the work of the great liberator Simon Bolívar, who from 1813 first beat the Spanish and then freed today's Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador from colonial rule. As Chávez saw it, the US and the opposition in his own country were modern colonial masters who had to be vanquished. In his deeply ideological claim to gain complete control of his country, he became the epitome of the charismatic ruler.
After meeting Chávez years ago, the writer Gabriel García Márquez said he didn't know if he had just spoken to a visionary capable of saving Latin America or a dreamer who would turn into a common Latin American despot.