Venezuelan Dictator Hugo Chavez Dies at 58


Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro announced Tuesday morning that the 14-year despotic reign of President Hugo Chavez had ended, as Chavez died in a military hospital in Venezuela after a two-year battle with cancer.

Chávez was democratically elected to power in 1998 as a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel from a working-class family, after having served two years in prison for a 1992 coup. His years in prison made him a popular figure, and he gained an immense following among Venezuela’s poor, promising to end corruption and divert resources from the country’s oil boom to programs to aid the poor, including improved education and health care. Crippling unemployment and poverty continued to seize the nation despite Chavez’s rhetoric, as he diverted much of the country’s wealth to help prop up other tyrannical regimes, most notably Fidel Castro’s Cuba, instead of investing in reforms to help combat his own country’s suffering people. To add insult to injury, the corruption that Chavez promised to stamp out continued to run rife throughout his presidency, as he received a constant barrage of criticisms for human rights abuses.

Always a deeply polarizing figure, Chavez systematically fired jabs at traditional spheres of power and influence, including the oil companies and the Catholic Church. But Chavez’s greatest wrath was saved for the United States, infamously calling President George W. Bush a “liar,” “coward,” “murderer” and “donkey.” In a 2006 speech before the UN General Assembly, he even called the U.S. president “the devil.” In 2005, he told a TV interviewer: “If I am assassinated, there is only one person responsible: the president of the United States.” In his statement on Tuesday, Venezuelan Vice President Maduro pointed an accusatory finger at the United States, claiming that Chavez had been poisoned and that two American officials were being expelled from the country for participating in a coup plot against the government – with absolutely no substantiation to back it up, I should add.

Despite Chavez’s reign of horror, he was immensely popular among members of the Hollywood elite – most notably Sean Penn. Some of his other fans included Kevin Spacey, Danny Glover, Oliver Stone, Harry Belafonte, Naomi Campbell, Don King, and Princeton University Professor Cornel West.

Chavez kept his long hold on power through a tight control of the media and through a series of populist elections and referenda, including one that allowed him to seek a limitless number of terms. He was granted another six-year term in hotly-contested October elections, despite his ailing health at the time.

Chavez’s successor will have to grapple with internal divisions and an opposition movement that will see an opportunity to take power after 14 years of Chavista rule, not to mention astronomical debt and a possibility of disastrous inflation. The country has a surging fiscal deficit and its economy is crippled by the sort of price and currency controls favored under state socialism. Inflation is soaring, the overvalued Venezuelan Bolivar is sliding on the black market, and the country’s total debt, now about $160 billion, has increased five-fold under Chavez’s direction. Truly, Venezuela has lost the one person who needed everything to revolve around him, leaving a power vacuum and an unpredictable succession crisis. One can only hope and pray that the Venezuelan people will finally receive a real champion for their needs, however unlikely that may be.

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