Q&A with George Ciccariello-Maher: The Death of Hugo Chávez

Tim Hyland
The Office of University Communications

March 7, 2013 —

Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher

Dr. George Ciccariello-Maher

Hugo Chávez, longtime president of Venezuela and one of the most polarizing figures in world politics, passed away on Monday after a long battle with cancer. In the wake of his passing, the reaction from Venezuela and elsewhere has been, fittingly, mixed. Some are mourning the passing of a man they saw as a revolutionary—a president who helped fight poverty and improve living conditions in the South American nation of nearly 30 million. Others believe Chávez was a tyrant who used his position to sidestep the democratic process and secure his place in power.

George Ciccariello-Maher, an assistant professor in Drexel’s Department of History & Politics and a leading expert on Venezuelan politics, spoke with DrexelNow after Chávez’s death to address the deceased leader’s legacy and what comes next for a country facing an uncertain future.

As an expert in Venezuelan politics, can you put into context for us just how huge an event this is for Venezuela? What will the general mood of the nation be?

Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chávez

The death of Chávez comes as a massive, although not entirely unexpected, blow to the ‘Bolivarian Revolution.’ For years, it has been clear that the political process needed to grapple with the question of what happens after Chávez, and now this debate has been forced. The mood of the large majority of Venezuelans at this moment is one of mourning, but not without a celebratory component, and Venezuelans are even demanding that Chávez be buried in the National Pantheon alongside Simón Bolívar and others.

What will Chávez's legacy be—both in Venezuela, and worldwide?

Chávez's domestic legacy is twofold. Firstly, there is the dramatic improvement of the standard of living for the majority of Venezuelans, and the poor in particular. Poverty has decreased massively, extreme poverty has been nearly eradicated, as has illiteracy, and free education through the university level, health care and subsidized supermarkets are now a part of daily life. According the Gini coefficient (developed by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini to measure inequalities in different nations), Venezuela is the most equal country in all Latin America. More important, however, is the political transformation that has taken place in Venezuela, in which the population has been empowered and mobilized to participate in political life, most directly through local communal councils.

Internationally, Chávez's legacy is one of regional integration, whereby Latin American nations band together in an attempt to weather jointly the ups and downs of global economic instability, and the concomitant creation of a multipolar world through alliances with China, Russia and the OPEC nations.

While many Venezuelans are mourning Chávez's passing, there are also some, including Venezuelan immigrants in the U.S., who are viewing this is a positive thing for Venezuela. What are their main complaints about Chávez?

Fed in part by media misinformation, and part by the very real interests of some wealthier Venezuelans and the U.S. government, many have come to understand Chávez as a merely unfortunate individual who has come to power, and who Venezuelans would be better off without. The reality, however, is that Chávez is a response to the needs of the majority of Venezuelans, their demands for democracy, and the failure of neoliberal reform. These pressing concerns will not simply dissipate now that Chávez is gone.

It has been widely speculated that Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's vice president, will now take control of Venezuela. Do you believe this is the case? If so, what might we expect from a Maduro regime?

Given the misinformation that exists in the press, language is important: Maduro will not "take control" of Venezuela unless elected by the people. Elections will be scheduled to take place within 30 days, and he will almost certainly win against a divided and unpopular opposition. Once in the presidency, Maduro will likely stay the course, attempting to keep both the Chavista right and Chavista left happy while building the basis for socialism from below.

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