Once he gained power in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez proved impossible to remove. Only death could do that, as it did this week from complications related to cancer.
Chavez didn't write a new story. He followed a script that has been copied by countless dictators, right down to the euphemisms that made bad things sound good and the name calling that set off smoke screens to hide the real impacts of his decisions.
He owed his political longevity in part to his success rewriting the nation's constitution to do away with term limits, in part to his ability to divide Venezuelans against each other by class and in part to his crackdown on critical voices in the media. He understood the power of media and propaganda. Chavez became a ubiquitous television star, broadcasting speeches that would last hours at a time and hosting a weekly Sunday show that would combine speeches with entertaining variety and jokes. He ruled through charisma and personality, and he was ruthless. He nationalized private businesses, controlled food distributions and made friends with the world's most murderous dictators, even as he stood at the United Nations and compared U.S. President George W. Bush to the devil.
But the only question of importance today is what Venezuela will do in his absence.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro will assume power for the time being, but the nation's constitution requires an election within 30 days. Chavez left a legacy of class divisions that did not die with him, and yet by all indications his programs did nothing to spread wealth or opportunity to the nation's poor. That sort of change comes only through the establishment of democratic institutions, independent courts and media, an inclusive democratic process and a vibrant private marketplace. Unfortunately, the passions his personality inflamed, as well as the nation's high inflation rate, may keep Venezuela from adopting those things democratically. Time will tell.
The United States cannot overtly influence Venezuela's next step. That would surely backfire. But the entire civilized world should hope Venezuela can become a politically stable nation that embraces liberty and ends its troubling ties to Iran, Syria, Cuba and other enemies of freedom. Chavez' tale was not unique. We hope Venezuela can keep it from playing out again.
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