March 6th, 2013
04:44 PM ET

Hero or villain? The many ways to see Chavez

Hugo Chavez was as colorful as he was polarizing. Celebrating his 10th year in power four years ago, he held a jewel-encrusted sword of his hero, 19th-century revolutionary Simon Bolivar, and reminded a Caracas crowd what he was about.

"There is no other path to redemption for the human being than socialism," the Venezuelan president said, flanked by like-minded Latin American leaders helping him mark his anniversary.

After his death on Tuesday, detractors and fans had plenty to say about his fiery character and leftist pursuits, and it's hard to remember they're talking about the same guy.

He wrecked Venezuela's economy and trounced on democratic institutions and people's liberties, some say. He improved the lives of the poor and rightly stood up against "imperialist" nations, say others.

One of the more interesting tributes came from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declared on his Farsi-language presidential website that Chavez was a great leader who will "resurrect" along with Jesus.

How many different ways can people look at Chavez? Here are a few:

Champion of the poor

Chavez, who led virtually uninterrupted from 1999 until his death, launched big poverty-reduction programs and paid for them with Venezuelan oil income. The programs worked on measurable levels, fans say.

Obit: Chavez an influential leader with mixed record

The percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line declined from a peak of 62% in 2003 to 29% in 2009, according to World Bank statistics. Between 2001 and 2007, illiteracy fell from 7% to 5%.

His programs brought food and housing to the poor. And because Chavez gave subsidized oil to Cuba, the island sent doctors to Venezuela to provide free health care to the needy.

Chavez's efforts impressed some Hollywood figures, including Oliver Stone, who followed Chavez for the 2009 political documentary "South of the Border."

"I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place," Stone posted to Twitter this week. "Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned."

Then there's the discounted heating oil that Chavez would supply to the poor in the U.S. Northeast through Venezuela's national oil company Citgo. Detractors say it was a cynical poke at the U.S. government, which he considered his imperialist enemy. But agencies helping the poor in the United States took the oil.

Economy destroyer

Critics say Chavez ended up hurting all Venezuelans by wrecking the economy. One way he did this, they say, was to nationalize some companies and interfere in others, thereby scaring off foreign investment.

Under his brand of socialism, dubbed Chavismo, oil specialists were fired and replaced by party loyalists, and foreign oil contracts were radically altered or canceled, making investment in Venezuela risky business for international firms.

"These factors have really led to shortages in basic staples. So, Venezuelans for example suffer from a lack of, in some cases, baby diapers, or flour, or corn meal ... so this is just an example of the distortions in the economy that have been a result of Chavismo," Kathryn Rooney Vera of Bulltick Capital told CNN.

Timeline: Chavez in charge

Chavez left Venezuela saddled with high inflation - 22.2% year-on-year in January, according to the Central Bank of Venezuela. Some analysts say the country's economy is in tatters, as it had to devalue its currency 30% to the U.S. dollar last month.

Enemy of human rights, democratic institutions

Critics contend Chavez became increasingly authoritarian, gradually turning formerly independent institutions - such as the judiciary, the electoral authorities and the military - into partisan loyalists.

In 2004 he created new seats in the country's Supreme Court and filled them with government supporters. He eventually was granted the ability to rule by decree for months at a time, and he pushed through a constitutional reform that allowed indefinite re-election.

Human Rights Watch this week issued a report slamming Chavez for undercutting "the ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other Venezuelans to exercise fundamental rights."

Foe of the media

Chavez increasingly used legislation to clamp down on broadcasters and other media. His government relentlessly went after opposition broadcaster Globovision, accusing it of violations ranging from failure to pay taxes to disregarding a media responsibility law.

The broadcaster is the last remaining TV network that carries an anti-Chavez line, since the president refused to renew the license of another opposition station, RCTV, allegedly over telecommunication regulation violations.

"The Chavez government ... expanded the number of government-run TV channels from one to six, while taking aggressive steps to reduce the availability of media outlets that engage in critical programming," the HRW report says.

Enemy of the United States, "imperialist" influences

Both critics and fans like to point out Chavez's prickly relationship with the U.S. government.

He stirred nationalistic sentiment and popularity by picking fights with the "imperialist" United States and its allies among the Venezuelan opposition, and used combative speeches to drive a wedge between the working class and the elite in his country.

Remember his devil speech at the 2006 U.N. General Assembly? In one of his most memorable insults, Chavez said of President George W. Bush: "The devil came here yesterday. Yesterday, the devil came here, right here, right here. And it smells of sulfur still today."

Watch: Chavez calls Bush the devil

U.S. filmmaker Michael Moore liked his style. By Twitter, Moore reminisced that he spoke with Chavez at a Venice film festival in 2009.

"We spoke for over an hour. He said he was happy 2 finally meet someone Bush hated more than him," Moore tweeted this week.

Last year, Chavez said the United States could be using cancer as a weapon against him.

"It's very difficult to explain, even with the law of probabilities, what has been happening to some of us in Latin America," he said in a speech to the military, according to a Bloomberg News report. "Would it be so strange that they've invented technology to spread cancer and we won't know about it for 50 years?"

Chavez the colorful

Chavez was also known for colorful, sometimes strange statements.

During a water shortage in Venezuela in 2009, he took to the airwaves to encourage Venezuelans to take showers that lasted only three minutes.

At a summit in November 2007, his repeated attempts to interrupt resulted in King Juan Carlos of Spain saying to him, "Why don't you shut up?"

In 2011, Chavez suggested that capitalism had killed off civilization on Mars.

"I have always said, have heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but perhaps capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived, and finished that planet," he said on state TV, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

It might have endeared him to some. But Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of the policy journal Americas Quarterly, suggests Chavez had a more cynical reason to say these things.

"President Chavez cleverly avoided international criticism and oversight by angrily asserting national sovereignty, stoking anti-American suspicions and at times behaving like a buffoon. All three worked particularly well," Sabatini wrote.

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Steven Harnack

    Quick to blame Chavez for shortages in Venezuala but shouldn't blame be shared by those who use their powers to punish those who don't cow to their demands? Like the wife beater's "see what you made me do to you?"?

    March 6, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • BOMBO

      What punishments? There were never any sanctions imposed on Venezuela. Any economic problems they have are strictly due to internal mismanagement.

      March 6, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Marie Louise

    Good riddance.

    March 6, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. johnny mustatd

    He was villanized by propaganda, that's all.

    March 6, 2013 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Portland tony

    There are 100s of politicians who were vilified during their lifetimes...yet praised as patriots and leaders of substance long after their deaths. We shall see!

    March 6, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "Right Wing Insanity"

    CNN...Always identifying themselves WITH THE LEFT.

    March 6, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • ..

      So? Go to Fox. They always identify WITH THE FAR EXTREMIST RIGHT.

      March 6, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Rascal Rabble

    ...he was colorfully polarizing...

    March 6, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Joey Isotta-Fraschini ©™

    It doesn't matter whether his name was Marx. Lenin, Chavez, or Castro.
    "The devil" is communism.

    March 7, 2013 at 8:10 am | Report abuse |
    • toonah

      No, it's not. It's greed.

      March 8, 2013 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Rose

    Who knows who chavez really was but all i know is that nothing good comes from these people. yeah he is dead alright but the person he left in charge is twice as worst so what good does he death brings?!?

    March 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • cat5fred

      nothing good comes from these people? have you seen the women???? oh, wait, you are a female. sorry, nevermind....

      March 13, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. pinniwinni

    No excuse for the crimes and atrocities he and his supporters subjected on a once very peaceful nation. His legacy is an embarrassment of how damaging poor leadership can be. Venezuela is lucky he dead, Cuba....not so lucky.

    March 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. diego

    he was like robbin hood. stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

    March 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ella

    Chavez stole from the somewhat rich and poor people to pay the greedy human beings that support him. The rest he kept for himself as you can clearly see from all the money that he had in swiss banks and the real estate that he had....

    March 14, 2013 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse |