Hugo Chavez, the controversial socialist President and "Comandante" of Venezuela, died yesterday after a months-long struggle with cancer. Ever the divisive figure, the current reaction to Chavez's death is as emotionally polarizing as the time he was elected President of Venezuela in 1999. Chavez was due to be sworn in to office for the fourth time in January 2013, commencing what would have been another six years of power, but hospitalization kept him from finishing those last bureaucratic strokes.
Upon hearing the news of Chavez's death, droves of people took to the streets. Many were desperately trying to reach their loved ones, sobbing and wailing on their way home. Those in opposition to Chavez's politics have mostly kept mum, aware the rowdy and dejected crowds could turn violent, as demonstrated in one village by a fire set to tents built by university student's demanding to know more about Chavez's health.
Chavez was born to a lower-middle class family of schoolteachers in a rural village. He grew up with an adoration for history, and valued the stories about the liberal federalist General Ezequiel Zamora, in whose army Hugo's great-great-grandfather served. Attending the Venezuela Academy of Military Sciences, Chavez's political philosophy was shaped by leading leftists. In Christina Marcano's biography, "Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President," Chavez later explained his impressionable early years: "With Torrijos, I became a Torrijist. With Velasco I became a Velasquist. And with Pinochet, I became an anti-Pinochetist."
In the '90s, Chavez went on to form an opposition party rooted in socialism, eventually becoming President in 1999 and tailoring his beliefs to the times, publicly proclaiming his adherence to "Socialism of the 21st Century." Chavez is a polarizing figure in part because his espousal of socialism dredges up American memories of an unsettling past, when Cold War ideology pitted the common man between the big C's of Capitalism and Communism. In his own country, he has undoubtedly served a world of good to millions of underprivileged and marginalized members of society, redistributing wealth and nationalizing key industries. At the time same, the extremism of his policies has put a wedge between swaths of people, striking uncertainty into the future of Venezuelan politics.
Vice President Nicolás Maduro reported the news of his death yesterday: "We received the hardest and most tragic information that we could transmit to our people." Harder still will be the road ahead, in a world sharply critical of socialist policies and in a country, shaken and unstable, that remains the fourth-largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States.
To learn more about Chavez's controversial place in global politics, morbidly-timed with his death is a new biography out tomorrow, "Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela," in which journalist Rory Caroll uses "interviews with ministers, aides, courtiers, and citizens" to construct an "intimate piece of reportage chronicl[ing] a unique experiment in power, which veers among enlightenment, tyranny, comedy, and farce."