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With the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Latin America—and the world—lost one of its most polarizing leaders. Responses from the international community have ranged from devastated to celebratory, while the barrage of political postmortems in the United States has tended toward ambivalence (see here and here).
This isn’t surprising. Chávez was a contradictory figure: a champion of the poor who globe-trotted in a $65 million Airbus; a folk hero who feted Hollywood royalty and retained one of Caracas’ top fashion designers; an irrepressible showman whose recent private life remained a mystery. If at times he seemed like a throwback to an earlier generation of caudillos (most notably Fidel Castro, with whom Chávez shared an intense bond), he was nonetheless a populist, genuinely and rapturously loved by Venezuela’s poor.
His political legacy is decidedly murky. While chavistas are quick to praise the regime’s accomplishments—free education, free health care, reduced poverty, massive food and agricultural subsidies, a 93 percent literacy rate—the reality of day-to-day life in Venezuela tells a more troubling story. Caracas claims one of the world’s highest murder rates and a steady drumbeat of kidnapping, carjacking, and home invasion. One of its most notorious landmarks, the unfinished 45-story Tower of David, is now home to 2,500 squatters, a monument to the bungled economy.
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