Richard Gott: As Illness Ends Hugo Chávez’s Rule in Venezuela, What Will His Legacy Be?

Richard Gott is a writer and historian. He is the author of Cuba: A New History, published by Yale University Press.

An atmosphere of sadness and imminent tragedy has taken over the towns and cities of Venezuela as Hugo Chávez nears death. For so long portrayed in the west as a buffoon or a socialist firebrand, this immensely important political figure has suddenly begun to be treated with dignity and respect.

What is not yet understood is that Chávez, who is suffering from cancer, has been the most significant ruler in Latin America since Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in January 1959, more than half a century ago. Such extraordinary and charismatic people emerge rarely in history; they leave an imprint that lasts for decades.

I have long been a supporter of Chávez, writing and talking about him since he first emerged as a serious and revolutionary political contender in the middle of the 1990s. He embodied two vibrant traditions from Latin America in the 1960s: the memory of the left-wing guerrilla movements of that period, inspired by Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution (and, of course, by Castro) and the unusual experience of government by left-wing army officers, notably General Juan Velasco Alvarado in Peru and General Omar Torríjos in Panama. He also embraced the powerful current of left-wing nationalism in Latin America’s leftist parties, often repressed during the years of the cold war, but never far from the surface...

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