Hugo Chávez’s folksy charm and forceful personality made him an extraordinary politician. His enviable ability to win a mass following allowed him to build a powerful political machine that kept him in office from February of 1999 until his death on Tuesday. But as a national leader, he was an abject failure who plunged Venezuela into a political and economic abyss.
Dead at 58, Hugo Chávez leaves behind a country in far worse condition than it was when he became president, its future clouded by rivals for succession in a constitutional crisis of his Bolivarian party’s making and an economy in chaos.
A former paratrooper, Mr. Chávez had a radical vision for “21st Century Socialism,” which was never fully explained. His skillful rhetoric, which filled supporters with utopian dreams, was used to justify the methodical destruction of Venezuela’s democratic institutions and the free market.
Shortly after coming to office, he rewrote the constitution to his liking and aggressively set out to rig elections and stifle adversaries in the legislative branch and the courts. Unable to brook criticism, he turned his fire on the independent news media, eventually silencing most voices of opposition by bully tactics and economic intimidation.
His Bolivarian regime rewarded supporters and punished opponents, giving rise to enormous corruption and the creation of a new class of greedy oligarchs with political connections. Unfortunately for Venezuela and for all his political skills, the president was both an incompetent executive and a worse economist.
In an energy-rich country that once knew no blackouts, electrical shortages are frequent, the result of Mr. Chávez’s plundering of the country’s public oil company. In a country that once enjoyed a thriving free market, prices are controlled and food items often scarce.
In recent weeks, while Mr. Chávez was hospitalized, Venezuela was once again forced to devalue its currency, this time by one-third. This was the inevitable outcome of a series of disastrous economic decisions that included nationalizing the telephone company and other utilities, which scared off foreign investors and spurred capital flight.
For Venezuelans, the worst aspect of the Chávez years was the soaring crime rate. Venezuela has become one of the most violent countries in the world, with nearly 20,000 murders recorded in 2011 and a homicide rate that some experts say is four times greater than in the last year before Mr. Chávez took power.
On the international front, Mr. Chávez eagerly accepted Fidel Castro as his mentor, providing Cuba with cut-rate oil and making common cause with Iran and other rogue regimes. His departure leaves the anti-American front leaderless on a hemispheric level and could eventually threaten the subsidy that Cuba relies on to keep its economy barely functioning.
As a result of all this, Venezuela today is a polarized society divided between the intolerant supporters of Mr. Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution and a democratic opposition that, against all odds, has waged a courageous fight for a democratic alternative.
The president’s death means a new election must be called soon. Under Hugo Chávez, the electoral machinery was stacked against the opposition and that will doubtless be the case again, but the United States and democracies throughout the hemisphere should insist on a fair and transparent electoral process to select the new president.
The Organization of American States, which was once seen as a defender of political and civil liberties in the hemisphere but has made itself largely irrelevant in recent years, could regain some of its stature by taking a prominent role in ensuring that the people of Venezuela can make the most of this opportunity to restore their democracy.
None of Mr. Chávez’s would-be successors, including Nicolás Maduro, his vice president and designated political heir, possesses the fallen leader’s forceful personality or political skill, though his popularity may extend beyond death to give the regime’s official candidate an edge in the next election.
But without discarding “Bolivarian” principles and restoring the country’s democratic institutions, no one will be able to stop the downward spiral of Venezuela that began the day Hugo Chávez was elected president.