Emory historian examines legacy of Hugo Chavez

March 8, 2013

The legacy of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is one of both popularity and division, says Emory historian Jeffrey Lesser. The socialist leader directed state resources to the poorest population, which had never been done before, while thumbing his nose at the country's elite, Lesser explains.  

"Chavez was an interesting personality and an extremely skilled politician," says Lesser, an expert on Latin America. "But he was too involved in suppressing opponents, had too much influence in Supreme Court decisions, and the entire population was not well-represented in his government."  

Chavez distributed loads of cash into the country's social programs, improving education and healthcare, but not much has changed in his 13 years as president.  

"The country is still very poor and the historical violence that has plagued the country continues," Lesser says.  

Oil production and Chavez's relationship with the U.S.

Though Chavez was a bombastic public figure with explosive rhetoric directed at the United States, he actually achieved a functional relationship with the U.S. in private, Lesser says.  

Venezuela has the second largest oil reserves on the planet and is the fourth largest exporter of oil to the United States, which is Venezuela's biggest oil buyer, says Emory Latin American history expert Thomas Rogers. But, this relationship had already started changing before Chavez's death.  

"Venezuela will continue to be a very important global supplier and key in the United States' energy matrix," he says. "But the U.S.'s reliance on Venezuelan oil could decline and indeed it has imported less from Venezuela over the last couple of years."  

The future of Venezuela 

Before his death, Chavez selected his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his preferred successor, and he should be a strong contender in the election within the next month, Rogers says. The question now is how long Chavez's influence will last.  

"The election represents a fascinating test of the enduring power of Chavez's political movement," Rogers explains. "Chavez as a candidate or Chavez's ideas survived 14 elections since 1998, usually with large victories. Now we will see whether people will vote for his legacy in equal numbers."  

Lesser believes there is a chance that either winner, Maduro or the opposition, may be more pro-U.S. than Chavez, but there is no guarantee much will change in the years ahead.