The Legacy of Hugo Chavez

The death of Hugo Chavez requires an analysis of who this man was and how he altered the world. Chavez entered politics as a combination of a joke and failure, but, in the end, changed the face of the global political and economic system. He began his political career by exploiting the political instability in Venezuela of the early 1990s by attempting a military coup in 1992, which failed. Following his release from prison, Chavez established a socialist party. In 1998, he was elected as President, under the banner of a promise to fight corruption. He utilized his decorated army past and charisma to change the constitution of a political system in Venezuela that had championed democracy within highly anti-democratic surroundings. Prior to the presidency of Chavez, the political system was generally controlled by two parties, one with a Catholic orientation, and the other with a business orientation. The Jewish community of Caracas existed as equal members of society, free of anti-Semitic threats and fears. Venezuela had good relations with the United States and Israel, and enjoyed membership in OPEC. This all changed when Chavez came to power.

Upon his rise to power, Chavez was viewed as a strange, colorful, theatrical, and gruff character. He quickly made many enemies, and many did not take him seriously. But Chavez had very serious plans and studied the approach that Gamal Abdel Nasser invoked in his attempt to be a leading player in the international system. He discovered Nasser’s concept of the three rings of power that Nasser invoked as a means to achieve regional and global hegemony – first, leading the Arab world, then conquering the Muslim world, and finally, the entire grouping of non-aligned states. Nasser attempted to take over the Arab League, and as a first step created a unification between Egypt and Syria (which did not last long). Later, he attempted to unify all 57 Muslim nations under his leadership, as this appeared to Nasser to be the best path for global domination. From there, Nasser attempted to take control over the entire block of non-aligned states to counter Western hegemony.

Hugo Chavez was an avid student of Nasserism, although he knew, that as leader of a Catholic state, he would have to act differently. Thus, Chavez attempted to wield influence over the non-aligned states while developing relations with OPEC states, and influencing domestic public opinion towards a blatant anti-American and anti-Western bias.

Chavez studied Muhammed Hiekel’s writing, which greatly informed Nasserism.  Hiekel wrote on February 24, 1967 in El-Ahram:

“The approach of a direct attack on the United States is a grave error. We are not capable of such a battle, and we don’t have the means needed for such a battle….The United States is the greatest power of the new imperialism, if not its leader. The new imperialism is different from the old imperialism…its primary weapons are economic weapons, psychological warfare, the hatching of plots, planning murders, and utilizing secret activities. Thus, while the old imperialism (such as traditional British imperialism) could be “dealt with” directly, the neo-imperialism cannot be “dealt with” directly, but can only be injured here and there. Due to a lack of required conditions, global revolutionary forces cannot grab the ‘bull by its horns’….

I believe that under these conditions, we must adopt the approach of the Spanish matador, his bravery, talent, and agility. The matador does not attack the bull head-on, as the bull would surely overpower him. Instead, the matador, using agility and indirect attacks, plants his knives one by one in the bull’s back, until the bull collapses in a pool of blood.”

For Chavez, the image of the matador slowly injuring America accompanied him throughout his political career. He continually attempted to taunt the United States, often by insulting it brashly in the media. Chavez also advanced the goal of ending American hegemony by establishing close relations with Iran, exploiting OPEC membership for economic gains, and giving backing to Islamic radical organizations. Just as the matador acts, Chavez implemented a multi-faceted strategy to make the United States bleed, without letting on that Venezuela was an enemy to American interests.

At the center of Chavez’s plan, hatched in coordination with Iran, was raising oil prices to the extreme. Chavez understood that cooperation with Iran on this issue would not be enough to change the global hegemonic balance, and thus approached Russia as a key player in the changing global reality. When Chavez first visited Russia, the Russians were suspicious of his motives. However, when Chavez submitted his plan to alter the global balance by severely raising oil prices, Russia understood that it could return to a place of global prominence through an economic war that would benefit Russia and weaken the United States.

Even the Gulf States, America’s traditional allies in the Middle East, followed Chavez’s lead on this issue, as he convinced them that a weakened America could not take an active stand against increased oil prices, resulting in great economic benefits to gulf oil tycoons. Chavez convinced the Gulf States that the American need for gulf oil would ensure that America could not punish them for raising oil prices, as the Gulf States were their only sure oil reserve. As oil prices rose from $20 to $180 per barrel, the Gulf States became exceedingly wealthy and turned various cities into new futuristic and fantastic realities. Furthermore, these oil funds bankrolled a media revolution in which established satellite networks that have greatly impacted public opinion in the Arab world and across the world.

In addition, although the American financial crisis took place for a number of internal reasons, including a highly problematic real estate market, the Chavez-initiated rise in oil prices exacerbated the American financial crisis.

In order to maintain power, Chavez changed Venezuela’s constitution to ensure his re-election, utilizing Fidel Castro as his inspiration. Chavez enjoyed great prestige among the working classes across Latin America who viewed him as a type of hero fighting against Western colonialism. Indeed, to a large extent due to Chavez’s efforts, Latin America is no longer the “backyard” of the United States, but under the influence of other hegemonic powers. Russia and the Muslim world have become leading influences in Latin America. Muslim outposts, mosques, communities, and business centers have cropped up throughout Latin America, an area that was traditionally Catholic, causing far-reaching social changes across the continent. States have loosened their relations with the United States and have developed strategic alliances with Russia, Muslim states, and socialist states.

The makeup of the international area has changed significantly, in no small part, due to Chavez’s initiatives and the coalitions he formed. States that were not even regional powers are now vying from global dominance. Even Argentina has changed its approach to the Falkland dispute, following Chavez’s lead. Now that Chavez has passed away, other leaders will surely attempt to follow his path.

Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution was like no other. He cultivated new global trends and a new hunger for power among various leaders from disparate parts of the globe.

The crumbling of traditional Western powers has resulted in new and dangerous trends in global affairs. The world must take heed of this new reality. This reality includes the establishment of a satellite media network, Al Jazeera, that has spawned branches around the world in numerous languages, based in a country (Qatar) of less than 1 million residents – a sure symptom of global processes that have the fingerprints of one man – Hugo Chavez.

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center