Latin America
2:45 am
Wed March 6, 2013

Did Chavez Impose Lasting Change On Latin American Politics?

Originally published on Wed March 6, 2013 9:18 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's review the legacy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He loomed larger than almost any other leader in Latin America. After failing to take over his oil-rich country in a coup, the former military officer won election to the presidency and kept it until his death yesterday.

The journalists who covered Chavez include Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker magazine. He's on the line from London. Welcome back to the program.

JON LEE ANDERSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: You reported just a few weeks ago on a single derelict building in Caracas, Venezuela that seemed to symbolize the way that Chavez had run his country. What was that building?

ANDERSON: It's a building called the Torre de David, the Tower of David. And it's a 44-story, once intended to be a financial tower - the Wall Street of Latin America - that was never finished. Beginning in the mid-2000s, in some cases empowered by Chavez's discourse of embracing the poor, and even calls to them to sort out their homeless problems themselves, they began invading empty buildings around the city. And this one, of course, is the most emblematic.

Today, you know, it was an unfinished office tower, so it has a concrete shell. But if you look up, you see satellite dishes poking out, cardboard and so on. And if you look at the sides, you see the unfinished redbrick of the slums of Caracas, except that they go up story after story after story.

I saw the Tower of David as an example of Chavez's revolution, of this erratic, enthusiastic embrace of ideas about how to alleviate the poor and inequality in society, but which for a variety of reasons - not least of them Chavez's own personality, his distractedness, and the lack of any real managerial expertise or follow-through in Venezuela - a kind of unfinished project, and one that leaves many questions for the future.

INSKEEP: So you understand why his rhetoric carried across Latin America. But you're saying the guy was not very well organized.

ANDERSON: Well, that's right. You know, he was an extraordinary figure. He had almost total recall of anything he'd written out. I always felt that he'd never managed to digest the information some. He came to his ideas sort of on the trot. And I think he found what he felt was a historic moment that he could operate in, and revive the failed dream of his 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, for whom he renamed the country, and unite the republics of Latin America through his own hand and revolution.

Increasingly, he saw himself as a socialist. A few years ago, I think it was 2008, I asked him why it was that he'd come so late to socialism. And he acknowledged that it was late. He said, yeah, I know. Everybody else gave up over a decade ago. But - and then he spoke about his love and reverence for Fidel Castro, whom he regarded as the father figure, openly, and that he'd also read Victor Hugo's book "Les Miserables." And that the combination of the two - Fidel and "Les Miserables" - had clicked, and that it had reinforced his conviction that what he had been striving for all this time was really socialism, and that that was what he wanted Venezuela's revolution to become.

INSKEEP: And we're going to be talking more about his ties with Cuba in a moment.

You mentioned that he renamed the country. It's the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela now. But let me ask, Jon Lee Anderson: When you look at this man's legacy and trying to build himself as a leader of Latin America, is his legacy more like his rhetoric, soaring an interesting? Or more like that building that you've covered, sort of a wreck?

ANDERSON: Well, at home in Venezuela, there's a bitterly polarized nation. He left the country in which the poor now have huge expectations and hopes that his revolution will continue. But Venezuela remains a very unequal society. And after 14 years, many Venezuelans, many poor Venezuelans, continue to live in some of the region's most violent slums. It's unclear that his successor team will be able to carry through the projects that he left undone.

However, there is a legacy there. He represented something that was boiling under the surface in Latin America. And we have seen, in the last decade, a number of other leaders, many of them molded and influence and initially subsidized by Chavez himself - Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador - who represent a new kind of leadership. You could call them authoritarian democracies. They're left-wing populists. They have an acerbic and an antagonistic policy, vis-a-vis the United States.

There's a new kind of Latin American political sovereignty emerging. There is no doubt that change has taken place, and we now have what everybody, I think, will probably regard as a Chavez legacy.

INSKEEP: Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, thanks very much.

ANDERSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.