Hugo Chavez will have a foothold in world history

Hugo ChavezHugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, who died this week, deserves study as an example of an visionary revolutionary leader whose influence impacted on global events over several decades.

His life story is the stuff of legends. The disentanglement of myth from reality is difficult. Inevitably there is the view of his supporters who find it easy to support the great leader narrative. Conversely, the view of his detractors provides the mirror image, that of a delusional tyrant who misapplied the oil revenues of his country through his foreign policy adventures.

A platform of understanding

There is a factual basis of events which forms a shared ‘platform of understanding’ or POU, regardless of which of the rival ‘maps’ you subscribe to. I have drawn the following synopsis from an obituary in the Guardian, selecting information which can be found in other sources.

Chavez was born in humble circumstances and had no obvious natural advantages by birth. What he achieved he did largely through his own efforts. If there were other factors it would be the natural resources and particularly its oil which give Venezuela considerable economic clout beyond its borders.

His parents were both teachers by profession, but a passion for baseball led young Hugo to enrol in the military academy at the age of 17. As a young officer, he became disillusioned with [corruption in] the armed forces and led a failed uprising against the military. The successor to President Pérez, Rafael Caldera, ordered the cases against them to be dropped. Chavez later stood for president with a promise to sweep aside the old order, rewrite the constitution and eliminate corruption. Riding a wave of disgust with politics, and strode to power. Later elections consolidated Chávez’s grip on power. There followed a period of unrest, a resignation, and a subsequent reinstatement.

During his 1998 presidential campaign, Chávez had insisted that he was “neither of the left nor the right”. But by 2006, he felt sufficiently secure to declare that socialism was the only way forward. Specifically, it was “21st-century socialism”. By 2011 Chavez was in poor health, and he stood and won re-election in absentia earlier this year [2013]

Internationally, he supported allies through his oil revenues and was particularly influential in Cuba. His political stance was increasingly distasteful to the United States. His presidency has been described as fostering a socialist pink tide sweeping Latin America including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Arguably Brazil, under Lula, a more cautious leader, internationally, supported Chavez in principle, without risking the roller-coaster ride in political fortunes.

What can be learned about leadership from studying Hugo Chavez?

I believe that students of leadership should study the accounts of influential leaders. However, my view comes with serious reservations. The stories tend to be either highly favourable or highly dismissive. In either case, what is missing (and what the student has to provide) is the lessons from the way the leader deals with the tough problems or dilemmas. Too often I read essays in which leaders appear to overcome all obstacles through natural brilliance.

21st century socialism

Chavez consistently faced difficulties including imprisonment and possible impeachment or worse. He was consistent in placing himself in a high moral position by appealing to a higher cause including ‘Bolivarization’ of his country, the emancipation of the oppressed, and (more recently) 21st century socialism. This implied a creative leadership stance of ‘Both And’ permitting him a retention of his Christian faith, while supporting other socialist and communist leaders who rejected it.

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