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Any Praise For Hugo Chavez?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, officials in a number of major cities around the country are looking to close public schools to save money, but some parents and activists say the cost of that move is higher than you might think. We'll talk with a reporter and an activist in her city in just a minute.

But, first, we look back on the life of Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, who died yesterday. He was charismatic, he was controversial. Many people here in the U.S. might know him best for comments he made at a now infamous United Nations address, calling then President George W. Bush a devil and a donkey.

But, apart from - or maybe because of - such theatrics, he was also a man who rose from poverty to become one of the most influential leaders in Latin American politics, using Venezuela's oil riches as his tool.

Here to talk more about Hugo Chavez is Daniel Hellinger. He's a professor of political science and international relations at Webster University. He's co-author of the book, "Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict." He's with us now from his office in St. Louis.

Professor Hellinger, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

DANIEL HELLINGER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So he came to power promising to make life better for Venezuela's poor. How did he do that and did he succeed?

HELLINGER: Well, I think he succeeded. We'll have to see whether or not he's institutionalized that success, but he definitely redirected a good portion of the nation's oil export wealth down towards the poor. There's little doubt that he launched major programs in housing. Probably health care is the signature program. Subsidized food in the poor areas of the country. So, in a lot of ways, I think he followed through on that promise.

MARTIN: I think, as I mentioned earlier, he was well-known in the U.S., but mainly for, I think, his comments about U.S. leaders. In an interview with Barbara Walters, though, in 2007, when asked if he had a message for the American people, this is what he had to say.


HUGO CHAVEZ: We, Venezuelan people, love you. We went - I went to meet your brothers. I love very much a great leader of you. Martin Luther King is my leader. You know, he said, I have a dream. His dream - Martin Luther King's dream - is your dream, is our dream, is my dream.

MARTIN: How do you interpret his comments? What do you think he was saying there?

HELLINGER: Well, first, you know, in terms of Chavez's earlier comments, two things about it. One is he was giving as good as he was getting, because the Bush Administration, and even Obama, for that matter, have never really shown much respect for Chavez, even without any inflammatory statements on his side. And the other thing is that Chavez has intentionally polarized politics in Venezuela, at times to his political advantage.

Having said that, I mean, Chavez saw himself as kind of on a mission. This is both good and bad in a lot of respects, but one important part of that mission was he saw himself as kind of a leader of social movements throughout the world, that even included the United States. He had his oil discount program, which everybody focuses on Cuba, but it also was targeted at poor communities - a number of poor communities - in the United States. So Chavez kind of saw himself or tried to kind of portray himself as somebody who could, at times, stand above the kind of international fray and offer himself as a leader for the dispossessed, in general.

MARTIN: I was curious about whether he even knew the U.S. particularly well. So, really, I have two questions here. How well did Hugo Chavez know the U.S., and, turning that around, what do you think is the least understood thing by Americans about Hugo Chavez?

HELLINGER: Well, I think he had some knowledge of the United States. I mean, it wasn't easy for him to get it, because, notoriously, when he was a candidate and he tried to visit the U.S., they wouldn't let him in the country. But, nonetheless, I would say that he had some knowledge of the United States. He was more familiar with what he - with the U.S. role in the world, certainly, and he viewed the United States as the hegemonic power in the world and he was determined to change that world. So that certainly was his - affected the way he looked at the United States.

In terms of what the American people don't understand, I don't think they understand - we don't understand very well - the way in which Chavez was not just a shaper of events in Latin America, but things are changing in the hemisphere, still are changing in the hemisphere. In a lot of ways, he was on the cutting edge of a kind of resurgence, not only of leftist parties and leaders in Latin America, but he was, sort of, on the cutting edge when he got elected in 1998 of kind of bringing the Latin American masses back into full membership in the economic circuits and the political circuits of their society.

He certainly didn't do that alone. We'll have to see whether it's lasting, but I think what a lot of Americans don't understand is not just Hugo Chavez, but how much Latin America's place in the world, place in the hemisphere, has changed over the last 20 years.

MARTIN: Can you tell us very briefly about his likely successor, who's going to be serving as interim president, until elections, such as they are?

HELLINGER: Yes. And - yeah. And I think he's very much likely to be president for another five and a half years after that, because I would expect Maduro to win. I mean, it's a 30 day campaign. Things could change. Maduro kind of came from the grassroots up. He's an interesting selection on Chavez's part, because he did not go from somebody who came from the same milieu that he came from. That is, he didn't pick somebody from the military.

His successor, Nicolas Maduro, is a self - mostly a self-educated man who was a union leader in the Caracas transport system. So now - he was also the foreign minister at a time and, you know, you kind of get conflicting reports. He's pragmatic or he's ideological. I think he's going to seem very ideological for the next 30 days before the election and it's only after that that we'll really begin to see whether he's going to leave his own imprint on the country.

MARTIN: All right. Well, let's check back then. Daniel Hellinger is professor of political science and international relations at Webster University. That's in St. Louis, Missouri. He also works with the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas and he was kind enough to join us on the line from his office there.

Thank you so much for joining us.

HELLINGER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.