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Venezuelans Mourns Late President Hugo Chavez


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Venezuela is in a state of mourning for its late president, Hugo Chavez. The outsized leader died yesterday in the capital, Caracas, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 58. Hugo Chavez was both a polarizing and charismatic figure, and during his long rule he became an icon, beloved by Venezuela's poor and others in the region who admired his defiant stance toward the U.S.

NPR's Juan Forero has been covering Chavez for more than a decade and he joined us on the line to talk about him. Good morning.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, when Hugo Chavez first ran for president 14 years ago, he promised to take on political corruption and to make sure that all Venezuelans - especially the poor - benefited from the country's substantial oil wealth. Looking back, how did he do?

FORERO: Well, he's a guy who came in and he promised a revolution, basically, and in many ways you have to say that he delivered. He took over institutions, like the judiciary and the state oil company and he began to use them to overturn the old order and install what he called 21st century socialism. Now, sort of on a tangible level that meant taking over private farms, taking over companies, and for ordinary Venezuelans Chavez created all kinds of social programs. He called them missions. They were small programs in poor neighborhoods, teaching people how to read. There were markets for people where they could buy food at lower cost. And the government claimed that all of this reduced poverty.

But there's a dark side to this legacy too, because Venezuela today is a country where the president controls everything. I mean all the levers of power are in his hands, corruption is rampant, and the economy is dysfunctional right now. The state is the job's provider and private industry has been in a long decline. And what some critics say is that Chavez, what he was really doing was creating a system that was designed to ensure that he stayed in power.

MONTAGNE: Well, and during all of this time, Venezuela and the U.S. were and have been important trade partners, which I think might surprise a lot of Americans because what we hear about this relationship is the volatile and even dark side. The rhetoric coming mostly from President Chavez was quite something to listen to. Let's take a listen right now to his television show, "Hello, Mr. President," lambasting then-President George W. Bush.


PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: (Spanish Spoken) You are a donkey, Mr. Bush.

MONTAGNE: OK. Well, he also called Mr. Bush a devil at the U.N. once, said he smelled the sulfur from where he had stood. Pretty strong stuff.

FORERO: Yeah. Well, the antagonism goes way back. I mean there's a history to this. Chavez, from the beginning, when he took office in 1999, really from the beginning he sought to distant himself from the United States. And he criticized U.S. policy from the beginning, like the war in Afghanistan, the drug war in the Americas. And in 2002 he accused the Bush administration of being behind a coup that ousted him briefly. But Chavez also seemed to need an enemy. I mean that was part of his persona, part of his policy, part of his programs, and the United States just fit perfectly because of the U.S. policy in Latin America and because of U.S. in Latin America. So he claimed constantly that the U.S. could invade at any moment, that CIA agents were at work, and that the goal would be to one day take over Venezuela's oil. And he also called the opposition, you know, a rancid oligarchy that was working hand in hand with the Americans to end his rule and to take back people's social programs. And I think that that narrative was really very important and was really part of the Chavez PR machine.

Millions of people, of course, didn't believe Chavez, but arguably the majority of Venezuelans did. And we saw this strategy down to the last day of his life. Even yesterday, when he was dying, the vice president came out to say that Chavez's historic enemies - he meant the U.S. and Venezuelan elites - had somehow infected Chavez with cancer.

MONTAGNE: The vice president, of course, is in line to succeed him. And one of the big questions now is when Venezuela holds elections, within the next 30 days, is it likely into the future that his brand of Chavism will continue?

FORERO: Well, they call it in Venezuela Chavismo, and that's the big question: Is Chavismo going to live? And the vice president, Nicolas Maduro, I think he has the sympathy vote, he has momentum, and he also controls the purse strings, which Chavez also controlled, and that's what you need to win elections in Venezuela. The opposition also lately has been looking kind of weak. They lost a big election in December and they also lost the presidential elections in October. So if I were betting, I'd say that Maduro is probably going to win - which would mean six more years of what Chavez called a revolution.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Juan Forero, thanks very much.

FORERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Juan Forero