Was Hugo Chavez Really That Bad?

Sure he was a petty tyrant. But Hugo Chavez was pretty “meh” as far as dictators go.

As best I can tell, Hugo Chavez—the Venezuelan president who died of cancer on Tuesday—was an anti-democratic blowhard, a man who limited the freedom of expression for his opponents even as he gave meandering hours-long speeches on the public airwaves; somebody who trusted the ballot box only because he’d utterly failed to take power by force. He was possibly an anti-Semite and almost certainly a fool.

But this also seems true: Hugo Chavez was a minor villain, at best.

Which is confusing, because American conservatives have spent more than a decade howling about Chavez as though he was the second coming of Fidel Castro, somebody who posed a unique threat, both to his own people and to American interests in the Western Hemisphere. The Bush Administration probably backed a 2002 coup attempt against Chavez and publicly grumbled that he “doesn’t have the best interests of the United States at heart.” (And Chavez could indulge in anti-American rhetoric at times.) When President Obama shook Chavez’s hand at a summit meeting back in 2009, Republicans screamed bloody murder that the president had just betrayed American interests.

Americans, who probably don’t pay that much day-to-day attention to Latin America, could be forgiven if  today they believe of our country’s foremost enemies has passed from the scene. In truth, Chavez probably never deserved to be ranked–his impact on U.S. security ending up somewhere in the “meh” range.

Here are the outlines of what we know about Chavez.

• He originally was an Army officer who tried to take power through a coup in 1992. He failed. It showed, mostly, that his first instincts were never all that democratic.

Chavez actually won and kept power through elections. It’s true that he gave himself a home-field advantage in those contests by providing himself with greater access to the airwaves than his opponents, but it’s also true that he lost a 2007 referendum election that would’ve increased his powers while letting him avoid facing the voters. If he was a petty tyrant, he was pretty bad at it.

• Yes, he cozied up to Fidel Castro and provided support for regional left-wing military groups like FARC.

• The result of all that is that Chavez received middling reviews from good government groups like the Organization of American States. Freedom House gave Venezuela a “partly free” rating in 2011, noting both Chavez’s tendency to “nationalize” formerly private parts of the economy, as well as his abilty to crack down on his opponents’ access to the media while allowing himself unfettered access to the airwaves.

The overall review? I wouldn’t want Hugo Chavez running my country. He definitely abuse his power. But as far as tryrants go, well: Most of his opponents are alive. Few of them are in jail. Venezuela never did invade its neighbors. The main reason for Republican alarmism about Chavez, it seems, is that he was a socialist with a lot of access to oil. That is scary, but more in an abstract sense than in concrete terms.

And that’s a problem for America. We can’t afford to treat every petty dictator like a world-historical tyrant. Hugo Chavez was small fry elevated to near-Hitler status by today’s Republicans. Pkerspective helps, but it could never be found in America’s view of Venezuela.