One is out today, from Time’s Tim Padgett. Here’s
Chávez called himself a “21st-century socialist.” In reality he was a throwback to the dogmatic and authoritarian 20th-century socialism of Castro, Cuba’s former dictator—and, in fact, to the 19th-century caudillo tradition of Chávez’s demigod, South American independence hero Simón Bolívar. Chávez hoped that being democratically elected would obscure the fact that he didn’t govern all that democratically. It didn’t. So it’s tempting to dismiss him as an anachronism, a vulgar populist famous for gratuitous yanqui-bashing—for calling then U.S. President George W. Bush a malodorous “devil” at the U.N. in 2006—an erratic and messianic retro-revolutionary whose country’s vast petro-wealth let him indulge his Marxist nostalgia.
Chávez was all of those things. But if he was a leader behind his times, he still managed to influence them. Voters don’t make a radical like Chávez their head of state unless they’re mad as hell, and his stunning ascent in fact altered the western hemisphere’s conversation when it needed to be altered. When Chávez was first elected in 1998, post-Cold War Latin America was awash in free-market reforms. Those changes were necessary, but their implementation was criminally negligent, and the region’s already epic inequality simply widened. Chávez’s bellicose neo-statism was hardly the antidote, but his Bolivarian Revolution, which steered Venezuela’s oil riches to the barrios for a change, was a wake-up call. It re-opened the door for the Latin American left—and, fortunately, more moderates than Marxists walked through it, including former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose capitalist-socialist “third way” has since helped narrow the region’s wealth gap and brought countries like Chile to the brink of development.
The other was written four years ago, by Enrique Krauze in the New Republic, which technically isn’t an obituary, but goes deeper than anything else out there. A sampling of that:
To what political tradition does Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian delirium belong? According to his own version, his destiny was revealed to him around 1977, when he read a book. It was, of all books, The Role of the Individual in History by Georgi Plekhanov. He has more than once told the story of his great moment of inspiration, his epiphany before the text: “I read Plekhanov a long time ago, when I belonged to an anti-guerrilla unit in the mountains … and it made a deep impression on me. I remember that it was a wonderful starry night in the mountains and I read it in my tent by the light of a flashlight.” Again and again he turned to it “in search of ideas [about] the role of the individual in historical processes.” He still has in his possession the “little book that survived storms and the years; the same little book with the same little underlinings a person makes, and the same little arrows and the same cover I used as camouflage so that my superiors wouldn’t say ‘what are you doing reading that?’ I read it all over the place, in secret, with a flashlight at night.”