There was a time when the world spoke of “Venezuelan Exceptionalism.” For nearly half a century—while Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay were military dictatorships, the Andean nations were trapped in a carousel of coups d’état, and violent civil insurgency seemed ubiquitous—Venezuela was South America’s only stable and functional democracy. Today that exceptionalism cuts the other way. As Latin America rises, Venezuela is a backwater, starkly divided on social and political grounds and wantonly violent: a world leader in kidnappings, murders, and prison riots. It is a country with a broken heart.
And now, with President Hugo Chávez dead from an unspecified cancer at just 58 years of age, things look bleaker than ever. There were times when I—long an unapologetic opponent of Chávez and his revolution—dreamed that an early death for El Comandante might save Venezuela. No such luck. In his short time in charge, Nicolás Maduro, the successor, has already proven himself to be as erratic as Chávez, a bit meaner, and far more insecure.
Yet I find myself traipsing into the backwoods of my own conviction. What if, in rejecting Chávez, I unwittingly placed myself on the wrong side of history? In the few days since the announcement of his death, I have found myself returning to this question often. Am I simply feeling compassion for a fellow person suffering and dying from terrible illness? Is it empathy for the millions who have responded to Chávez’s death with earnest sadness? Or perhaps, having so often spoken ill of the now dead, I have guilt on my conscience.
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