Video: Prof. Allen Wells on ‘Hugo Chávez: A Bundle of Contradictions’

Allen Wells, Bowdoin’s Roger Howell Jr. Professor of History, is spending his sabbatical year conducting research into Latin America’s crusade for democracy during the Cold War. Last summer, he spent time in Venezuela, getting a chance to witness some of the final weeks of Hugo Chávez’s regime. In this video, Wells discusses Chávez and his legacy, addressing the riddle of the man who led Venezuela for 14 years. Why did the leader inspire both intense loathing and veneration? What are the future prospects for his revolution? And can the United States and Venezuela forge stronger ties now that Chávez is dead?

Prof. Allen Wells on “Hugo Chávez: A Bundle of Contradictions” from Bowdoin College on Vimeo.

Photos courtesy of Allen Wells or licensed by Creative Commons


  1. Ely Delman '06 says:

    Professor Wells,

    I am appalled to hear that you call the elections under Chávez “squeaky clean.” All the following are true:
    – For a number of years, dead people voted for Chávez.
    – Votes were continuously bought when government officials gave voters washers, dryers, refrigerators, and TV satellite dishes. Since many of these people didn’t even have electricity, it is ironic the effect this bribery had.
    – Voting line busters were routinely used. Intimidating, and in many cases attacking, voters in opposition-heavy neighborhoods. These voting line busters were sanctioned by the state.
    – An increasing number of Cubans voted in elections for Chávez. Of course, this is illegal. But if they voted for Chávez, it was okay.
    – Chávez used his unlimited access of state funds to fund his own campaigns. Again, an illegal action.

    Yes, Chávez was “ruthless dictator”. He expropriated private businesses, stole private land, shut down opposition TV channels and radio stations. He installed Cuban leadership at the head of government and military posts, and used his stacked National Assembly, Supreme Court, and Voting Body to pass legislation and produce results that would otherwise never occur. He changed the country’s national flag, national shield, and even the country’s name. Why? To erase all history between Simón Bolivar and himself, and posit himself as the creator of a new national identity. (Yes, he did use the military to repress Venezuelans. That is an abusrd statement. The constitution called for military members to resign their posts when assuming presidency, yet he never did that. Even today, he is known as Commander Chávez, even though the highest positive he held was Lieutenant Colonel. The vast number of deaths and disappearances at the hands of the police and military are a direct result of him using them as an extention of himself to control his critics.)

    In addition, Chávez illegally contributed state funds and/or oil reserves to foreign elections (Argentina), to fund FARC, and to lend support to oppressive regimes worldwide (Cuba, Syria, and Iran.) Moises Naim in the Journal of Foreign Affairs (May/June 2012) analyzes Venezuela’s position as a narco-state. That is, a state controlled by drug cartels where law enforcement is virtually nonexistent, and whose aims are virtually indistinguishable from the cartel’s aims.

    If such a president had been leader of the United States, I’m sure he would be called a dictator, regardless of being “popularly elected.” Why aren’t these facts more well known? Three reasons:

    1), His destruction of the press in Venezuela results in only state-approved news. This is why Twitter has become the best Venezuelan news source.

    2), People like leaders who “stick it to the U.S.” Even the award winning 2003 documentary detailing the failed 2002 coup against Chávez is wrought with the most partisan, state-sanctioned falsehoods. For proof, here is a response by scholars, military personnel, and others who deconstructed the lies presented in that documentary:

    3), People see the millions on the streets that mourn for him and who adored him. Didn’t they see the same scene after Trujillo’s death? What about Franco and Kim Jong-Il?

    In other words, Chávez was the latest face in the cult of personality. A dictator who ruled by oppression for 14 years. So what to make of the people that love him? In most cases, people that love him are the ones who feel supported by him, regardless of results. In addition, there are the vast number of corrupt bureacrats who benefit from his presidencies, regardless of his actions. And finally, we have seen throughout history how state propaganda can create a narrative that can fulfill everything the regime fails to do. For latest proof, his body will be embalmed and put on permanent display, so that the martyr can be among his people forever.

    Millions of Venezuelans both at home and abroad, me included, are glad that he is gone. I only hope that Venezuela becomes a true democracy again, with a bright and hopeful future, away from divisive rhetoric and widespread oppression.

    I apologize for the lengthy diatribe. All my family in Venezuela has been suffering greatly for almost a decade and a half. As for me, I miss my country and I am heartbroken to see what he has done to it.

    Ely Delman ’06

  2. Susan Roter says:

    I agree with you Ely Delman. I lived there for 13 years before Chavez. I am heartbroken at the evolvement of Venezuela. I cannot imagine what they are going through now with the state it is in. While I lived there, I never saw anything even close the the crime, devastation or poverty it is in now. I have always felt that my heart was left in Venezuela, always will. But it is such a different atmosphere and environment now.

  3. Neville Austin says:

    I write from the UK where Chavismo attracts greater interest and respect, and has much more support than is often acknowledged even in some of our own Media here. Prof Wells’ analysis is one of the more insightful and balanced that I have come across, and displays a strand in US thinking that, to be honest, comes as something of a surprise to a European. There are four things more that I wish Prof Wells had added to his talk. Chavez’ role and influence in the current development of a more coherent pan South American identity and institutional independence is one and another the astonishing level of street violence in Venezuela itself. Perhaps also worth mentioning more is the continuing racial/ethnic differences between the more indigenous Chavismo supporters and the opposition who are significantly more European in origin and ‘western’ in cultural outlook. Finally the complicated issue of corruption which well predates Chavez and is as much about favouritism and mutual obligations at a personal level as about the exercise of illegitimate organised influence, whether institutional or criminal. But these are all matters that will be analysed for years to come. As will the, to me, extraordinary and almost incomprehensible level of absurd myth making illustrated by Sr(a). Delman. Best wishes.

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