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Hugo Chavez, Hero or Villain? Look Beyond the Facts For the Real Story

08/03/2013 12:18 GMT | Updated 07/05/2013 10:12 BST

"He couldn't speak, but he said it with his lips ... 'I don't want to die. Please don't let me die', because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country," reports General Jose Ornella, the head of the Venezuelan presidential guard.

Hugo Chavez, the populist and controversial leader of Venezuela, died at 58-years-old on March 5 in Caracas after 14 years in power. Chavez had battled an unspecified cancer for four years. His death has been met with an outpouring of sorrow or relief, depending on who you listen to.

Was Chavez hero or villain?

On the one side you have Michael Moore and a host of others who lionise the late Venezuelan President. Film director Oliver Stone said this week he mourns "a great hero [who] will live forever in history". Actor Sean Penn says "poor people around the world lost a champion".

On the other side you have human rights groups like Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch that have condemned the press restrictions that were implemented under Hugo Chavez and have "deplored [his government's] open disregard for basic human rights guarantees". Add to this camp the million plus Venezuelans, mostly skilled workers 25-years-old and above who have fled the country the last decade and a half - that's pretty serious brain drain for a country of 29 million - and you have a pretty hefty debate on your hands.

So hero or villain, who's right about Chavez? Don't expect facts to help clarify the question. Few of us want to admit it, but it's feelings, not facts, that often define what we think about people and politics. That's because of the way we're wired.

There's a budding subfield in psychology called narrative psychology. We humans identify deeply with story telling. Narratives help us keep things straight, order our experiences, assist us with our search for meaning. Logical arguments have their limits. Researchers are interested in where these limits lie. We also like putting people on pedestals. There's a line in Bertolt Brecht's play, the Life of Galileo, where one character says, "Unhappy the land that has no heroes", to which Galileo replies: "no, unhappy the land that needs heroes". Galileo is wrong about most of us.

In the 2010 Oxford University Press book, Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them, Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals argue that "heroes" tend to have eight traits most people want to emulate (being smart, strong, selfless, caring, charismatic, resilient, reliable, and inspiring). As for these traits - and as for the cold facts - we can be awfully selective.

Consider one of Chavez's own heroes, Che Guevara. The famous revolutionary travelled the world to champion the poor and fight exploitation. He continues to have a large world-wide following (not least of which among those who produce posters, t-shirts and coffee mugs). Che may have been smart and strong, but he surely was not very selfless or caring, to go back to the Allison/Goethals' list. Che personally executed scores of people. He referred to himself as "blood thirsty", and revelled in the idea that he had become an "effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine". He "ended" a problem with one comrade, suspected of passing information, "with a .32 caliber pistol, in the right side of his brain. ... His belongings were now mine", he wrote. Hardly inspiring, I'd like to say.

But there are big themes around which great political stories are constructed. Former Clinton administration official Robert Reich has written about the importance of narratives in politics and identifies four key aspects of the compelling political narrative: 1) the triumphant individual; 2) the benevolent community banding together; 3) the mob at the gate that must be kept out; and 4) the rot at the top.

This is all Hugo Chavez, at least as his adoring fans would see him: the mighty underdog, galvanizing the masses, crusading for the poor, fighting the imperialists and exploitative capitalists, the "rot at the top". What the likes of General Ornella, Oliver Stone, and countless other admirers are really doing, consciously or not, is advancing a narrative that is now likely to evolve into a myth. Our hero to live forever in history, El Comandante Chavez. Soon set in stone.

Did Hugo Chavez actually protect human rights, advance prosperity and make a serious difference to the plight of the poor? Well, that's another story. Don't expect the facts to play heavily in this debate.