The following editorial appeared Wednesday in the Miami Herald:
Hugo Chavez's folksy charm and forceful personality made him an extraordinary politician. His enviable ability to win a mass following allowed him to build a powerful political machine that kept him in office from February of 1999 until his death on Tuesday. But as a national leader, he was an abject failure who plunged Venezuela into a political and economic abyss.
Dead at 58, Chavez leaves behind a country in far worse condition than it was when he became president, its future clouded by rivals for succession in a constitutional crisis of his Bolivarian Party's making and an economy in chaos.
Chavez had a radical vision for "21st-Century Socialism," which was never fully explained. His skillful rhetoric, which filled supporters with utopian dreams, was used to justify the methodical destruction of Venezuela's democratic institutions and the free market.
Soon after coming to office, he rewrote the constitution to his liking and aggressively set out to rig elections and stifle adversaries in the legislative branch and the courts. Unable to brook criticism, he turned his fire on the independent news media, eventually silencing most voices of opposition by bully tactics and economic intimidation.
His Bolivarian regime rewarded supporters and punished opponents, giving rise to enormous corruption and the creation of a new class of greedy oligarchs with political connections. Unfortunately for Venezuela and for all his political skills, the president was both an incompetent executive and a worse economist.
In an energy-rich country that once knew no blackouts, electrical shortages are frequent, the result of Chavez's plundering of the country's public oil company. In a country that once enjoyed a thriving free market, prices are controlled and food items are often scarce.
For Venezuelans, the worst aspect of the Chavez years was the soaring crime rate. Venezuela has become one of the most violent countries in the world, with nearly 20,000 murders recorded in 2011 and a homicide rate that some experts say is four times greater than in the last year before Chavez took power.
Chavez's death means a new election must be called soon. The United States and democracies throughout the hemisphere should insist on a fair and transparent electoral process to select the new president.
But without discarding "Bolivarian" principles and restoring the country's democratic institutions, no one will be able to stop the downward spiral of Venezuela that began the day Hugo Chavez was elected president.