The quasi-deathwatch taking place in Venezuela as President Chavez battles cancer in a Cuban hospital is sadly reminiscent of the news we used to get from Communist countries and other dictatorships all the time. People of my age may remember the anxiety that developed as ailing or aging leaders disappeared from view, and the attempts to interpret inscrutable medical bulletins. Whether it was Franco (to throw in an example on the global right), Tito, Brezhnev, or someone else, the overall impression simply reinforced the grim fact that whoever got into power in such places ruled for life -- literally. Hugo Chavez is not a ruler-in-life formally, and has at least envisioned himself retiring around age 90, but he has clearly seen himself for some time as an indispensable man who has to hold power as long as he can -- while continuing to risk it in strongly contested elections -- on the assumption that he alone has the special gifts of leadership to carry out revolutionary change. He has designated a temporary president during his illness and/or recovery, but only when that man becomes the permanent president will we really know whether Chavez has been a truly constructive leader or if all his successes have depended entirely on his personality. Meanwhile, an apparently irrepressible opposition -- despite their constant cries of repression -- exacerbates the deathwatch atmosphere by questioning whether the government and the Cubans are telling the truth about the severity of Chavez's illnesses. The opposition certainly believes that the "Bolivarian Revolution" is a one-man show, and their fervent hope is that it will all evaporate once Chavez is dead.
Hugo Chavez is indisputably an egomaniac. That alone has never made him a tyrant, and it doesn't necessarily make him a bad leader by any standard. Liberal democracy may prefer more self-effacing leaders, but it's Chavez's own belief that strong personal leadership has often been a necessity in history. He may be a figure of the global Left but he espouses a "great man theory" of history more often abhorred by academic leftists, who prefer to see large social forces pushing interchangeable men toward inevitable action, though leftist governments all too often turn to great-man theories in their day-to-day propaganda. Liberals would feel more comfortable with someone like Chavez if his first priority was to get his nation to a point where it could do without him and wouldn't have to hold its collective breath every time he went to the hospital. The more time passes without that happening, the more liberals (and those to their right) suspect that someone like Chavez is just out to rule people for his own sake. The deeper truth may be more complicated. Chavez may well be -- we could even say probably is such a person -- though to date he has not gone nearly so far as recent history's other "indispensable" men to keep his country from dispensing with him. But we also shouldn't underestimate the extent to which personal charisma may be both effective and necessary for major political change in the short term. No form of government can institutionalize charisma -- though many ancient regimes tried by instituting ruler-worship -- but charisma (if not a personality cult) may be a precondition, often regrettable, if revolutions want a chance to institutionalize their reforms. If so, it becomes important to distinguish between two kinds of indispensability.
Too often, self-appointed vanguards have deemed themselves indispensable and committed atrocities on the consequent assumption that no one else should have power. A different kind of indispensability is possible, premised on the assumption that no one else can accomplish what's necessary, and combined with an obligation to ensure that others can as soon as possible. Looking at it another way, it's one thing to see injustice and dysfunction everywhere and say that something must be done about it, or somebody must do something, and another to see the same problems and say that I must do something. Nothing gets done without the latter happening, and if that means that the latter people are indispensable, bear in mind that ideally there's never just one indispensable man. If Chavez has acted under the assumption that he's the only indispensable man in Venezuela, his revolution will suffer the fate it would probably deserve. But fate may deal it a fatal blow simply by striking Chavez down before he had his reforms entirely in place, while he was still all too indispensable. It's simply impossible to set a timetable for such things that would be good for all places and all circumstances; to insist on such a timetable is simply dogmatic. There's no getting around the fact that no final judgment can be passed on Chavez or his revolution until well after he actually passes from the scene. That so much now seems to depend on whether he lives may reflect badly on him in some way, but history often isn't what it seems when it's still the present.