Liberals were never going to be comfortable with someone like the late Hugo Chavez. They aren't really comfortable with revolutionaries in general, since revolutions are always acts of coercion to some extent. Social revolutions often offend liberals when they seem to take the form of ex post facto law. It seems unfair to some people when something that had been thought right, or at least legal, is abruptly declared wrong and illegal, especially when wealth gained by once-legal means are taken from formerly law-abiding people by revolutionary power. Whether the revolutionary appeals to a higher law to argue that past practices were always wrong or cites changing circumstances to claim that they're wrong now, it can't help striking some people as essentially arbitrary. It doesn't help when people presume that the revolutionary, of all people, has a special obsession with telling people what to do. Sure, the capitalist tells a bunch of people what to do, but he doesn't get to tell everybody what to do, and not even with his employees (so the idealists insist) does the capitalist get to enforce his will with lethal force. When a revolutionary is as in love with the sound of his own voice as Chavez obviously was, it only reinforces the impression that he has a lust to dictate, or at least a lust for attention unseemly in a constitutional politician. But the premises by which liberals disdain revolutionaries are not exempt from scrutiny. Their abhorrence of coercion may be deemed superficial, focused more on the obvious incidents of goons clubbing dissidents than the systemic coercions that subjugate multitudes of free-on-paper people worldwide. Their abhorrence of ex post facto law, at least with regard to property, may force them into an untenable defense of the status quo as the best of all possible worlds or, in Churchillian terms, the worst of all except for all the others. Liberals believe in reform, of course, but prefer that to be a matter of pure moral suasion and voluntary conversion. They can justify redistributing wealth by inferring wealth's consent to taxation enacted by duly elected, constitutionally constrained representatives, but they find it much harder to justify the revolutionary preference for confiscation or nationalization because the consent is obviously missing in some cases. The liberal ideal of government is always consensual and contractual, while the revolutionary often asserts more compelling imperatives and assumes obligations that override at least some of the consent requirements liberals demand. This may be because many revolutions assume the state to be the ultimate expression of the human will to survive both individually and collectively, an apparently hypocritical resort to mass murder in some cases notwithstanding, while some liberals, at least, share with their conservative cousins an assumption that the state was never meant for that. For many observers the state becomes dangerous when it assumes that responsibility, especially when it asserts both collective and individual obligations toward realizing its goals, the opposite ideal being the utopia of personal responsibility where everyone is autonomous and no one resorts to force or fraud. By now we're probably getting beyond Hugo Chavez's own agenda, but since liberals believe in the Slippery Slope above all, if you recognize Chavez in any of the above some people probably saw all of it and more, and demonized him accordingly.
In retrospect, Chavez had no business running for re-election last fall, depending on whether he realized his cancer was terminal or not. Looking further back, some will say Chavez had no business ever running for president given his past as a coup plotter, but it's probably to Venezuela's credit that its political system saw fit to integrate him into electoral politics rather than leave him a prowling outsider. You could still argue that people had no business voting for a man who'd been willing to topple his government through a coup -- and you could also refuse sympathy when President Chavez was in turn beset by an attempted coup. History can mix you up sometimes. It seems clear that for Chavez electoral politics was but one means toward his end of socialism or simply social justice, and not the exclusive means envisioned by classical liberals. In his elections he probably cheated as much as anyone running a political machine based on dispensing patronage to supporters, but in politics we should presume no party innocent, no matter what Venezuelan or American partisans, left or right, insist. He probably pushed dissidents around in petty ways, but that practice is more widespread than it seems when you focus only on the explicitly political realm. Like other "strongmen" disdained in the U.S., Chavez probably didn't share the American liberal bias toward giving dissent the benefit of the doubt, but I don't know whether he differed significantly from his predecessors in power in that respect. His record as a leader rather than as a politician seems mixed, the mix depending on the biases of the observer. He seemed to benefit, or the country to suffer, from the "resource curse" that allowed him to win loyalty by distributing petroleum profits Alaska-style while neglecting other urgent economic needs. Whether the Venezuelan economy as a whole is better off or not after a generation of brain drain and capital flight, you can still make a case that his handling of the oil money was the right thing to do for the people and the nation. Chavez and his heir tend to scapegoat imperialism for any shortcomings or misfortunes, but while the U.S. share of the blame may be exaggerated by Bolivarian propaganda it's unlikely that Clinton, Bush and Obama are absolutely blameless. Any honest appraisal of the Chavez Administration is going to more complex than the instant homages or anathemas pronounced this week, especially if you don't take for granted that certain responses to his policies were inevitable, much less correct. Chavez himself was a big believer in the importance of Great Leadership in history -- hence his idolization of Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, etc. -- but an objective assessment of the Bolivarian experiment must look past his personality, perhaps to a degree that argues that Bolivarismo's true test has only just arrived. Now that we're past the usefulness of speculating about Hugo Chavez's compulsions and eccentricities, we can ask with clearer minds whether any leader should be allowed by his people to do as he did; whether any people should be allowed to choose a course like his for their nation; whether any state should be allowed to take the form he intended for Venezuela. You can't judge Chavez without judging the essence of politics itself.