In Thursdays lecture "Hugo Chavez, Venezuela and U.S. Relations," Hillman chronicled Venezuelan history and described the events that led to the Chavez presidency. According to Hillman, the history of Venezuela is marked by both authoritarian and democratic rule.
After a series of dictatorships throughout its earlier history, Venezuela embarked on a sustained period of semi-democratic government in 1958. However, extensive government control by two dominant political parties led to public disenchantment, and, in 1993, Chavez led a military coup in order to dismantle the system. Chavez spent two years in prison for his actions, but upon release, stepped in to fill the political vacuum left by the government collapse.
As Hillman explained, Chavez is despised by some Venezuelans and embraced by others. Those who would like to see Chavez out of power tend to be members of the business elite who fear the prospect of wealth redistribution. In the past, Chavez has used violent force to achieve his political ends. He is also known for making controversial remarks regarding the U.S. government, most recently criticizing President Bush on Iraq at a United Nations summit on Sept. 15.
Chavez's opposition in Venezuela organized a referendum in 2004 to determine whether Chavez would continue his term. According to Hillman, Chavez received the support of about 50 percent of the voters, which is "as good a vote as you get in Latin America."
Hillman stressed Chavez's popularity as "a man of the people." Voters supported him because he was someone who "looked like them, who talked like them." Hillman credited Chavez with re-igniting "the passion of Venezuelan nationalism and independence."
On Friday, Hillman presented another lecture, "Post Revolutionary Cuba and Other Caribbean States."
Professor of Spanish Leon Narvaez said, "I think his [Hillmans] assessment of Cuban politics is correct."
While many Cubans may not agree with their countrys political system, they support Castro, a figure who has dominated Cuban government for decades.
"It makes sense that he would have a certain level of popularity in Cuba," Narvaez said.
Narvaez also noted Hillmans explanation of how the deep-seated hostility that Cuban-Americans feel toward Castro continues to affect relations between Cuba and the United States.
During his lectures, Hillman connected his research with his personal experiences in these countries.
"I learned some really interesting things because of his on-site observations of these two contemporary cases," said Kristina Thalhammer, professor of political science and department chair.
Narvaez agreed. "It's one thing to live in a place and another thing to live in a place and think about what it means," he said. Hillman and others who specialize in these specific areas really are assets for the United States, Narvaez said.
As Narvaez observed, Hillmans specialization, particularly in regards to Venezuelan politics, contradicts the notion that the most accomplished researchers come from large universities. According to Narvaez, Hillman shows that professors from smaller institutions can "make a substantial contribution" to the world of academia.