Hugo Chavez Frias will be placed in the historical pantheon of the Latin American left, along with Che Guevara, Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro. He was without question a transformative and polarising figure the like of whom comes along only once in a generation.

What will be his legacy? Chavez deserves to be remembered as the first Venezuelan president in decades to use his country's oil wealth for the benefit of the urban and rural poor. It is because of the misiones - the subsidised food markets, the land titles, the health clinics, the new schools and the literacy programmes - that Chavez was elected four times president with the votes of the poor majority. These were the people who had been failed by the old AD/COPEI partidocracia, which was so utterly discredited by decades of endemic corruption and by failed neoliberal adjustment strategies in the 1990s.

Chavez will also be remembered as a major regional player, who utilised his country's economic leverage to advance the dream of his hero Simon Bolivar of a more integrated Latin America. He created important strategic alliances with Brazil and Argentina and strengthened Mercosur. The financial support he gave to poorer Caribbean nations, not least Cuba, will not be forgotten.

The fact that the death of the Venezuelan president led the news on Britain's flagship Today programme speaks volumes about how this former army officer transformed his country's status, making it a significant global actor. He ranks alongside other developing world leaders like Castro and Nehru whose importance transcended the politics of their own countries and who became powerful voices on behalf of poor countries. The applause he received when he famously challenged George Bush in the most personal terms at the UN general assembly showed the support he attracted well beyond Latin America.

His geopolitical role is not without controversy. His choice of international alliances was morally dubious and sometimes downright distasteful - amongst them Saddam, Gaddafi and Ahmadinejad. Chavez came to exemplify a misguided strand of thinking on the international left which too often holds: that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

There are those - normally, though not exclusively, on the right - who believed Chavez to be a dictator. This shows a failure to engage with the facts. Chavez was a democrat, though not a liberal - and the two things are distinct. His form of democracy was based on winning elections and plebiscites, which he did all but once in a referendum on sweeping constitutional reforms (a popular rejection that he accepted without question). It was a majoritarian form of mass democracy with levels of direct participation that British politicians could only dream of.

But it was a 'winner takes all' system, in which checks and balances were weak or non-existent and in which the opposition minority was excluded from any real share of power. His monopoly of the state media has been condemned but needs to be set in context: almost all of the private media was relentlessly hostile to him. It's a funny sort of dictatorship in which the major TV stations broadcast daily attacks on the government.

Chavez can be criticised for an excessively personalist form of leadership. He built his project around his own charismatic authority and his direct personal connection with the public, unmediated by institutions. He did, on Fidel Castro's advice, unite the different strands of the Venezuelan left into a single socialist party. However chavismo will live on primarily as a movement not a political party. Rather like Peronism in Argentina, chavismo will outlive its founding father, and it looks set to become a major - perhaps the dominant - political force in the country for years if not decades to come.

European commentators tend to compare Chavez unfavourably with the more social democratic leaders of left administrations in Chile, Brazil and Uruguay: less polarising in their rhetoric, more respectful of liberal democratic norms, and more gradualist in their approach to social change. However, the social, economic and political conditions that gave rise to major social democratic parties in the south of the continent are very different to those in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador or Bolivia, where politics is more polarised, democratic institutions are more fragile, and the economic and social crises that have led to the emergence of major left-wing movements are much more acute. Chavismo was the form the popular left took in response to the economic and social crisis in which Venezuela found itself in the 1990s and quickly became the only feasible vehicle for achieving social justice for the country's poor. Hugo Chavez led, shaped and embodied that popular movement, and that is how most Venezuelans will remember him.