A Profile In Caricature: Hugo Chávez’s Too-Little Touted Success
*Written shortly after Chavez's death in 2013.
Many things will be, and have been, spoken regarding deceased Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez by the Western media — most of which will not be good.
We will and have been told that he was a repressive thug who denied his people real democracy; we will and have been told that he was an arrogant dictator who shoved socialism down the throats of Venezuelan citizens and we will and have been told that he, along with Cuba and China, formed some sort of 21st century communist axis of evil.
These caricatures of Chávez that dogged him during life are nothing new and are unlikely to stop now that he is dead. Nevertheless, do the characterizations mentioned really define and capture the reality of Chávez and Venezuela? Not hardly.
The story of a president and a country
Let us recall where Venezuela was in 1998. It had no real presence internationally and Chávez had this oil-producing country that had 60 percent of the people living in poverty. Today, that has dramatically changed. Poverty has been reduced significantly within Venezuela, and there appears to be a new sense of real empowerment, not only within Venezuela but within Latin America as a whole. This is a tremendous part of the Chavismo legacy — his strong advocacy of South-South relationships.
In many ways, if you look at how Chávez’s life tracks with the history of Latin America, it’s quite compelling. He was born a few days after the 1954 coup (a coup that took place in a matter of days) in Guatemala that drove Jacobo Árbenz from power. And that coup, in many ways, culminated the subordination of Latin America to the United States in the Cold War — the aftermath of which saw the rise and extension of U.S.-backed militarism throughout the region.
He came of age under a political regime that resembled, very much, the United States, in that it was comprised of two ideologically indistinguishable parties trading power back and forth between 1958, up and through the 1990s. In 1992, Chávez led an attempted overthrow of a murderous and corrupt president at the time, a rebellion most Venezuelans supported during this period, which failed.
The then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez, in the preceding two-and-a-half years, had ordered the state security forces to massacre the people of Venezuela when they protested his implementation of neoliberal reforms in the country (privatization). More than 3,000 Venezuelans were killed and mass grave sites dug.
This is when Chávez came on the scene — he took responsibility for it publicly and actually went to prison — and amazingly six short years after the attempted ouster of Pérez, Chávez went from prisoner to president.
When he came to power in 1998 (he was elected — that fact seems to escape some), he did so in a region that was, by and large, governed by neoliberals or at the very least, allies of the established Western neoliberalism. And he was the first person that began to challenge that in power.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in Brazil, was elected in 2002; Néstor Kirchner in 2002; Evo Morales a few years later; Rafael Correa in Ecuador. It was, in many ways, Chávez that led this unprecedented social and political movement in Latin America.
Chávez’s Venezuela through the eyes of Venezuelans
Much is made by uber-capitalists about how socialism or government programs don’t work, so it’s not difficult to understand why Chávez was hated by neo-liberal devotees across the globe — his programs actually worked. His success is now a matter of public record: Poverty was cut in half during his presidency, and extreme poverty by two-thirds.
One very important (and very under-reported) aspect of his governance was the introduction of communal councils in Venezuela.
In April 2006, the Venezuelan government passed The Law of Communal Councils (consejos comunales), empowering local citizens to form neighborhood-based elected councils that initiate and oversee local policies and projects toward community development.
Communal councils convene and coordinate existing community organizations as well as promote the creation of new work committees, cooperatives and projects as needed in defense of collective interests and the integral development of the community.
More than 30,000 communal councils were introduced, which are, in essence, direct participatory — direct democratic structures throughout the country where people work on neighborhood improvement projects. In a very real way, Venezuelans have taken ownership of their own communities. This is hardly the top-down-dictatorial-narrative broad brush that this nation’s politics has been erroneously painted with.
No, in a very real sense, this was every bit as much as an experiment in 21st century political socialism as it was economic.
Ironically, as this nation struggles with its promise of a guaranteed vote for its most vulnerable citizens, voting centers and polling stations throughout Venezuela have been distributed to poor neighborhoods where people used to have to wait a whole day in order to vote — that time has now been reduced considerably.
As a matter of fact, in its presidential election of 2012, the participation rate was 80 percent. And what was the U.S. rate? A paltry, by comparison, 57.5 percent — even lower than the elections of 2004 and 2008. Former President Jimmy Carter even remarked that Venezuela’s election process was “the best in the world.”
According to Latinobarómetro, a poll that surveys the people of Latin America, Venezuelans believed that their democracy was more democratic than it had ever been, and in comparison to what other people say of other countries in Latin America. Venezuelans are more likely than citizens of other Latin American countries to describe their government as “totally democratic.” On a scale of 1 to 10, the average Venezuelan gave her democracy a 7.6. The regional average was a ranking of 5.5.
Venezuelans also have the second-highest satisfaction level with the way their own democracy functions.
Even after Chávez was elected in October of 2012, and was subsequently diagnosed again with cancer, he was unable to participate in elections that followed for governors regionally. Although he didn’t appear in one campaign event, his party won in 20 out of 23 states across the country.
The Latin American smooth cooperator
When Chávez became president in 1998, oil prices were less than $7 a barrel. As a consequence, he had to reconstruct a vision of Venezuela that included oil as a catalyst for change. Chávez not only believed that was true for Venezuela, but also for the region — oil being the country’s most important commodity. Reclamation of the oil industry was not a small matter, because for much of Venezuela’s history it operated as an international conglomerate that was in Venezuela but was not of Venezuela.
The Chávez government used oil not only to bolster relations with the United States, but to strengthen relations with Latin America in a crucial way. They provided oil and long-term credits to countries like Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and other countries in the region — Jamaica and Cuba as well. Although the U.S. and other Western countries were his biggest trade partners, the benevolent gestures toward his Latin American neighbors raised the stature of Venezuela throughout the region and started an economic sovereignty/interdependence chain reaction across the region.
Bolivia nationalized its gas industry. Ecuador rejoined OPEC and we saw the creation of Petrocaribe, a Caribbean initiative that provided oil at short-term/long-term credit rates to the Caribbean. Heating oil was provided to communities in the United States through CITGO, alleviating Northeastern communities of the burden of paying high prices for oil, by allowing them to purchase it at a subsidized rate.
This, indeed, is an inerasable headline in the history of Chávez’s life, but that will not stop his critics from attempting to blot it out.
Activist and writer Keane Bhatt described Chávez’s accomplishments in addressing poverty this way: “The paradigm that has emerged during Chávez’s presidency is threatening to the dominant political discourse in the United States for two related reasons. First, it demonstrates that poverty and inequality, far from being implacable economic phenomena, are primarily political issues, and can be successfully tackled through aggressive public policy.
Second, a governmental commitment to improving the general public’s living standards engenders a new kind of politics, distinct from the consensus that prevails under a decades-old regime of ever-increasing economic polarization.”
There are many in America who believe that they were fighting against Chávez, when, in reality, they weren’t. They were fighting against the poor record of radical free-market theory and the economic consequences of uber-capitalism. And the deceased Venezuelan president with each successful reform, reminded the West of this very thing. Of course he had to be hated; he had to be feared. The one-percenters and Social Darwinists of this nation have lost the socialism-capitalism argument with the next generation.
According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 49 percent of people from ages 18 to 29 view socialism in a favorable light, compared with 43 percent who view it unfavorably. What’s more, they like the sound of “socialism” slightly better than capitalism — 46 percent have positive views of capitalism and 47 percent have negative views.
This is dramatically different from the country’s overall population: 60 percent say they have a negative view of socialism, versus just 31 percent who say they have a positive view. Young people are the only age group whose support for socialism outweighs that of capitalism.
To be sure, Hugo could be verbose and combative, but it came from understanding that after decades of foreign control over the affairs of Latin American nations, he had to talk loud and long enough to be heard. And it wasn’t just that he wanted to be heard, although this writer is sure that’s a part of it, he knew he had to be the voice of the voiceless poor and disenfranchised of Venezuela and Latin America.
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