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The Truth About Hugo Chávez

Linda Fawaz |
March 11, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. PDT


The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was followed by just as much media contempt as he received when he was alive and leading his country. The United States made it clear from the beginning of his presidency that he was a threat to U.S. interests, and mainstream media outlets followed with overstated rhetoric and outright falsities. Mark Weisbrot, a writer and researcher on Venezuela even said that it was “probably the most lied-about country in the world.”

Chávez's legacy will live on for those who have bothered to look beyond the headlines. (www_ukberri_net, Creative Commons)
Chávez's legacy will live on for those who have bothered to look beyond the headlines. (www_ukberri_net, Creative Commons)

Before Chávez’s election to the presidency in 1998, Venezuela’s GDP per capita had declined fourteen percent from 1980; however, this figure has steadily grown since Chávez gained greater control of the country’s oil revenues. Chávez offered an alternative to the neoliberal policies that had failed in Latin America, so that Venezuela now has the lowest Gini coefficient of inequality in the region. During his presidency, poverty was cut in half from 50 to 26.4 percent, extreme poverty reduced by 70 percent and healthcare made widely accessible through free clinics. Free tuition also helped to double college enrollment.

Since his passing, a battle over Chávez’s legacy has occurred in the foreign press, where he was not an unknown character. So let’s examine that legacy.

Millions of Venezuelans benefitted from the social spending targeted toward the country’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities, and yet a bizarre AP report criticizes these gains as “meager compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world's tallest building in Dubai.”

Oil was nationalized in Venezuela in 1976. However Chávez took steps to further government control of the oil and gas industries and nationalize profits, which were then invested in social programs. The government also took control of major agricultural projects, certain ailing banks, manufacturing plants and communications. Venezuela has either purchased, through fair deals, a controlling majority of shares in companies within these sectors or taken them over outright.

Socialism is often criticized, however I cannot help thinking about the process in reverse, when economic restructure forces developing countries to privatize state-run industries in deals that are usually better for the buyer than for taxpayers and yet are applauded by international financial institutions. In fact, most of the criticism of the Chávez government comes from the foreigners who would own these large companies—Americans and Europeans.

Chávez’s critics typically refer to him as a dictator, tyrant and “Venezuelan strongman” or a similarly noble title. Some refer to the lack of press freedom in Venezuela, which can only be described as a myth. The New York Times, in examining Chávez’s reelection in 2012, observed that the main opposition to Chávez controls most of the country’s wealth, income and media. This is the same opposition that orchestrated a coup attempt in 2002 with at least the knowledge and blessing of the U.S. government and at worst the direct assistance of the CIA—the same type of intervention to depose a democratically elected populist leader that still strains U.S. relations with Iran. The U.S. has been particularly active in this type of political intervention in Latin America.

What can be more undemocratic than a coup? It remains fact that Chávez was elected in 1998 and subsequently reelected three times by incontestable margins, with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter calling the election process “the best in the world.”

Democratic participation has expanded under Chávez. Through efforts to expand education and literacy, many more Venezuelans have gained access to the political process. Voter registration in Venezuela is at 97 percent of eligible voters and turnout is much higher than it is in the U.S. Chávez’s cabinet meetings were frequently held on the state-run television channel, which also broadcasted the weekly “Aló, Presidente,” where citizens could call in to get their questions answered and draw attention to any problems they were facing.

It appears, as Weisbrot suggests, that democracy in Venezuela may have been judged not by actual indicators, but whether the government did what the U.S. State Department wanted it to do.

Chávez further supported popular representation by confronting ethnic, racial and class hierarchies in his country. His election alone served this purpose as he himself was born to a poor family of mixed European, Indian and Afro-Venezuelan races. In fact, this may be a reason why some of Venezuelan elites vehemently opposed his rule. They claimed that he was trying to establish a Cuban-style Communist state, despite evidence to the contrary.

Chávez’s populist sentiment and anti-imperialist stance drew international attention and united Latin America against the U.S. hegemony and neoliberal policy that brought economic ruin to the region. In Venezuela, the debate is similar to that in the United States: the minority elite class works hard while the lower classes do not contribute but rather rely on government handouts and wait for the dictator (Obama or Chávez) to turn the country communist. This is a gross misrepresentation of reality and has greatly divided both countries.

It was right for Chávez to target social inequality and political exclusion. His actions represented the desires of the majority, as democratic representation should, and the country made great progress. Chávez rebranded and exported the Bolivarian Revolution to other Latin American countries facing the same challenges and they began to follow his example, beginning a left-wing movement on a continent with a growing economic and political influence in the world.

Chávez’s legacy will live on for those who have bothered to look beyond the headlines. Weisbrot has also said that most voters believe the progress made in healthcare and education outweighs the government’s failures in areas like law enforcement and infrastructure. But weighing the failures with progress is not the best Latin America can do.

The success of Chavez’s movement will be judged by whether his supporters can use his foundation to lead the country and region along the same upward trajectory, while amending the legitimate shortfalls and building a national consensus around the democratic principles of freedom, equality and the rule of law.

¡Viva La Revolución!


Reach Contributor Linda Fawaz here.



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