Hugo Chavez, 1956-2013

Mark Weisbrot, Chavez’s Legacy

Bertrand Russell once wrote about the American revolutionary Thomas Paine, “He had faults, like other men; but it was for his virtues that he was hated and successfully calumniated.”

This was certainly true of Hugo Chávez Frias, who was probably more demonized than any democratically elected president in world history. But he was repeatedly re-elected by wide margins, and will be mourned not only by Venezuelans, but also by many Latin Americans who appreciate what he did for the region. Chávez survived a military coup backed by Washington and oil strikes that crippled the economy. But once he got control of the oil industry, his government reduced poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. Millions of people also got access to health care for the first time, and access to education also increased sharply, with college enrollment doubling and free tuition for many. Eligibility for public pensions tripled.

He kept his campaign promise to share the country’s oil wealth with Venezuela’s majority and that will be part of his legacy. So, too, will be the second independence of Latin America, and especially South America, which is now more independent of the U.S. than Europe is. Of course, this would not have happened without Chávez’s close friends and allies: Lula in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and others.

But Chávez was the first of the democratically-elected left presidents in the past 15 years and he played a very important role; look to what these colleagues will say of him and you will find it to be much more important than most of the other obituaries, anti-obituaries, and commentaries.

For these other democratic leaders, Chávez is seen as part of this continent-wide revolt at the ballot box that transformed South America and increased opportunities and political participation for previously excluded majorities and minorities.

Continuity in Venezuela is most likely to follow Chávez’s death, since his political party has more than 7 million members and demonstrated its ability to win elections without him campaigning in the December local elections, where they picked up 5 state governorships to win 20 of 23 states.

Relations with the United States are unlikely to improve; the State Department and President Obama himself made a number of hostile statements during Chávez’s last months of illness, indicating that no matter what the next government (presumably, under Nicolas Maduro) does, there is not much interest on Washington’s part in improving relations.


Selma James and Nina Lopez, Hugo Chávez Knew That
His Revolution Depended On Women

The funeral of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela took place on International Women’s Day—a fitting day of departure for “the president of the poor” who was loved by millions, especially by women, the poorest.

When Chávez was elected in 1998, the grassroots movement took a leap in power, and women in particular were empowered. Women were the first into the streets against the 2002 U.S.-backed coup; their mobilization saved the revolution. When asked why, woman after woman said: “Chávez is us, he is our son.” He was an extension of who they were as strugglers for survival.

Chávez soon learned that the revolution he led depended on women, and said so: “Only women have the passion and the love to make the revolution.” He acknowledged that the “missions”—the new social services which were at the heart of his popularity and which the state funded but did not run—were mainly created and run by grassroots neighborhood women.

In 2006, when announcing the partial implementation of Article 88 of the new constitution recognizing caring work as productive—a breakthrough worldwide—Chávez said: “[Women] work so hard raising their children, ironing, washing, preparing food…giving [their children] an orientation…. This was never recognized as work yet it is such hard work!…. Now the revolution puts you first, you too are workers, you housewives, workers in the home.”

As the president of the poor is laid to rest, the historic Operation Condor trial opens in Argentina, tackling the coordinated campaign of state terror of former Latin American dictatorships. We must recall a little-known aspect of Chávez’s legacy. Venezuela’s oil revenue supported Argentina’s Presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, enabling them to pass laws removing the military’s immunity from prosecution. The Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who led the 1983 overthrow of the dictatorship, and who had campaigned for justice for the thousands the dictatorships raped, murdered, and disappeared, have long paid tribute to Chávez—a most unusual military man. They, like women all over South America and beyond, will be watching anxiously to see that the gains of the Bolivarian revolution are not undermined.


Pepe Escobar, El Comandante Has Left The Building

Now that would be some movie; the story of a man of the people who rises against all odds to become the political Elvis of Latin America. Bigger than Elvis, actually; a president who won 13 out of 14 national democratic elections. No chance you will ever see such a movie winning an Oscar—much less produced in Hollywood. Unless, of course, Oliver Stone convinces HBO about a cable/DVD special. How enlightening to watch world leaders’ reactions to the death of Venezuela’s El Comandante, Hugo Chávez. Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica—a man who actually shuns 90 percent of his salary because he insists he covers his basic necessities with much less—once again reminded everyone how he qualified Chávez as “the most generous leader I ever met,” while praising the “fortress of democracy” of which Chávez was a great builder.

Compare it with U.S. President Barack Obama—in what sounds like a dormant cut and paste by some White House intern—reaffirming U.S. support for “the Venezuelan people.” Would that be “the people” who have been electing and re-electing Chávez non-stop since the late 1990s? Or would that be “the people” who trade Martinis in Miami demonizing him as an evil communist. El Comandante may have left the building—his body defeated by cancer—but the post-mortem demonization will go on forever. One key reason stands out. Venezuela holds the largest oil reserves in the world. Washington and that crumbling Kafkaesque citadel, also known as the European Union, sing “All You Need is Love” non-stop to those ghastly, feudal Persian Gulf petro-monarchs (but not to “the people”) in return for their oil.

According to the Foreign Ministry, Vice-President Nicolas Maduro will be temporarily in power before new elections are held within the next 30 days. Maduro is bound to win them handily as the Venezuelan political opposition is a fragmented joke. This spells out Chavismo without Chávez—much to the chagrin of the immense Pan-American and pan-European Chávez-hating cottage industry.

So there’s nothing unexpected in Manduro’s announcement a few hours before El Comandante’s death, that two U.S. embassy employees would be expelled in 24 hours; Air Attache David Delmonaco, and assistant Air Attache Devlin Costal. Delmonaco was accused of fomenting—what else?—a coup with some factions of the Venezuelan military. Those gringos never learn. The verdict is now open on what exact brand of revolutionary was Chávez. He always praised everyone from Mao to Che in the revolutionary pantheon. He certainly was a very skillful popular leader with a fine geopolitical eye to identify centuries-old patterns of subjugation of Latin America. Thus, his constant reference to the Hispanic revolutionary tradition from Bolivar to Marti. Stark numbers tell most of the story that needs to be known. Venezuelan public deficit is a mere 7.4 percent of GDP. Public debt is 51.3 percent of GDP—much less than the European Union average.

The public sector—defying apocalyptic “communist” accusations—accounts for only 18.4 percent of the economy; less than state-oriented France and even the whole of Scandinavia. In terms of geopolitics of oil, quotas are established by OPEC; so the fact that Venezuela is exporting less to the U.S. means it’s diversifying its customers (and exporting more and more to strategic partner China). And here’s the clincher; poverty accounted for 71 percent of Venezuelan citizens in 1996. In 2010, the percentage had been reduced to 21 percent.

Years ago, it took a novelist like Garcia Marquez to reveal El Comandante’s secret as The Great Communicator; he was one of them (his “people,” in the not-Barack Obama sense), from the physical appearance to the mannerisms, convivial attitude and language (the same applied to Lula in relation to most Brazilians).

So while Oliver Stone surveys the film market, one will be waiting for a Garcia Marquez to elevate Chávez to novelistic Walhalla. One thing is sure. In terms of a Global South narrative, history will record that El Comandante may have left the building, but then, after him the building was never the same again.