Colombo Telegraph

Hugo Chávez: Hero To Many, Villain To Others

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Hugo Chávez, the controversial revolutionary leader of Venezuela, died last week at the age of 58.  He was too young to die at a time when human beings are living much longer than before, and he fell victim to that most capricious of all killer diseases: cancer.  Reactions to his death have been as varied as the reactions to his politics.  The tumultuous mourning in Venezuela is also burdened by the uncertainty about the country’s future.  His influence reached across the Latin American continent and his passing will alter the political dynamic in one of the most fastest growing regions in the world.  Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretian (1993-2003), who had worked with Mr. Chavez in the Organization of American States and who attended the funeral service in Caracas, described Mr. Chávez  as “an unusual and colourful leader” who modeled himself in the revolutionary  tradition of Fidel Castro.

In a rare obituary to be written by the leader of a neighbouring country, the former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has admiringly and critically assessed the contributions of  Hugo Chávez to the people of Venezuela and towards “the integration of Latin America”.  According to his Brazilian counterpart few believed as Mr. Chávez did “in the unity of our continent and its diverse peoples — indigenous Indians, descendants of Europeans and Africans, recent immigrants.”  Hugo Chávez was a hybrid of all of them – of Amerindian, Afro-Venezuelan, and Spanish ancestries; he represented and stood for the plurality of his continent and not single-ethnic dominance.

There was a time when Latin American political events and debates made waves in Sri Lanka’s political and intellectual circles.  The names of the iconic Cuban leader, Fidel Castro; the foremost itinerant revolutionary, Che Guvera; the Chilean socialist leader and victim of the 1973 military coup, Salvador Allende; and the peripatetic academic and dependency theorist, Andre Gunder Frank, were all too common among Sri Lankan leftists during the 1960s and 1970s heady days of anti-imperialism.  That was the era of the cold war, superpower dominance, neo-colonialism, centre-periphery dichotomy, and third world dependence that encompassed the countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa.  It is a different world now.

Political genealogy

Hugo Chávez both manifested and embodied the mixed political traditions of his continent and its searching questions in the post-coldwar world of today.  His political genealogy had deep and well-founded roots even though sections of the media caricatured him as a theatrical maverick.  In a society where poverty was common and the Church and the army provided the main avenues for education and mobility, Chávez born to working class teacher-parents took the latter route joining the Military Academy and graduating among  the top ten in a class of seventy five.  Interestingly, the military curriculum provided for both military training and academic courses taught by civilian professors brought in from civilian universities.  A better approach, one might say, than forcing civilian students to undergo military orientation as is being done in Sri Lanka!

The academic courses shaped  Chávez’s intellectual and political development giving him a sense of history and commitment to social justice.  He also excelled in poetry, painting and baseball.  It was at the military academy, that Chávez began his life-long attachment to the memory and legacy of Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), a nineteenth century descendant of early Basque aristocratic immigrants, who lead the independence revolution of the South American colonies against imperial Spain.  A widely travelled man and a military hero, Bolívar was a keen follower of the French and American revolutions, an admirer of Washington and Jefferson but a principled opponent of slavery.  It was Bolívar who planted the seeds of democracy in Latin America.  But the evolution of constitutional democracy took diametrically different trajectories in the US and Latin America.

Whereas modernization took full flight in the US, the process has been severely hampered by the persistence of neo-colonial structures even after more than a century and half of independence in Latin America.  The Church became a fact of politics in a continent (i.e. South and Central America) that had been carved between the Portuguese and the Spanish empires by the Papal bulls of the 15th and 16th centuries.  In every state, the political and economic power became the monopoly of self-perpetuating oligarchies predicated on feudal property rights systems and sustained by military juntas.  Sustained industrialization was not realized and national economies came to depend on the extraction and export of the continent’s abundant resources.  The structural dependency of the Latin American countries on Western Europe and the US was somewhat preordained by the anomalous situation of Spain and Portugal in Europe.  The two were empires overseas but were economic dependencies in Europe, and their colonies were caught in the same dependency trap.  Completing the picture was the vast mass of people in poverty in every Latin American country.   The demographic explosion in postwar twentieth century aggravated the misery of the rural masses causing internal migrations and the creation of urban ghettos.

The antitheses to status quo inequalities ironically arose within the two main bulwarks of the oligarchical regimes: the Church and the Military.  The Latin American Catholic Church became the incubator of Liberation Theology – the concept first developed in 1971 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez and later caught fire throughout the Christian world, even inspiring clerics in Sri Lanka such as Bishop Leo Nanayakara and Fathers Paul Caspersz and Tissa Balasuriya.  It was the Christian response to the realities of injustice and oppression in society.  It was only natural that this reinterpretation of the Christian faith as a call to political action should have been provoked in a continent where, as Father Gutiérrez himself described at that time, “60% of the population live in  a state of poverty, and 82% of those find themselves in extreme poverty.”

No admirer of  Pinochet

The second antithesis came from Military leaders in countries like Peru and Panama, who supported military intervention to remove corrupt governments of the propertied classes and liberate the majority of the people who were mired in poverty.  Hugo Chávez was greatly inspired by the ideas of progressive militarists as well as by the interpretation of the Bible  to advocate political liberation.  He was, however, not an admirer of General Augusto Pinochet, the rightwing Chilean dictator who ousted Allende, and described himself as anti-Pinochet.  But Chávez was prepared to emulate Pinochet for different reasons, and in Venezuela it meant freeing the country from the political logjam of the two corrupt and centrist political parties, the Democratic Action Party and the National Convergence Party.  In 1992, Chávez led an unsuccessful coup to overthrow the government of the Action Party, and six years later he defeated both parties in the presidential election and became President.  He went on to win two more elections and was in power for 14 years until his death.

Chávez’s espousal of the process of democratic elections was in keeping with the reformist changes in many Latin American countries that saw the fall of military dictatorships and their replacement by elected governments.   The economy in quite a few Latin American countries, Brazil and Chile in particular, has turned the corner and was beginning to register unprecedented growth.  In his first term, Chávez implemented several pro-democratic measures, constitutionally mandated the alleviation of poverty and the allocation of sufficient resources for education and health, and continued the involvement of foreign investment and expertise in the petroleum industry.  He travelled abroad visiting Latin American countries as well as US, Canada and Europe.  He impressed his audiences with his wit, charm and business savvy.

Things began to change for the worse and independent observers have noted that the change coincided with steep increases in the global oil prices from the price of $13 a barrel, the lowest since the 1960s, soon after he became President in 1998.  Venezuela holds one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and phenomenally higher world oil prices in the next ten years boosted government revenues as never seen before (rising from $20 to $80 billion annually between 1999 and 2008).  Chávez opened the coffers to help the poor with sincere but misguided generosity.  He spurned western governments and western investments while supplying almost free oil to Cuba, Dominican Republic and Jamaica.  He dramatically externalized the traditional anti-American sentiment in Latin politics, taking particular delight in ridiculing Washington. The good times turned sour when the great world recession hit Venezuela and its oil production, without foreign investment and expertise, began to fall.

After fourteen years of pumping money for the government the petroleum industry now stands gutted, and the government has nothing to show for the additional $700 billion that it received from petroleum exports.  The economic maladministration went hand in hand with political authoritarianism.  The pro-democratic measures that were introduced in the first term have been wiped off.  Mr. Chávez’s wild popularity is only the façade of a deeply divided country.  His people either loved him or hated him. While he did much to improve the lot of the marginalized, they are also the most to suffer from the breakdown of law and order and the rising wave of crimes.  His vaguely formulated 21st century socialism would hardly be remembered after him.

Hugo Chávez was a charismatic political leader whose heart was in the right place in championing the interests of the poor, the weak and the marginalized.  His political vision was not at all parochial but continental in range.  He was bold and right in shaking up what was wrong and rotten with his country but he did not have the wherewithal to deliver in a sustainable way not just on his public promises but more so on the many good things that he probably wanted achieved.  The missing medium was the political party whose role it must be to not only project the leader to the country but also to act as a restraint on the leader.  Mr. Chávez did change the course of Venezuela’s history, but he failed to achieve it through a proper political organization that would have given his legacy greater credibility and more longevity.

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