Who Was Hugo Chávez?

7 Mar

Hugo/ BolivarI guess this is the responsible conservative dismissal of Hugo Chávez.

“The ultimate populist,” Richard Haass deemed Chávez, who led a “massive redistribution of wealth” domestically and also had an active foreign policy. “His vision for latin america that was extraordinarily radical. He was not democratic, to say the least,” Haass added, noting that the region now faces much uncertainty, particularly because Chavez didn’t quite put the country on a long-term track.

In a subsequent conversation, Haass lampoons Chávez as “complete theater”, a “larger than life” “leftwing caudillo”, and “Castro with oil” who contributed nothing of lasting value to Venezuela. Greg Grandin takes issue with this sort of “two lefts” dodge the United States has used in South America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one point I made in my column in the Daily News today on Chávez is that, to the degree that he was seen by the United States and Europe as the most radical of Latin American leaders, he created space for an enormous diversity of other left-oriented leaders that seemed almost more acceptable to the West up against the figure, the lightning-rod figure, of Chávez.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, for a long time, Washington policymakers and opinion makers were trying to create this idea that there were two lefts—a good left and a bad left—in Latin America, vegetarian left and a carnivore left. And the kind of emblematic leaders of that was Lula in Brazil, a reformist, you know, administered within the institutions of law, and Chávez. You know, fiery populist is a word—a description that I’m sure has been used kind of like Mad Libs, you know, in obituaries of Chávez. But in reality, they actually worked together very nicely. I mean, if you read the WikiLeaks cables, it was no—the U.S. was constantly trying to push this notion of a division or a divide between Brazil and Venezuela, and Brazil constantly rebuffed it. And certainly, Chávez’s more flamboyant style on the world stage created a much more willingness to work with so-called more moderate reformers like Lula. And I would argue that their differences had more to do with the political structures that they inherited than anything. And I think they both, in very real ways, had exactly the same goal.

Mark Weisbrot also emphasizes Chavez’s legacy: anti-U.S. policy, anti-poverty, pro-Latin America.

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 Chavez Frias, who was probably more demonised 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.

Chavez 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 US than Europe is. Of course, this would not have happened without Chavez’s close friends and allies: Lula in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and others.

But Chavez 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.

How many epithets are necessary, to avoid expressing a straight opinion? Nikolas Kozloff tries to provide that reasonable appraisal, “…the complex legacy of Hugo Chavez, Chavez’s political history, how Chavez changed the political psychology of Venezuela, where Chavez was innovative and where he failed, how Bush helped create Chavez and the future of the Chavez model.” Kozloff praises Venezuela’s successful cooperatives, but is critical of Chavez’s “charismatic leadership”.

Ultimately, I would argue, Americans should ask themselves, what they think about Simón Bolívar. But, I’m sure conservatives in the U.S. will continue to call leaders they don’t like as many naughty names as they can pull from their adolescent memories

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