“Everyday I become more convinced, there is no doubt in my mind, as many intellectuals have said, that it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can not be transcended through capitalism itself; it must be done through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. I’m also convinced that it is possible to do it under democracy, but not in the type of democracy being imposed by Washington.”
– Hugo Chavez
Hugo Chavez’s struggle to bring his true socialism of equality and justice ended yesterday as he finally succumbed to cancer. His life of substance, of passion, and the fight for justice will live on and reverberate through the ages.
Critics will not surprisingly point to the failure of President Chavez to live up to his own standards at times. A critique always worth hearing for any chief executive. Media crackdowns, overheated rhetoric, authoritative tendencies – it’s all true. Like many great American presidents be it Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans, or Obama’s kill list - Chavez overreached in the heat of political combat. But to measure the presidency of Hugo Chavez solely with a catalog of mistakes and failings would be as much a disservice to history as it would be to measure any president that way. Chavez was more than his failures.
Pre-Chavez Venezuela would not be so unfamiliar to Americans. It resembled the American South under Jim Crowe and Apartheid South Africa. A small racial aristocracy of White Spanish descendants controlled the politics and economic destiny for the overwhelming majority of poor Venezuelans who were and are of mixed race – like Chavez. The elite of Venezuela were closer to the United States than to their own people with most having second homes in Miami where they would enjoy the fruits of their non-labor living lavish lifestyles with their petrodollars. They were not innovators or entrepreneurs or captains of industry or savvy investors or shrewd businesspeople – they were oil barons who inherited their money and social position. As meritocratic and deserving of power as King George III. In other words, the ultimate takers.
When Hugo Chavez was elected President many of the kleptocratic elite fled the country like looters leaving a crime scene. They feared violent retribution for generations of oppression and malevolence – none came. Instead President Chavez focused on doing what he had pledged to do – help Venezuela’s poor. In a country fabulously wealthy from oil the masses of Venezuela rotted in slums and grinding poverty. Chavez would lead one of the most effective anti-poverty programs in world history. By the time Chavez was done the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line declined from a peak of 62% in 2003 to 29% in 2009. In the six-year period between 2001 and 2007, illiteracy fell from 7% to 5%.
Combine redistributing the ill-gotten gains from the US aligned elites with shouting anti-imperialist rhetoric on top of a large oil reserve and surprise surprise President Chavez became America’s public enemy number one. The US corporate media cued up phrases like “dictactor”, “autocrat”, and all the rest of the standard phrasing to use when a foreign head of state bucks the empire. The fact that President Chavez was elected in third party certified free elections was irrelevant, he did not meet the American government’s view of democracy which was shorthand for doing what America says when America says it.
And so Washington launched a coup in 2002.
Unfortunately for the multinational oil interests, racial aristocrats, and American imperialists the coup failed due to the masses of Venezuela coming out in force to demand their democratically elected President be reinstated. Look for that story in the American press or among the reactionaries now cheering Chavez’s death, you won’t find it.
After the failed coup attempt by America and the old racial oligarchs a public campaign was launched in the American media to demonize Chavez with pretty ridiculous comparisons to Stalin and Hitler (ring a bell?). It was all unsubstantiated garbage but most Americans had no alternative view and either accepted it or ignored it like most news, even when some men of God called for President Chavez to be killed. Thus we now see upon Hugo Chavez’s death various people vomit out discredited views of President Chavez pumped into their brains by a corporate media and government that had the most to lose from democracy in Venezuela. And still do.
But let’s not put it all on the reactionaries, Hugo Chavez delighted in irritating Washington especially after they tried to kill him. His speeches at the UN and proudly paling around with America’s enemies was an over the top thumb in America’s eye. It ingratiated him to the anti-imperialist world community but diminished any chance at rapprochement with Washington – which may have always been illusory given their fundamental differences but was at least worth a try. Then again, can you blame him for having some fun with his would be assassins?
Regardless of the truth and what came before, the legacy of Hugo Chavez is destined to be a disputed one. Perhaps years from now (many years) there can be a consensus accepting all the good he did for the poor and the necessity of breaking the racial aristocracy the people of Venezuela were enslaved by. Until then he will live on in those striving for justice, those carrying a new world in their hearts.