President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who died of cancer in Caracas on Tuesday, was not just a visionary committed to improving the lives of the great majority of his people but a masterly politician who knew how to achieve that end. First elected in 1998 and then surviving a right-wing putsch in 2002 which collapsed in the face of huge public support for him, Mr. Chávez turned his nation of 29 million into a pivot for the political and economic renewal of an entire continent. With a clear commitment to his country’s and to Latin America’s sovereignty, the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ that Mr. Chávez set in motion sought to reassert the independence of a region that the Libertador Simón Bolivar had set out to unify in the 19th century. Mr. Chávez started by nationalising the biggest domestic oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), and negotiating vastly improved terms with the foreign oil companies which had been making colossal sums out of the world’s greatest known hydrocarbon reserves while paying a pittance in royalties. Mr. Chávez put the revenues to good use, raising social spending by over 60 per cent to $772 billion in a decade and reducing extreme poverty from 40 per cent to 7.3, in addition to expanding healthcare services; furthermore, one in three Venezuelans now gets free education up to and including university level. As for the rest of the region, soon after assuming office, Mr. Chávez accepted the services of Cuban doctors in exchange for oil supplies to a country victimised by U.S. sanctions for over 40 years. Other countries too benefited from his acts of solidarity.
Chávismo, as this approach came to be called, infuriated the United States, which had long dominated Latin America through brutal dictatorships and oligarchical democracies. Washington all but publicly welcomed the 2002 coup against President Chávez and spent the better part of the decade which followed seeking to undermine his government in one way or the other. Will his death now produce the outcome that his enemies in Venezuela and North America sought all these years? One of the weaknesses of the Chávez model was the central role that the President himself played in the system. But its strength lay in the active involvement of dozens of social movements, some of which coalesced with the socialist party he built while others remained supportive from the outside. His choice of Nicolás Maduro as Vice President was also one calculated to energise the rank and file of this extraordinary coalition. However, it is the better life which millions of Venezuelans enjoy today that will serve as the first line of defence for Chávismo as the U.S. and its allies try to turn the clock back.