Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias, President of Venezuela, who died on March 5, 2013 at the age of 58, was a defining figure in Latin American politics for 15 years, becoming almost synonymous with the popular tide that has elected and re-elected left and centre-left governments across the continent in that time.
A gifted orator who could hold an audience for hours, Mr. Chávez combined political courage with immense conviction and an extraordinary sense of destiny. Born to schoolteacher parents in Sabaneta in 1954, he qualified in military arts and sciences at the National Military Academy, became an officer in a paratrooper unit, and started his political career in the early 1980s by founding a secret organisation, the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, which took its name from the Latin American independence leader Simón Bolivar. His first big move was an attempted military coup against the government of Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, for which he was imprisoned for two years before being pardoned.
Mr. Chávez, however, renamed his group the Movement of the Fifth Republic (which a decade later merged with other groups to form the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV) and won the 1998 presidential election on a socialist manifesto, >promising millions relief from a system which had put oil wealth into luxurious lives for the rich and profits for the oil corporations.
Mr. Chávez removed corrupt military officers and started a national reform programme. Venezuela, according to the United States Department of Energy, has the world’s largest oil reserves at 1.36 trillion barrels, and the new president promptly nationalised the main oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), putting the profits into very effective social programmes. Carles Mutaner, Joan Benach, and Maria Paez Victor note that between 2000 and 2010, social spending increased by 61 per cent or $772 billion; the country has the region’s lowest level of inequality, with a reduction in its Gini coefficient of 54 per cent. Poverty is down from 71 per cent in 1996 to 21 now, and extreme poverty is down from 40 per cent to 7.3. The social programmes, or Misiones, he started have reached 20 million people, and 2.1 million have received senior citizens’ pensions, a sevenfold increase under Mr. Chávez.
The country has also cut food imports from 90 per cent to 30 per cent of its consumption, and has reduced child malnutrition from 7.7 per cent in 1990 to 5 today; infant mortality has declined from 25/1000 to 13 in the same period, and the country now has 58 doctors per 10,000 people (as against 18 in 1996). As many as 96 per cent of the population now have access to clean water, and with school attendance at 85 per cent, one in three Venezuelans is enrolled in free education up to and including university.
Oil royalties help. A 2001 law cut the sale price share of foreign companies from 84 to 70 per cent, and they now pay royalties of 16.6 per cent on Orinoco basin heavy crude; they used to pay 1 per cent earlier. Exxon and Conoco Philips rejected these terms, as Deepak Bhojwani notes in the Economic and Political Weekly (December 22, 2012), and were expelled, but Chevron stayed.
Mr. Chávez of course infuriated the mainly white elites, some of whom talked of him in racist terms, as well as the United States government and press, both of which have consistently vilified him in language bordering on the delusional. The State Department greeted the 2002 coup against Mr. Chávez by expressing solidarity with the Venezuelan people and looking forward to “working with all democratic forces in Venezuela.” The statement also said Mr. Chávez had dismissed the Vice-President and Cabinet. In fact it was the coup figurehead, Pedro Carmona Estanga, who, according to the Notable Names Database, dissolved the national assembly, disbanded the Supreme Court, closed the attorney-general’s and comptroller’s offices, and repealed 48 redistributive laws meant to help the poor.
Yet huge public support for Mr. Chávez meant the putschist regime collapsed within days. The President was reinstated, but the then U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice hectored him to “respect the constitution.” Greg Palast points out in The Progressive that the George W. Bush administration’s National Security Strategy of 2006 called him a demagogue out to undermine democracy and destabilise Venezuela.
The U.S. press dutifully played its part. In September 2012, the WorldNet columnist Drew Zahn called Mr. Chávez a “socialist dictator”, when the President was about to win a fourth successive election. All those elections were of far greater probity than the respective U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2004; this time Mr. Chávez won by 11 percentage points on a turnout of 80 per cent. Other U.S. media bodies have spread partial truths about the Caracas government, saying it bloats the public sector and lets the budget deficit spiral.
In fact, as Mark Weisbrot notes in the Guardian, 18.4 per cent of Venezuela’s work force is in the public sector, in contrast to Norway’s 29 per cent, and its projected 2012 debt to GDP ratio of 51.3, is lower than the European Union average of 82.5 per cent; inflation has declined too, from 27 per cent in 2010 to 19 per cent now, and the fiscal deficit, according to the International Monetary Fund in September 2012, was 7.4% of GDP. Weisbrot also points out that the New York Times - which welcomed the coup - has taken 14 years, longer even than other American media outfits, to publish any arguments for Chávez. Carles Mutaner and colleagues comment that U.S. analysts ask what Venezuela will do when the oil runs out, but do not ask that about other oil exporters like Saudi Arabia and Canada; neither do critics note that the country’s interest payments are only about 3 per cent of export earnings.
One of Washington’s problems is that, as Greg Palast recognises, Mr. Chávez kept oil revenues within Latin America; unlike Saudi Arabia, which buys U.S. treasury bills and other assets, Venezuela at one point withdrew $20 billion from the U.S. Federal Reserve, and since 2007 has aided other Latin American countries with $36 billion, most of which has been repaid back. In effect, this supplants the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and possibly also its neoliberal fellow-crusader the World Bank. Even more unpalatably for Washington, Chávismo represents a clear political programme for pan-Latin American transformation, which Palast calls a close replica of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, with progressive income tax, public works, social security, and cheap electricity. For Bolivarians, such things are rights; they are even reminiscent of T.H. Marshall’s view that they are integral to substantive citizenship. Worst of all for U.S. regional hegemony, Mr. Chávez himself said Venezuela is no longer an oil colony, that it has regained its oil sovereignty, and that he wanted to replace the IMF with an International Humanitarian Bank based on cooperation; Uruguay already pays for Venezuelan oil with cows. Mr. Chávez wished the IMF and the World Bank would “disappear”, and his passionate concern for Latin American countries’ sovereignty made him a decisive figure in the 2011 creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac).
Mr. Chávez could also be ruthless; in 2010 a military court sentenced his former key ally Raúl Isaias Baduel to just under eight years for embezzlement after a long-delayed trial, and Baduel is now banned from future political office, almost certainly because he criticised constitutional reforms which would allow a president more than two terms. Mr. Chávez was, however, no doctrinaire leader. Although a Christian, he criticised clerical collusion with the ancien régime, and did not accept the Church’s authority in politics. And though a socialist, his model even includes a respect for private property. He also thought seriously about political economy. Bhojwani notes that he favoured a form of 21st century socialism partly derived from the work of Heinz Dieterich Steffan. For Mr. Chávez, ethics, morality, cooperativism, and associationism make for strong public economic activity and in turn protect the equality which is essential to liberty. The Venezuelan electorate has repeatedly endorsed this; in the December 2012 gubernatorial elections — the first ones in 14 years in which Mr. Chávez himself did not campaign — his allies won 20 out of 23 states. After the President’s win in October, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had sent him a message saying, “Your victory is also ours.” Billions, and not only poor people, around the world would agree: Tu victoria es también la nuestra.
This article has been corrected for a factual error