Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hugo Chavez: Thoughts from Heart of South America

      Later yesterday afternoon, the Vice President of Venezuela announced the passing of Hugo Chavez, the country's charismatic and revolutionary leader for the past 14 years. Reviled by some, loved by many, he leaves a legacy that is as colorful as it is controversial, but one that will have a lasting impact far beyond the borders of his own small South American country. The leftist coup that Chavez led in 1998 set a precedent (politically, not necessarily methodologically) soon to be invoked in almost every other country in South America and in many others throughout Latin America as well. The new age of socialism, what Chavez called the 'Bolivarian revolution' (named after the 18th century South American patriot and independence fighter Simon Bolivar), had come to fruit in the continent. Soon following would be leftist (and also notably anti-imperialist) regimes in Ecuador (Correa), Bolivia (Morales—the first ever indigenous president in SA), Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala and many other countries, including even little, forgotten Paraguay (Lugo in 2008).
      In contrast to socialism earlier in the century (1950's-1970's, more or less), this modern manifestation was perhaps somewhat less radical and less internationally polarizing, but nevertheless equally as hated and derided by the imperialist West. As such, many countries of the global, neo-liberal order reacted predictably by marginalizing and demonizing the new Latin American socialists both politically and in the media. In 2002, a US backed coups attempted to and briefly succeeded in overthrowing the democratically elected Chavez in Venezuela (heralding back to the days of US led assassinations and/or military coups in almost every other Latin American nation). Unable to consolidate power and with overwhelming popular pressure, the coups fell apart and Chavez was reinstated as president 2 days later. Always weary of the strong arm of the US (sometimes quite publicly so), the coups put Chavez at even harsher terms with the US. The failed coups played a large role in motivating and substantiating many of the anti-democratic, power-grabbing measures that Chavez would later enact over the next decade. Still, Chavez remained unafraid to stand up to imperialist bullies and was forever resilient to falling in line with the dogma of global politics and economics.

      Obviously, my personal feelings and political leanings can be easily gleaned from the preceding narrative of the political life of Hugo Chavez. Its not that I adore or idolize him in any superhuman sort of way—he was a human being, a leader who did much good and some bad (if I may dramatically over-simplify my position for the sake of explanation). I would certainly say that I am a much bigger fan of Chavez than I am of almost all US presidents (with the notable exceptions of Lincoln, FDR, Carter, and on some days, Obama). But what I can say definitively, is that having lived in South America for almost 2 years now and having studied extensively the political and social landscape, is that I believe I can offer a much different perspective on this very important political figure of our century. What I am hoping to do in the following few pages is not to convert anyone to radical, anti-imperialist socialism, but to simply provide a framework for reevaluating the life of someone that most Americans hate and yet have no concrete ideas why.

      In 2005, in front of the UN general assembly, Chavez famously called US President George Walker Bush (American cowboy of the century) “the devil”. While not entirely savvy or politically proper, it was a way of expressing a very strong international sentiment at the time. Lets take a look back in time: At the insistence of neo-cons such as Dick Cheney (through their proxy, the president of the United States) the US was waging a war in Iraq, bombing and killing thousands of civilians (totals would reach around 500,000 or half a million of innocent Iraqis killed), all justified through a series of elaborate lies about WMDs. A few years earlier, the US congress had passed laws that threatened the freedoms of their own citizens in a way not seen since the height of Cold War McCarthyism (ironically called 'The Patriot Act'). Additionally, the US had implemented torture of prisoners in their global 'War on Terror' despite international pressure and in complete disregard for the Geneva conventions.
      This, of course, is just the most prominent among a laundry list of other violations and immoral deeds that would all go unpunished, despite the fact that many members of the Bush administration, including Bush himself, could easily have been tried for war crimes by international courts (if it wasn't for the pardon that Obama so generously offered them right after he squashed independent investigations into US torture practices by Spain and Germany). So personally, if it were me, I would not have called George W. Bush “the devil” in front of the UN, but still, I would have had trouble holding my fiery tongue.
      What I think the previous example illustrates is that the popular image of Chavez as some crazy South American dictator is not necessarily a product of any particular policies (although, there are some of his actions that are more authoritarian), but instead the international media's attempts to brand him as a lunatic and a fool, made all the easier by his larger-than-life and flamboyant nature. If you take an objective look at the political history of Chavez in Venezuela, it is undeniable that he has done more for the poor and disenfranchised in the country than any leader before him. He cut illiteracy, extended social health care to the farthest reaches of the country, and fought poverty like a fiend by building houses, creating safety-nets, and redirecting nationalized oil-funds to social programs for the poor instead of allowing them to be siphoned overseas by tax-dodging, multinational corporations. He empowered the most marginalized of Venezuelan citizens and included them in the national democracy, giving them a voice and a champion for the first time in history.
      Over the course of only 14 years, he would eventually cut poverty in his country in half—something that few other leaders (and not a single US president) could claim. He did all of this, of course, at the expense of ostracizing the Venezuelan elite and the international community of moneyed interests, including those of US economic imperialism. This would cost him dearly in the martyr-happy and bourgeoisie-controlled media, always willing to throw another socialist on the pyre of so-called tyranny. And so, most US citizens have never heard of Chavez's dedication to improving the lives of millions of his impoverished country-men, only that he suppressed media opposition within his own borders and insulted (rightly so) our gun-slinging President in front of the UN.
       Another major charge leveled against Chavez is that he has held onto power undemocratically for over a decade, that his re-elections were never fair or free, and that he is therefore, in the most textbook sense, a totalitarian leader. After the leftist coup in 1998, Chavez was elected by popular vote. Following the coup attempt against him in 2002, Chavez was re-elected by popular vote. He would continue to win elections. After each re-election, the West would let loose their accusations of undemocratic processes. To appease this international pressure, Venezuela would invite international watch groups to monitor elections as they were recast and later deemed fair and free. While Chavez has been re-elected 3 times to the presidency, he has won 15 elections (if we include all the times he was called a liar and a cheat and national ballots were recast under independent scrutiny to appease international pressure).
      It seems inconceivable to the West how someone like Chavez could be democratically elected, but if you think about it, it makes perfect sense: Chavez was a champion of the poor, he fought for their rights and their inclusion in the democratic system. They responded by re-electing him infallibly. The reality is that there are far more poor people in Venezuela (and almost every country in the world, for that matter) than rich people, so in a free and fair election, the popular vote from the proletariat will always win. No doubt, mobilizing the masses of Venezuela's impoverished was a key to Chavez's numerous re-elections—it was a politically smart move on his part. But still, how can anyone claim that such an effort was somehow wrong or immoral. To make democracy accessible to all people, to undermine the unfair advantage of moneyed interests in the political system, to give a voice to the most forgotten and marginalized—shouldn't that be the goal of all good democratic countries? The greatest irony of all is that those American conservative Republicans who are so eager to criticize and demonize Chavez are the very ones who are currently engaged in the very opposite practice, that of the making American democracy inaccessible to minority populations in hopes of ensuring a conservative victory in the next election. Personally, I think I'll vote for Chavez in 2016.
      All of this is not to say that Chavez (as I stated before) has not done bad things during his administrations in Venezuela. His suppression of the political right and curtailment of free media sources are certainly undemocratic (inhibiting freedom of speech) and authoritarian in nature, no doubt. But I challenge you to put it in perspective: are these actions any more undemocratic, somehow more dangerous to freedom then, lets say, The Patriot Act (which if you haven't looked at in detail, I would highly encourage you to do so—its fucking terrifying) or President Obama's executive orders to assassinate US citizens by drone attacks without habeus corpus or a fair trial? Are Chavez's attacks on free media in his country any worse than corporate-controlled, castrated media sources in the US that are so plugged into the modern Washington-Wall Street complex? Are they any worse than the fact that we operate in a bipolar “democracy” where actual free opposition is buried and muted under the immensely-wealthy and equally dogmatic paradigms of the Democratic and Republican parties? Are they worse than the Bush administration's insistence (and massive media crack-down) that kept images of dead soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan in flag-draped caskets off of every major news source? Perhaps the authoritarian actions of Chavez were easier to deride because they were more blatant, whereas the US has learned the importance of maintaining the facade, but both are equally as undemocratic and despicable in their own right.
      With the death of Hugo Chavez, Latin America has lost a historic and revolutionary figure and the poor (both of Venezuela and the world) have lost a champion. Whether you love him or hate him (or at least think you hate him), I would challenge you to take another look at who he was and what he fought for. No leader is ever perfect and undoubtedly, one could find a thousand things that might justify the image of Chavez as a modern-day dictator. I assure you that a similar analysis of any US president would yield the same. When we evaluate a leader, it is important not to attempt and fit him/her to any sort of preconceived mold, but instead to understand them in the light of their humanity and who they were as people in all of their triumph and imperfection. Biases and personal opinions aside, one can not question Hugo Chavez's devotion to the poor and disenfranchised. He was dedicated to making his country and our world a better place for those untold numbers of people that society had otherwise forgotten. In this respect at least, Chavez was a truly remarkable figure in history.

From Latin America, and in solidarity,
little hupo

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