The charismatic leader of Venezuela – Hugo Chavez died last Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was only 58 years old. The former army paratrooper first came to prominence as a leader of a failed coup in February 1992 to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andres Perez amid growing anger at economic austerity measures. He and a group of fellow military officers involved in the coup belonged to a secret movement – the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, which was named after the South American independence leader Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), who was born and buried in Venezuela.
Mr. Chavez spent two years in prison before being granted a pardon. In 1997, he re-launched his party as the Movement of the Fifth Republic and made the transition from soldier to politician. In 1998, riding a wave of popular resentment at the traditional political elite, he caused a seismic tremor in Venezuelan politics to win the presidency. Since then, he won a series of elections and referendums, including one in 2009 that abolished term limits for all elected officials, including the president.
The foundation stone of Mr. Chavez’s presidency was the Bolivarian Revolution: his ambitious plan to turn Venezuela into a socialist state. His sincere dedication to improve the miserable condition of the poor people, traditionally ignored and marginalized by Latin American politicians, made him a hero among a large sector of the population. As a result of his policies, the percentage of Venezuelans living under the poverty line declined from a peak of 62% in 2003 to 29% in 2009, according to World Bank statistics. Between 2001 and 2007, illiteracy fell from 7% to 5%.
The poor in Venezuela became Mr. Chavez’s main political weapon, and the movement behind him came to be known as “Chavismo.” It prioritized the redistribution of oil wealth to the marginalized and valued sovereignty as something to be protected from “imperialist” powers. His concern for the poor knew no boundaries. He supplied heating oil to the poor in the north-eastern states of the U.S at a much discounted price through Venezuela’s national oil company Citgo. He did the same favor for the poor in Europe.
Mr. Chavez placed a great emphasis on providing financial and medical aid to the rest of Latin America, bolstered by the profits produced by the Venezuela oil industry. In the first eight months of 2007 alone, Venezuela spent $8.8 billion in doing so, something which was simply unprecedented for a Latin American country in terms of scale. In 2007 when Daniel Ortega was re-elected President in Nicaragua, Mr. Chavez announced plans to aid the impoverished Central American country by forgiving the $30 million it owed Venezuela, and agreed to supply them with a further gift of $10 million in aid, as well as providing them with a $20-million loan with little or no interest and designed to benefit the country’s poor.
In September 2009, Mr. Chavez along with allies in Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia set up a regional bank and development lender called Bank of the South, based in the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas with the aim of distancing the Latin American countries from the grips of the financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. He maintained that unlike other global financial organizations, the Bank of the South will be managed and funded by the countries of the region with the intention of funding social and economic development without any political conditions on that funding.
As much as President Hugo Chavez was a hero to millions of the downtrodden people in his country and abroad, and the anti-imperialist forces around the globe, he was equally despised by many powerful leaders of our time, let alone the members of the upper class in his own country. According to his biographers Marcano and Tyszka, Mr. Chavez has “already earned his place in history as the president most loved and most despised by the Venezuelan people, the president who inspired the greatest zeal and the deepest revulsion at the same time.”
Relations with Washington reached a new low when he accused the George W. Bush administration of “fighting terror with terror” during the war in Afghanistan after 9/11. He accused the Bush administration of being behind a short-lived coup that saw him removed from office for a couple of days in 2002. He survived the episode and emerged strengthened two years later in a referendum on his leadership. He then went on to victory in the 2006 presidential election.
In May of 2006, while visiting London, U.K., President Chavez accused the George W. Bush administration of committing genocide and said that the U.S. president should be imprisoned by an international criminal court. He also came in defense of Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He said, “No country has the right to prohibit a country from having nuclear energy.” He said he was sure that the Iranians were not working on a nuclear weapon, as U.S. officials had claimed. “The Iranians, like us, want peace,” he said.
And who can forget Mr. Chavez’s memorable speech at the UN General Assembly in September of 2006? There he likened President Bush to the devil. “The devil came here yesterday,” Mr. Chavez said, referring to Bush, who had addressed the world body during its annual meeting a day earlier. “And it smells of sulfur still today.” Chavez accused Bush of having spoken “as if he owned the world” and said a psychiatrist could be called to analyze the statement. “As the spokesman of imperialism, he came to share his nostrums to try to preserve the current pattern of domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world. An Alfred Hitchcock movie could use it as a scenario. I would even propose a title: ‘The Devil’s Recipe.’ ”
Chavez also blasted the United Nations and told the General Assembly, and rightly so, that its system was “worthless,” and that it was “merely a deliberative organ” that meets once a year. “We have no power, no power to make any impact on the terrible situation in the world,” he said. Mr. Chavez called the veto power shared by the five permanent members of the Security Council “anti-democratic,” and cited the U.S. veto of a resolution that would have demanded the Israelis halt their bombing of Lebanon that summer. That move “allowed the Israelis with impunity to destroy Lebanon in front of us all as we stood there watching,” Mr. Chavez said. He recommended that the world body’s headquarters be moved to another country and offered Venezuela as a possible new home.
With Mr. Chavez’s untimely death, the world has surely lost one of its best warriors who refused to be bullied by and bow down to the evil powers of arrogance and the new world-disorder of drones and targeted killings.
In a Twitter message, Oliver Stone, the Academy award-winning director, producer and screenwriter, who followed Mr. Chavez for the 2009 political documentary “South of the Border,” wrote: “I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place. Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history.” He also Twitted, “Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned.”
Leaders from all over the world came to Caracas, Venezuela, last Friday to pay their respect during the funeral service of this great man, Hugo Chavez, joining a nation that continued to mourn. He was lauded as a modern-day reincarnation of Latin American liberator Simon Bolivar. The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was a good friend of Mr. Chavez, had kind words for Mr. Chavez as he came off a plane in the capital, Caracas. “He was a dear friend of all nations worldwide,” Dr. Ahmadinejad said to the crowd and the Venezuelan state broadcaster VTV there. “He was the emotional pillar for all the revolutionary and freedom-seeking people of the region and the world.”
Other foreign dignitaries included Cuba’s Raul Castro, Spanish Crown Prince Felipe de Borbon, Academy award-winning actor and philanthropist Sean Penn, and Rev. Jesse Jackson of the USA. Sean Penn said, “Today the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela.”
Commenting on Mr. Chavez’s death, former U.S. President Carter said, “President Chavez will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment. During his 14-year tenure, Chavez joined other leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean to create new forms of integration. Venezuelan poverty rates were cut in half, and millions received identification documents for the first time, allowing them to participate more effectively in their country’s economic and political life.”
Hours after the funeral service, Mr. Nicolas Maduro, the former vice president, was sworn in as the interim President. He pledges to continue the late leader’s radical economic and political transformation of one of the world’s great oil powers.
Will Hugo Chavez’s revolutionary legacy survive? After all, our world is full of fallen heroes and villains. As much as yesterday’s hero has become today’s villain, so has yesterday’s villain become today’s hero.
Mr. Chavez was able to usher in a new area of populist leaders that includes Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. They have all borrowed Hugo Chavez’s playbook by catering to the poor and being critical of the role of the United States, a country they call “the evil empire.” This trend may continue for quite some time unless the U.S. policy proactively works towards fundamentally erasing its ugly perception down south.
Chavez’s empowerment of the poor will probably remain at the top of his legacy. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner eulogized the fallen leftist leader on her Twitter account by saying that “The great legacy of Chavez is the social inclusion of millions of Venezuelans that used to be invisible and today are protagonists.”
Who can deny the fact that, as noted by the CNN journalist Rafael Romo, a 22-year-old single mother of two in Petare, Chapeu Mangueira, Chimalhuacan or Ciudad Bolivar, cares more about a leader who will make it possible to feed her children tomorrow than macroeconomic policies or free market economies? “And to millions of Venezuelans, that was Hugo Chavez.”
Will the world leaders – present and future – take a cue from Hugo Chavez’s legacy of empowering the poor, if not his anti-imperial combative spirit?