By Laura Carlsen
You could almost hear the sigh of relief coming out of Washington at the news of Hugo Chavez’s death on March 5.
President Obama issued a brief statement that failed even to offer condolences, forcing a senior State Department official to patch over the evident callousness and breach of diplomacy by offering his personal condolences the following day.
Within moments of Chavez’s death, commercial media and mouthpieces for the U.S. government were verbally dancing on his grave and predicting the imminent demise of Chavismo—Chavez’s political legacy in Venezuela and abroad.
Time headlined its article “Death of a Demagogue.” The New York Times, which bent over backwards to minimize Chavez’s overwhelming victory in Venezuela’s October elections—and later to portray his battle with cancer as a cover-up, mimicking opposition claims—proclaimed that Chávez’s death “casts into doubt the future of his socialist revolution” and “alters the political balance not only in Venezuela, the fourth-largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States, but also in Latin America”—and this in a news article with no sourcing provided.
The Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S. think tank, concluded that “Chavez’s legacy, and the damage he left behind, will not be easily undone,” and predicted that the social gains and regional institutions Chavez built over his political lifetime will soon fall apart and things will soon return to normal—that is, with the United States back in the hemispheric driver’s seat.
Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) came right out and said “Hugo Chávez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator.”
A Hegemon Spurned
So why did Washington hate this guy so much?
It never helped that the South American president had a penchant for insulting his adversaries personally. But one supposes that diplomacy rises above name-calling, even if the other guy did it first. The anti-Chavez current in Washington goes far deeper than personal enmity or even political differences.
What scared Washington most about Chavez was not his failures or idiosyncrasies. It was his success.
The official reasons given for demonizing Hugo Chavez don’t hold water. Chavez is accused of restraining freedom of the press in a nation known for its ferociously anti-Chavez private media. And while his Yankee critics called him a dictator, Chavez and his policies won election after election in exemplary electoral processes. You can disagree with his reform to permit unlimited terms in office, but this is the practice of many nations deemed democratic by the U.S. government and considered close allies. And the criticisms of Chavez’s social programs as “patronage” cannot ignore the millions of lives tangibly improved.
Before Chavez turned Venezuela away from the neoliberal model, the nation was a basket case. But throughout his tenure, social indicators that measure real human suffering showed steady improvement. Between 1998, when he was first elected, to 2013 when he died in office, people living in poverty dropped from 43 percent of the population to 27 percent. Extreme poverty dropped from 16.8 percent of the population to 7 percent. According to UNESCO, illiteracy—nearly 10 percent when Chavez took office—has been eliminated. Chavez also reduced childhood malnutrition, initiated pensions for the elderly, and launched education and health programs for the poor.
Venezuela’s human development ranking subsequently climbed significantly under Chavez, reaching the “high” human development category. The programs that Washington scorned as “government handouts” made people’s lives longer, healthier, and fuller in Venezuela.
Now that Chavez is dead, the U.S. press has revived the State Department’s practice of designating the “good left” and the “bad left” in Latin America. Chavez, of course, embodied the “bad left,” while Brazil’s Lula was unilaterally and unwillingly designated the “good left”.
Yet it was Lula da Silva who defended his friend and made the case for Chavez’s lasting positive legacy in the pages of the New York Times. He eulogized the leader and predicted, “The multilateral institutions Mr. Chávez helped create will also help ensure the consecration of South American unity.”
In fact, Chavez’s success in building institutions for alternative regional integration is one of the big reasons Washington hated him. The self-declared anti-capitalist led Venezuela as it joined with regional powerhouse Brazil and other southern cone countries to make a bid to crack the Monroe Doctrine. Along with Andean nations, they also sought, in varying degrees, to wrest control of significant natural resource wealth from transnational corporations to fund state redistribution programs for the poor.
In 2005, Chavez helped scuttle the U.S. goal of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Later he spearheaded the formation of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in 2008. As a Latin American alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States, the 12-member Unasur proved its value by successfully mediating the Colombia-Ecuador conflict and the Bolivian separatist crisis in 2008. In 2010, Chavez again played a major role with the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, made up of hemispheric partners, excluding the United States and Canada.
The Bank of the South, also promoted by Chavez, seeks greater South-South monetary and financial autonomy. As Lula writes in his editorial on Chavez´s death, the Bank offers an alternative to the World Bank and IMF, which “have not been sufficiently responsive to the realities of today’s multipolar world”.
With stops and starts, these initiatives have moved regional integration forward outside the historic model of U.S. hegemony.
U.S. Moves and the Principle of Self-Determination
What happens next? Venezuela held an emotional funeral on March 8 and is planning for April elections. Most predict that Vice President Nicolas Maduro, selected by Chavez as his successor, will win easily. He has the advantage of Chavez’s blessing: a common slogan in Caracas these days is “Chavez, te juro, que voto por Maduro” (“Chavez, I swear, my vote is for Maduro”). Another sign that Chavismo lives on was the thousands of people at the funeral chanting “Chavez didn’t die; he multiplied.”
The State Department views dimly the prospect of an improved U.S.-Venezuela relationship under Maduro. On March 6, the State Department held a press call on which “Senior Official One” (a State Department practice for “background” when its officials apparently don’t want to be identified with their own public statements) said the department was optimistic following Chavez’ death, but that “yesterday’s first press conference, if you will, the first address, was not encouraging in that respect. It disappointed us.”
He referred to a 90-minute address by Maduro, stating that “the enemy” attacked Chavez’s health. The Venezuelan government also announced the expulsion of two U.S. military personnel in Venezuela, allegedly for having contacted members of the Venezuela military to stir up an insurrection.
The State Department noted that it plans “to move ahead in this relationship” by holding conversations in areas of common interest, citing “counternarcotics, counterterrorism, economic or commercial issues including energy.” It added, “We are going to continue to speak out when we believe there are issues of democratic principle that need to be talked about, that need to be highlighted.”
During the Chavez years, U.S. officials and the press went into contortions to avoid congruency with the basic principle that democracy is measured by elections. With Chavez having indisputably won some thirteen elections, the U.S. government applied new criteria to Venezuela along the lines of “democracy can be wrong.” Despite his broad-based support, many went so far as to dub Chavez a “dictator.”
The U.S. government’s commitment to democracy falters when Washington doesn’t like the results. It supported the failed coup against Chavez in 2002 and blocked the return of Honduras’s elected president after the 2009 coup there.
Now all eyes will be on Washington to see whether it upholds another value reiterated by President Obama—the right to self-determination. Will U.S. “democracy-promotion programs” under NED, IRI, and other regime-change schemes resist the temptation to meddle in Venezuela’s April 14 elections?
Venezuela without Chavez will be an important test of moral and diplomatic integrity for the second Obama administration and John Kerry’s State Department.