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Requiem for a Latam dream

Like Alo Presidente, the television programme in which the late Hugo Chavez discussed his government’s policies and heard from the public, often cheering him on, Chavez’s own life too refused to follow a bound script, or hide behind the safety belt of teleprompters. Chavez was out and out a man of constant improvisation, and he had improvised  his way into and out of the tumultuous world of Latin American politics.

His death is a big blow to the revolutionary and anti-neoliberal movements spreading across the world. He was a rock star of the global grass-root movements, including the Occupy movements that shook up America in 2011 and 2012. Along with Fidel Castro and Brazil’s former president Lula de Silva, Chavez was undoubtedly the most powerful and inspiring figure produced by Latin America since Che Guevara in the 1950s or Simon Bolivar in the 19th century, both of whom were Chavez’s personal demigods.

 Evidently, a man of extremes, Chavez’s death has attracted really polarised reactions from the world over. While the oil barons and other members of the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have heaved a sigh of relief, the underclasses have poured out their hearts in sorrow at the passing of the giant. It was Hugo Chavez who put Venezuela, previously just another oil-producing nonentity under US thumbs, on the international map and turned it into a serious contender for the role of a global political vanguard. Almost crippled by successive American policies that were intended to extract as much oil as possible at lowered rates, Venezuela rose to glory and dignity under the magnificent leadership of Chavez. Time and time again, his US-sponsored opponents tried to oust him, and every time Hugo returned with ever bigger mandates. In October 2012, the 58-year-old presidential incumbent was returned to power a record 4th time, as he handed over a transparent defeat to the right-wing business tycoon Henrique Capriles Radonski, by a substantial margin: Chavez got 55.41 per cent of the votes, while Capriles received about 44.24 per cent, with an 80 per cent voter turn out.    

Since 1999, when he first won a landslide election and became the truly popular, democratically elected president of Venezuela, Chavez had unleashed a slew of reforms that were to change the face of the country. The staggering achievements spoke for themselves. This include nationalisation of several crucial industries, particularly oil; redistribution of wealth and power; investing in free education from day care to the university level; free health care and importing of thousands of doctors from Cuba in return for cheap oil to the US-embargo stricken Caribbean country; redistribution of agricultural land and restructuring of other sickly industries to gradually lift the burden of revenue generation from just oil exports; establishment of social security and pension systems for the retired and elderly; amongst a string of others.

Chavez had effectively proven to the world that alternatives to Western capitalism, particularly in its current exploitative avatar, existed. He called it ‘Socialism for the 21st century’ and it was finding favours amongst the academicians and activist policy-makers in Europe and America who were up in arms against the ceaseless onslaught of global capitalism and its effects of human livelihoods, environment, natural habitats, biodiversity, and other polluting fall outs.

Chavez’s open criticism of US neoliberal policies and their exploitative foreign policy had always been a big thorn in the throats of western politicos and media commentators. His intense friendship with Fidel Castro and dreams of consolidating a larger ‘Venecuba’ has been irritating the practitioners of reckless capitalism that in fact resulted in the financial meltdown of 2008. It was Venezuela, along with Brazil, that held their grounds when the world order was being wrecked everywhere else, particularly in USA and Europe that are still shuddering under the impact of the crisis. It was because of Venezuela’s increasing self-distancing from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the repositories of global capital, and because of its founding the Bank of the South to facilitate South American economic transactions extraneous to the strangling control of USA, and solidify the South Bloc as well as his efforts to make OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) more open and equal, that Chavez kept Venezuela from feeling the aftershocks of the financial tsunami that had engulfed the rest of the world.

 Much had been said about the potential rigging of 2012 election results in Venezuela that had brought Chavez back to power. In the words of the Nobel Laureate former American President Jimmy Carter, ‘As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we have monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.’ Though coming from the horse’s mouth, this clear testimony to Chavez’s fair and transparent victory had by far remained unmentioned except in the radical left press and some centrist newspapers in the West.

Hitherto, Western media had only concentrated on the concentration of power that the Chavez presidency (1999-2013) had been, not incorrectly, characteristic of, but the humongous project of national reconstruction that the late president had undertaken had been thoroughly vilified. So much so, that talks of ‘assassinating’ the ‘dictator’ Chavez had been doing rounds, as if USA could repeat a Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Husain in the oil-rich, self-sufficient, non-interfering and peace-loving Venezuela, whose leader is not an autocrat ruling by the force of his thumb but a statesman from whom Barack Obama can learn a lot.

Whether or not the President was ‘infected’ with cancer is a question that merits thorough investigation, but Chavez did change the course of Latin American history for the better, if not for good. The ‘Pink Tide’ that had swept vast swathes of the South American countries, under Chavez’s stewardship, is here to stay, unless ‘the transformation of Latin America’ that the Venezuelan vanguard started off remains an incomplete project and a one man show.     

The author is assistant editor at Millennium Post
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