Rebel with a cause? The divisive politics of Hugo Chavez
Its fair to say that any political leader who calls George Bush a ‘donkey’ and tells Tony Blair to ‘go to hell’ is going to build a reputation for themselves. So it was with the fiery self-proclaimed socialist revolutionary Hugo Chavez, who died last week after 14 years as President of Venezuela. The country is currently in a period of official mourning and Chavez is set to be embalmed like Lenin or Ho Chi Minh. Couple this with the scenes of grief-stricken Venezuelans on the street of Caracas and the conclusion would be that Chavez was a loved leader. Yet while many wept in Venezuela, there are those too who celebrated his demise. As in life, Chavez’s death has been a source of division with the political left lamenting the passing of a social democrat while those of the right hail the death of a tyrant.Certainly those in the West, particularly the US, will shed few tears for Chavez. Why? Because in their eyes he was an authoritarian figure whose ideology crippled the nation’s economy. This does have some traction, for while Chavez was elected, the legality of these has been disputed. Certainly he was not exactly a fan of democracy, for success through the ballot box only came after a failed military coup in 1992, hardly the work of a democrat. In office, he also spent much time amending the constitution which, although approved through referenda, first extended Presidential terms then allowed Presidents to have unlimited number of terms. These served to centralise power, facilitated by heavy media restrictions and also an aura created around his personality. Although this was not quite the cult of the leader in the Stalinist mould, it did build him as the father of the nation, with his trademark red beret becoming iconic. As well as this his economics have been criticised, for despite vast oil reserves, the country remains stagnant compared to many of its South American neighbours while corruption and violent crime are said to be rampant.
Perhaps what griped the West most of all though about Chavez was his behaviour on the international stage, particularly over the friends he had. Chavez developed a well-documented and close relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, a longstanding scourge of the US. It was there after all where he went for treatment as his cancer became more severe. As well as getting chummy with old enemies of the US, he also mixed with new ones, for Chavez allied himself with Iran’s Ahmadinejad, who’s perceived nuclear plans continue to be a source of concern. Indeed, such was their closeness that at Chavez’s funeral, Ahmadinejad said that he would one day be resurrected with Jesus. If they weren’t bad enough, Chavez regularly stirred controversy by praising other controversial leaders. These included Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, the last dictator in Europe, Colonel Gaddafi and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, responsible for widespread state brutality but who Chavez labelled as a ‘freedom fighter’. With friends like these, it is little wonder some in the international community will not mourn for long.
But does this paint the whole story of Chavez? Well no. To label him as just another military hard man in Latin America does not reveal the whole picture, for Chavez’s Venezuela did not have the torture and brutality that many such regimes sadly present in the region did. And this is reflected in where Chavez’s support lay, for it was not especially with the military, which was loyal to Venezuela but did not support him the way armies have done with other despots. Nor was it with the wealthy that have a worryingly high level of influence in many Western democracies. No, Chavez’s most loyal supporters were the poor slum-dwellers. Their reason for this was understandable, for Chavez’s cared about their plight in a way few previous leaders had done so. Using money from the nationalised oil industry, Chavez’s provided education, healthcare and clean water that were more or less universal with those in poverty thought to have reduced by some 50% between 2004 and 2011. Not exactly the policies of your average tin pot dictator.
And internationally too, there was more to Chavez than just the friends he kept. He provided oil cheaply to other South American countries and in this way became a beacon for a region too often maligned in international politics. He made himself a rallying point for those especially in South America but also more generally in the developing world who wanted a middle way between the defunct Soviet five-year plans and exploitative neo-liberal capitalism. Nowhere was this more seen than in his rhetoric against US imperialism. He may have gone too far in calling George Bush ‘the devil’ at the UN General Assembly, but in not relying on the US as others did, he was free to speak about what many in the developing world feared but perhaps may have been afraid to say. In particular, he challenged how the US dominated nations through economic deregulation, with many states coerced into this by policies of international monetary organisations. In this way Chavez was not just a crony of the world’s bad guys but an outsider capable of criticising the status quo and the activities of the elites and their effect on the poor. When Tony Blair attacked Chavez for failing to comply with international norms, his response was that Blair could not challenge him on this given that he himself had disregarded these with the Iraq War. That’s the sort of comment many countries would agree with, especially those who feel to be at the mercy of Western powers.
So how will Chavez be remembered? Well just as his rule was, his legacy will be determined by political positions. To the left, his love of the poor and his attacks on the dominating activities of the US made him a truly 21st century socialist, while those on the right dismiss him as just another dead ideologue. Which one is he? It may seem a cop out, but the truth is that it’s a bit of both. As much as we may like it to be, politics is not black and white, good guy or bad, but often a blending and Hugo Chavez was especially so. He clamped down on media freedoms, attacked the prosperous and allied himself with dangerous regimes across the globe. Yet he also provided the poor with facilitates that they could never had dreamed of and through his abrupt style got headline news on issues of domination and imperialism, topics that may otherwise have been swept under the carpet. So it is hard to say how Chavez will be thought of in the future but what can be said is that while his methods were flawed, he did seem to genuinely want to improve the lives of the vulnerable which has not exactly always been the focus of many governments. And internationally, while his strongly worded statements did little to help international dialogue, he was at least able to be a maverick capable of saying things that were not only different but which challenged the powerful and the established order. Whatever one may feel about his politics, the world still needs people like that.