The importance of Hugo Chavez
It has taken his death to show us how many friends Hugo Chavez had. The regular drip, drip of hostile lies about Venezuela in the media gave way to a torrent of praise for the remarkable changes he brought to his country; and in doing that, to the world. Governments and leaders across the world, in particular Africa as well as of course Latin America, lined up to praise him.
The achievements are hard to ignore in any but the most biased assessments. He and his governments halved poverty; introduced universal healthcare systems, eliminated illiteracy. He had a practical commitment to improving the lives of Venezuela’s people and in particular the millions who had been left to a life of poverty by previous regimes. The sheer scope of the imaginative programmes he led forward is extraordinary - for health, education, food sovereignty, land reform, electoral democracy, environmental protection, employment laws, racial and gender equality, the rights of indigenous people and industrial democracy, for example.
Venezuela has done more than any other country in the last decade to reduce inequality and bring welfare services to its people. In doing that it has shown that, whatever is said in Washington and London, there is an alternative to the cuts, austerity and privatisations we are suffering.
It is surprising to me how often people say ‘I like all that but I don’t like his methods’ and go on to assert that he controlled the media and was some kind of totalitarian or demagogue – an echo of the efforts of US spokespeople to taint him by referring to him alongside Ahmadinejad, Gaddafi and ‘other tyrants’. We can expec that from the USA. Yet even left of centre papers like the Guardian and the Independent found people to slur him - like Martin Kettle saying that he was a ‘human rights abuser’ and Rory Carroll suggesting he had ‘ruined Venezuela’.
So, it is still necessary to nail a few of the more persistent lies. For the record, the Venezuelan media is biased against Chavez – 80% of national TV is owned by his opponents; the only TV station shut down was the one which played an active part in the coup against him.
As regards being a tyrant – Chavez has won all his many election successes in an electoral system praised as one of the best in the world – in the last one registering an 80% turnout. As John Snow said: “when I started working in Latin America, the US was still killing leaders it didn’t like: Chavez is part of the order that put an end to that”.
The end to political violence as a means of government in countries ruled by Chavez and his allies (like Morales and Correa) is inspirational. Despite coups, attempted coups and assassinations, not once have they turned to the armed forces in response to political opposition. By contrast in countries still ruled by the right, like Colombia and Honduras, the state-sponsored political violence which characterised the ‘lost decades’ in which hundreds of thousands died across the continent continues.
People across Latin America are also the beneficiaries of his legacy. Chavez forged new relations with other Latin American countries based on solidarity and mutual benefits (and respect) through ALBA, and the creation of Latin American institutions like Mercosur, the ‘bank of the south’ – challenging successfully the hegemony of the USA.
One of the most remarkable examples of internationalism is the Venezuelan/Cuban Operation Miracle which has restored sight to 2 million people for free. And of course Venezuela’s friendship brought much-needed respite for Cuba’s revolution.
Not surprisingly, considering the transformations of so many spheres of Venezuelan society, there are numerous achievements of Chavez’ governments from which we can learn. The best-known Venezuelan export in Scotland is El Sistema, the inspirational method of addressing poverty and exclusion through music, specifically community-based teaching of orchestral music children from an early age – though started under earlier governments its massive expansion has been funded under Chavez.
In this case the practice has been transferred directly to The Big Noise in Raploch, Stirling. Generally however it is not specific projects which we need to bring to our country, it is the spirit and political philosophy of Chavez and his governments. One strand of this can summarised as ‘Just Do It’. He was deeply pragmatic – for example, in order to go around corrupt national and local bureaucracies, captured by the old elite, he used the state oil company to deliver his famous missions in the poor barrios (or slums)! Another strand is the vital importance attached to empowering and working with the people in their communities, unions and other organisations.
The most outstanding feature of Chavez’ politics, however, was his willingness to challenge the undemocratic powers of the rich and the powerful in his determination to build social justice in all its many forms.
Surely this is the message we should hear in Scotland – what matters most is the political will to build an equitable society which empowers its communities and looks after the most disadvantaged. If that’s what a government wants to do it can find the ways to do it. How long must we wait for our own Hugo Chavez?
This article first appeared in The Citizen.