Hugo Chavez: The revolution is bigger than one man

6:37 pm - March 6th 2013

by Salman Shaheen    

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Hugo Chavez took on imperialism, he stood up to George W. Bush and he fought poverty, but one battle he could not win was against cancer.

As Venezuela enters a period of mourning for their President, Chavez leaves behind a nation divided.

Reviled by the rich, revered by the poor, at times praised and scorned by the Western media, he polarised global opinion as much as he polarised his own country.

Chavez was a hero to the left, but he was a flawed one. He built a cult of personality around himself and he built questionable international alliances with the Syrian and Iranian dictatorships, too willing to buy into the idea that his enemy’s enemy was his friend.

But Chavez himself was not a dictator, despite what his conservative critics say. He won the vote of the poor majority because he spoke for them and he backed his words with actions.

Unlike many of Latin America’s loudest populists, Chavez stood fast to his programme of social reform, even when economic conditions were against him.

He redistributed the country’s wealth and he ploughed its vast oil revenues into healthcare, housing, education and food for its most destitute people. In doing so, he raised millions out of absolute poverty.

Extreme poverty fell by 72% under Chavez, while infant mortality fell by 18.2% between 1998 and 2006.

For all his faults, and for all the valid criticisms that should be raised of him, the world must never forget how one man helped make the lives of some of its poorest citizens better.

But the revolution is far bigger than one man. Chavez’s death leaves a vacuum in personality, but not in politics. The people he inspired, the people he taught to learn their constitution, the people he raised onto his shoulders so that they could see what could be achieved with their collective endeavours will not forget the progress they have made in the last 14 years. Nor will they be willing to go quietly back to
America’s yard and offer themselves up to the ravages of the failed neoliberal policies that brought them so much misery.

“Whenever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear and another hand reaches out to take up our arms,” another flawed left-wing icon once said.

And Chavez’s battle cry to the poor has reached millions of receptive ears, not just in Venezuela, but across Latin America as a pink tide sweeps a continent finally willing to stand up for itself.

Venezuela now stands at a crossroads, but Chavez’s death is not the end of the revolution. It was always far bigger than him.

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About the author
Salman Shaheen is the editor of International Tax Review magazine, co-editor of The Third Estate and a freelance journalist blogging here. Also at Left Foot Forward, New Statesman and on Twitter.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,South America

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Reader comments

That Chavez was a significant figure is merely reinforced by seeing the right-wing spin being applied today.

We’re even getting the old “election rigging” meme trotted out, as I noted earlier:

plus the false assumption that he was about to introduce marshal law if he lost the last election.

Yes, he was a flawed figure, and agreed that some of his alliances were dubious. But his worst crime for many on the right is that he was ferociously independent of the USA.

That’s not saying the USA is good, bad or whatever, just that Chavez sought to be independent of its influence.

“Chavez was a hero to the left…”

That right there is the problem. Every generation you move from one hero figure to the next. How do you think all the hero figures of the past worked out? It is the cult of the strongman personality that the UK left appear to fall for all the time. If the cult hero rants the right rhetoric you switch off your critical faculties.

He enjoyed a huge commodity boom and did absolutely nothing to develop and diversify the rest of the economy. Almost 95% of their exports is oil and that is not a healthy position. Relying on oil revenues went up during his reign. Of course a country should use resource revenues to improve the lives of people at the bottom and I would never criticise him for that. However, throwing around revenues to buy support is not an economic policy. Read any reports on the country and they all say the national infrastructure is falling apart. Venezuela is a country rich in natural resources that should be doing much better.

The country growing in a period when oil went from $10 to around $110, is really not that much of an achievement. Every other country in South America grew and nearly all did better than Venezuela. Here is how their neighbours performed.

The greatest reduction in poverty in any one thirty year period in world history has been in China, they embraced reforms and lifted 600 million out of abject poverty. Leftist governments in Brazil did much better than Chavez, yet because he engaged in comic book anti-imperialist rants you ignore them to hero worship a clown.

@ 1. Tim Fenton

The independence from the U.S. was more rhetoric than reality. Venezuela is the fourth largest exporter of crude oil to the U.S. Moreover, as an example of how fucked up the Venezuelan infrastructure really is they cant even refine enough oil for their own gasoline needs. They have to export the crude oil to the U.S. to be refined and import it as gasoline. Now, if the U.S. government had wanted to fuck them up they could easily have imposed an import and export ban. At the same time as Chavez was giving anti-capitalist speeches for the international left to soak up he was meeting Wall St. institutions looking for investment. They actually sold him a bunch of structured note derivatives tied to Ecuador and his mate Correa burned him.

“Unlike many of Latin America’s loudest populists, Chavez stood fast to his programme of social reform, even when economic conditions were against him.”

Like inflation at 1500%. The only way he could carry on his police of social reform, or what I call buying votes from the poor, was through oil which he sold to many other dodgy countries – such as Syria.

I agree that he raised living standards in the country, but not in a sustainable manner. With the economy in ruins, and now that he is dead, the wheels will be coming off his train, and a big huge crash is looming up. With everyone dependent on handouts and heavily subsidized food and fuel they need the state to keep giving it to them. When the state has collapsed the people will not be able to cope on their own as they will not have been creating their own wealth.

I suspect that Chavez is bigger than the revolution and now that he is no longer leading it with an iron rule the country will be collapsing into chaos unless another authoritarian dictator manages to take over in another coup just like Chavez did so many years ago.

Ah yes, the proponents of neo-classical economics – those guys that brought us the Wall Street Crash, Yeltsin’s shock therapy, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the current world economic krakatoa – have got their crystal balls out again, forcasting doom and gloom for a country that dared follow a different path. Forgive me if just snigger to myself.

If Chavez had been anything but a charlatan, he wouldn’t have scuttled off to someone else’s country for medical treatment.

There’s a good Channel 4 graphic here:

A mixed bag, but progress in important areas.

The graphs at #2 say most of it.
And the friendships with Ahmadinejad, Gaddafi and Assad say the rest.

Needless to say the most entertaining thing is the lefty fawning-mourning. Is this man’s approach really their best hope?
Good luck with that!

The Guardian reads like the Sun after Princess Diana died.
While the Daily Mash gets is more or less right.
Except I suppose he might have banned every paper except the Guardian!

It always makes me laugh when Chavez’s detractors claim that he “shut down the opposition media”. He did no such thing. The only broadcaster that was closed was the one that supported the coup. And I would ask those Rightists this: would Cameron or any other PM tolerate a station that supported the idea of overthrowing the government? I don’t think they would. That reminds me, free speech isn’t even enshrined in law in Britain.

It always makes me laugh when people don’t know what they are talking about.

@9. buddyhell

“That reminds me, free speech isn’t even enshrined in law in Britain.”

Sorry but you are simply wrong. What do you think the Human Rights Act 1998 says? Even before this it was a common law right.

12. Peter Gilkes

He was lucky that oil was discovered just after he won his first election. If that had not happened the previous government would have lifted the poor out of poverty much more quickly…

Well, that seems to be some people’s line. And if it had been there before – which, of course, it was – then why were 80% in deep poverty? And what plans did the rightists have o lift their own people? Not many!

13. Peter Gilkes

It’s interesting that the coup was dismissed in the article in a passing flash. It was short lived, but could easily have led to civil war and thousands of deaths. It mentions ‘opposition journalists’ as if they would never think of trying to foment revolution again. Perhaps the President was too forgiving.

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