Editor’s note: Every week Truthdig recognizes a group or person who seeks the truth or takes some action to make the world a better place. This week we find ourselves torn between two politicians with very different perspectives. Ideology is not a factor in the selection of our Truthdiggers, and to that end we’ve decided to commend both Sen. Rand Paul for his filibuster seeking increased transparency of the government’s use of drones, and Hugo Chavez, who spent the last 14 years working to improve the lives of his country’s poorest citizens. To read our tribute to Paul, click here.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died Wednesday. He was 58. For two years, an unspecified cancer in his lower body resisted surgery and treatment, and ultimately carried him away from the people who came to love him during his 14-year rule.
Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara wrote the day after Chavez’s death, the president earned the love of Venezuelans at home and leftists across the world for combining “the fiery rhetoric of Italian fascism” with the egalitarian priorities of Scandinavian socialism. The progressive social and economic policies he instituted from his election in 1999 onward inspired the business class he was successfully tethering to plot his death or disappearance. In 2002, an American-supported attempt to oust Chavez failed. Afterward, the privately owned media in the United States and Venezuela relentlessly sought to portray him as a dictator.
What were his achievements? One of Chavez’s first acts was to nationalize Venezuela’s oil industry. Before Chavez, the oil supply was privately owned. A small class of monopoly-holding elites sold the oil to the United States at low cost and took the profits for themselves. Chavez immediately raised the prices and sold the oil directly to purchasing countries. As he explained in an interview with “Democracy Now!,” this eliminated the speculators in the middle, and allowed Venezuela to provide Latin America and Caribbean countries with cheap fuel.
Chavez used Venezuela’s oil profits to end illiteracy, provide elementary, high school and college education, help poor mothers cover the cost of raising their families, expand and increase retirement benefits, provide neighborhood doctors to all communities and launch massive housing construction programs. He cut poverty in half and reduced extreme poverty by two-thirds. Venezuela was transformed from the most unequal country in Latin America to the least. Democracy thrived as well. More than 30,000 newly created neighborhood councils gave members of the public the means to have their wants and needs heard.
In 2005 Chavez declared himself a socialist. But not in the authoritarian mold of the Soviet Union under Stalin. He voiced his commitment to a socialism that was participatory and fully democratic. The political variety would exist alongside the economic kind.
Chavez’s reforms did not merely bring greater dignity to Venezuelans. Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and author of “The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela,” told “Democracy Now!” how Chavez’s nationalization of the oil industry allowed the leader to unite Latin American and Caribbean countries in a relationship of cooperative economic and political good will.
“[O]il has to be understood as something that is not simply an economic question for Venezuela,” Salas said. Before Chavez, the oil industry functioned “essentially as an international conglomerate that was housed in Venezuela but did not really consider itself Venezuelan.” Once reclaimed, Chavez used his control over oil “to buttress relations with Latin America in a very important way, to provide oil and long-term credits to countries like Nicaragua, like Dominican Republic, like Jamaica and other countries in the region, and including Cuba, and [to use] that to create a tremendous amount of political good will, [recognizing] that Venezuela has an important role, not simply as a purveyor of energy to the First World, to the U.S., which was its dominant trading partner, but really to Latin America.”
“And then that notion of economic nationalism, of economic sovereignty, spread throughout Latin America. We saw the same example in Bolivia nationalizing the gas industry. We saw Ecuador rejoining OPEC. We saw the creation of Petrocaribe, a Caribbean initiative that provided oil ... to the Caribbean. We saw the provision ... of heating oil to communities in the U.S. under the banner of Citgo, so that Northeastern communities that had to pay onerous prices received oils at subsidized prices, as well. And we saw also Petrosur, the creation of a South American oil body that actually helped negotiate conditions for oil industry.”
Thus Chavez inspired a generation of Latin American voters and politicians to pursue left-wing social and economic policies that served the people rather than a tiny privileged class.
His detractors, many of who come from the upper classes of socially unjust countries, say he was not democratic enough. Gregory Wilpert, founder of Venezuelanalysis.com, said on “Democracy Now!”: “Certainly Chavez had his top-down management style, which certainly clashed and bothered many people. But on the other hand, one cannot deny, I think, that participation in Venezuela increased from any measure that you look at.” When polled, Venezuelans said their political process was more democratic than it had ever been before.
Those who claim his policies spurred economic inflation have to answer the fact that inflation dropped from 50 percent in the years before his presidency to about 20 percent after he was elected, Wilpert said. Criticisms of the administration’s failure to combat crime are justified, however. “They believed that once you get poverty down, crime would go down by itself,” Wilpert said. “And they didn’t do enough to actually make sure that there’s enough police, a decently functioning judicial system.”
Juan Cole argued this week that Chavez’s enthusiasm to find international allies conflicted with his populist values. Though he could be admired for calling President George W. Bush “the Devil” in front of a U.N. General Assembly in 2006 and earned the love of many Arabs for opposing the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and Israel’s conflict with Gaza, he also voiced his support for the leaders of Libya, Iran and Syria as their governments were doing everything they could to stifle democracy within their borders. “Chavez did sully his legacy as a progressive with his superficial reading of what ‘anti-imperialism’ entails and his inability to see the neo-liberal police states of the Middle East for what they had become,” Cole wrote. But his positions had little tangible effect. “Despite a lot of verbiage, [Venezuela’s] economic cooperation with Iran has been minor for both countries, and Chavez did no more than make angry speeches about Libya and Syria.” And “[g]ood Iranian-Venezuelan relations provoked a great deal of hysteria in the US, but they don’t actually appear to have been consequential, either in the sphere of economics or in that of security.”
A telling of Chavez’s youth, his radicalization and his failed and successful quest to take power from the rich and comfort the dispossessed, produced by The Real News Network, can be seen below. For his in-your-face decency on behalf of the poor and against the people he despised, for being a principled opponent of economic as well as imperial terror, and for giving an unequivocal demonstration of what socialism makes possible, we honor Hugo Chavez as one of our Truthdiggers of the Week.