By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
For the second time — two centuries apart — the people of Venezuela and of other Latin American states mourn the passing away of a great revolutionary leader.
The first time was when Simon Bolivar, leader of the South/Latin American nations’ fight for liberation from Spanish colonialism, died of tuberculosis at age 47 on Dec. 17, 1830.
Now they grieve the death last Tuesday of Hugo Chavez, 58, Venezuela’s president for 14 years. One report says two million people have already come to his wake.
Chavez sought to scuttle US imperialist influence in Latin America. Acknowledging Fidel Castro of Cuba as his mentor and inspiration, together with other leaders he succeeded in curbing that influence to some extent.
Bolivar dreamed of uniting the then newly-independent Latin American states, but died before being able to advance it. That same dream was pursued by Chavez, under different geopolitical circumstances.
The effort resulted in the establishment in 2008 of the 12-nation Union of South American Nations, and in 2010 of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The latter parallels the older Organization of American States, but notably excludes the US and Canada.
Although the two Venezuelan leaders were impelled by the same libertarian spirit and vision of a United Latin America, their class origins were poles apart:
Bolivar was born in Caracas into one of Venezuela’s wealthiest families. In contrast, Chavez’s parents were primary school teachers who lived in a dirt-floor adobe house in Sabaneta town of Barinas, a cattle state in western Venezuela.
The “western” media have largely been critical of Chavez — his persona, his unorthodox leadership style, his ideas, economic policies and programs, particularly currency controls and the nationalization or state takeover of the oil industry and 1,000 private corporations.
The liberal International Herald Tribune has published two lengthy articles, one about his being a “polarizing Venezuelan leader” and the other, his “legacy of empowerment, but also divisiveness.” The conservative Economist derides what it calls his “rotting legacy.”
Chavez’s “visceral connection to the masses of Venezuela’s poor” was noted by the IHT.
One article concedes that Chavez’s leadership has altered the political balance not only in Venezuela but also in Latin America. He “changed Venezuela in fundamental ways, empowering and energizing millions of poor people who had felt marginalized and excluded.”
However, it adds, “his tenure also widened society’s divisions, and his death is sure to bring vast uncertainty as the nation tries to find its way without its central figure.”
Being described as “polarizing” and “divisive” must be understood in the context that, unlike in Cuba, Chavez’s “socialist revolution” hasn’t yet fundamentally altered Venezuelan society. It didn’t do away with social classes. It mainly adopted, and implemented with Cuban assistance, some of Cuba’s successful measures to eradicate inequality and welfare programs for the poor.
Utilizing the huge revenues from oil exports, Chavez significantly reduced poverty by increasing social services spending by 60.6% in 10 years, totaling $772 billion. Both the OAS and the United Nations Development Program affirm that Venezuela’s overall poverty rate dropped from 49% in 1998 (when Chavez was first elected president) to 27% in 2011; although extreme poverty only dipped from 27.4% (5.5 million people) to 23% (2.5 million) in 2012.
Venezuela also met its Millennium Development Goal target for education. Moreover, the UN rated his country among the nations with a high level of human development. And, a Gallup Poll (according to the Washington Post), ranked Venezuela as the “5th most happy country” alongside Finland.
Definitively, Chavez fulfilled his vow to empower and improve the lives of the poor.
It’s interesting to look into how Chavez developed his political ideas and social-changing commitment.
After graduating from military school in the late 1970s, he was assigned to a counterinsurgency unit against the Maoist rebel group called Red Flag. He was repelled by the military’s brutal treatment of the guerrillas. He also realized the validity of the rebels’ struggle against inequality in Venezuelan society.
That led him to form a clandestine group among young military officers, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement. They launched a coup in 1992. It failed, and Chavez deemed it wise to surrender and bide time. He was court-martialed, imprisoned and freed after two years. Then he founded a political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, after barnstorming the country and gaining grassroots support.
In 1998 he ran for president and won 56% of the votes. Thrice he was reelected, with majority votes each time. In 2002 a military coup backed by the financial elite and the US government ousted him. But within 48 hours he was brought back in power by widespread popular protests; urban poor women, for example, surrounded the main military camp and demanded his return.
Fidel Castro’s poignant letter to Chavez, dated last Feb. 17 (after the latter left Cuba for the last time), speaks volumes about what binds the two revolutionaries.
“We will always live to fight for justice for human beings, consciously and humbly,” Castro says, “without fear of the years, months, days or hours that we might have left to live in the most critical era of the history of our humanity.”
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March 9, 2013