EDINBURG, March 10 - Long live Bolívar! That, certainly, was the hope of recently deceased Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez.
His dream of a “Bolivarian Revolution” - a not quite totally united Latin America - and of fairer, more equitable treatment of the masses of Venezuelans was only just begun. It might have ended again—or might be re-born again—with Chávez’s passing.
Simón Bolívar, with his prowess as general, as diplomat, as geo-political philosopher, would not live to see his dream fulfilled. The dream emerged anew, late twentieth century, embodied in a brave, but not very sophisticated military officer, Hugo Chávez. He died--3.5.13—of cancer at 59 years of age. One of our students at my university blurted out in class: “I’m glad that evil dictator is dead.”
It made me sad he was so misinformed, misguided. He joins “Christian” preacher, Pat Robertson, who called for Chávez to be assassinated. Many others, on Fox, in other media—and perhaps on your street or in your home—ignore the admonition not to speak ill of the dead. On the contrary, Chávez was not a dictator. He was re-elected twice in democratic, internationally monitored elections. “Evil”? That may depend on your ideology and from whom you get your information and opinion.
With Chávez gone, will Chavismo survive? Will Bolívar’s dream survive? Will the current, interim government of his Vice-President, Nicolás Maduro be able to win election (to be called within 30 days)? Will Henrique Capriles Radonski, leader of the determined upper class opposition prevail? Even if Maduro should win will he have the power to extend (and reform) his policies? He certainly does not have Chávez’s charisma. One wonders also about the absence of a good sense of public relations. He foolishly likened Chávez tomb to that of Lenin or Mao. More to the point, will the Venezuelan government be able to maintain order, continue helping the poor masses, and provide more openness in government? Also important, will they be able to fulfill contracts for oil for needy Cuba and other countries?
If the past is prologue, there will be tensions. Previously, “President Bush backed a campaign against the democratically elected government of Venezuela” (Rio Grande Guardian, 1.13.13). More recently, Chávez’s inauguration was marred by right wing protestors (Fox in the U.S., wealthy elites owning all the media in Carácas. They claimed, since he was in Cuba, being treated for cancer, he could not assume office.
A mass of followers counter-protested. They had the Constitution on their side and overcame those additional obstacles to democracy. They, like Spartacus, raised their hands, taking the oath symbolically, declaring “Yo Soy Chavez.” Will the right wing continue to ignore the masses now that Chavez is dead? Vamos a ver; we will see.
The scholarly community has weighed in with mixed to positive reviews of Chávez. Peter H. Smith, for example, noted that, even before his presidency, Chavez lead Latin America in rejection of capitalist “globalization,” increasingly on U.S. terms. Earlier, massive protests rocked Venezuela against IMF-imposed austerity programs (Talons of the Eagle, 2012).
As President, Chávez was acknowledged in the academic literature (e.g., Gavin O’Toole) as an unabashed “neo—populist.” But, keep in mind that “populism” has been used as a term both to support and to attack progressive programs. Actually, Chávez “did not dismantle capitalism. Venezuela’s economy remained mixed.” Oil revenues helped, of course. Chávez made heavy use of them to fund the “misiones,” programs to provide “social and economic rights for marginalized communities” (Politics Latin America, 2011). With Chavez’s death, the Left will still try, to some extent, to follow his lead into “21st Century socialism.”
On the other hand, joining some of our students, some journalistic sources joined the litany of criticism of Chávez. Writing in the New Yorker (l.28.13), Jon Lee Anderson asks “What Has Hugo Chávez Wrought”? He responded with a lengthy article accusing Chávez, among other things, of being a “slum lord.” The deliberate “guilt by association,” (in my estimation unworthy of the quality of that magazine), was invoked: “it is fitting that Chávez has come to rest in Cuba, which has long been a second home for him.”
Of course Cuba needs oil. Of course a developing country such as Venezuela needs medicine and doctors. What is wrong with sister American nations, neighbors with a history of meddling by the United States, trading and aiding one another? Anderson opines: “the revolution Chávez tried to bring about never really took place,” What Chávez started “most likely” will end.
That is easy to say, hard to prove, and is an astonishingly tone-deaf dismissal of the fervor of support (and need) of thousands of poor Venezulanos who “most likely” will not willingly go back to poverty without hope, under the thumb of the tiny, White, social elite minority. Their record was not so great, at least not for the masses.
And what, exactly, hath Chávez wrought? We hear only the negative, and often we hear hard-to-prove, hard-to-counter, distorted assertions. We too often believe the last thing we hear on television. So, let’s look at the record. The economy is not on solid ground. Over-dependence on oil is still a problem. The variables are mixed and confusing, affecting any government in power.
When prices were high, the government could be very aggressive with whatever program. With the later drop in production and prices and the world-wide recession, revenues anticipated dropped precipitously. Inflation at 22 percent is a problem, but, again, the ups and downs of oil are related and would be crucial factors for any government—left or right. Production is now up again. In terms of “socialism,” the government actually spends less than public sectors in, say, France or Sweden. Capitalism is alive and well.
A keystone of Bolivarísmo, the poverty rate dropped from 50.4 percent when Chávez began his first term to 36.3 percent in 2006. Infant mortality dropped from 20.3 per 1,000 to 12.9 at the same time (World Bank). In education, numbers of secondary students enrolled rose from 48 percent to 72 percent (UNESCO). Targeted also were the arts. Poor students were provided with both instruments and training. The famous conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel is a product of Chávez’s vision.
If the “past be prologue,” if the Bolivarian Revolution is to be undone, we might reflect on the reasons for it in the first place. We might learn from the old Spanish dicho/saying: “no hay mal que dure mas de cien años, ni nadie que lo aguante.” There is not an evil that can last over 100 years or a people who will put up with it.
Dr. Gary Mounce is political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. His columns appear regularly in the Rio Grande Guardian.