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President Chávez — Anti-Imperialist and Socialist

by W.T. Whitney Jr.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is dead, from cancer. Streets in Venezuela filled with red-shirted mourners. Latin American and Caribbean political leaders voiced wrenching testimonials. A Colombian observer wrote: “Chávez is already the patrimony of the world’s revolutionaries. His name will remain in the memory not only of the Venezuelan people, but also of the peoples of Our America.”

Chávez became known in February 1992 after he and other left-leaning army officers launched a coup. They were responding to official knuckling-under to international lenders and to the suffering it caused. Victims rebelled on February 27, 1989. Repression, referred to as the “Caracazo,” took 3000 lives.

Chávez ended his coup to avoid killings. By government arrangement, he appeared on television before going to jail. He took responsibility for “our objectives not being met, for now.” The phrase “for now” took on symbolic value as, after leaving prison, Chávez toured in preparation for presidential elections in 1998.

Chávez won those elections and three more, plus a recall referendum — all by large majorities. His “Bolivarian” political movement won three elections ushering in Venezuela’s new Constitution. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter attested to voting integrity: “[O]f the 92 elections that [the Carter Center has] monitored, the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.”

Even now, shortly after his death, President Chávez’s political journey invites comparisons with memorable historical figures. Chávez led the Latin American and Caribbean peoples far along the road to integration and unity. His socialist project did much to revive the politics and image of wealth re-distribution. The example of CháChávez’s life had a role in restoring the dignity of poor people in Venezuela and beyond.

Under Chávez Venezuela became “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Simon Bolívar led several Latin American countries to independence from Spain. He and President Chávez are linked through kinship between anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. Each regarded integration among nations as a tool to achieve and preserve independence. They shared an adversary. “The United States appears to be destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty,” Bolívar wrote in 1829.

Under Chávez’s leadership, Venezuela, with Cuba, formed the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). The group of nine nations exchanges goods and services out of solidarity. Cuba and Venezuela exchange medical services and teaching for oil. Surgical restoration of sight for two million people took place under ALBA auspices.

Chávez led in forming the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations comprising all Western hemisphere nations except the United States and Canada. He promoted the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) whose members cooperate in infrastructure, military, and economic projects and conflict resolution.

Chávez was instrumental in organizing resistance to the U.S. Free Trade of the Americas scheme that was rejected in 2005 at the “Summit of the Americas” in Argentina. Other initiatives aimed at unity were: cheap oil for Caribbean area nations via Petrocaribe (and to marginalized U. S. communities), oil and health care financing for Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the Bank of the South, and the TeleSur regional broadcasting alternative. Venezuela under Chávez allied with Iran, Russia, and China, and with African nations. Alliances and Latin American integration efforts contributed toward a multi-polar alternative to U.S. hegemony.

Under President Chávez, Venezuela introduced what he called “socialism of the 21st century.” This pragmatic endeavor is built more on political participation at the community level than on theorizing and copying — with one exception. “Like Allende, we’re pacifists and democrats,” Chávez said. “Unlike Allende, we’re armed.” Chávez launched the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Under Chávez-style socialism, wealth for redistribution derives from exploitation of great oil deposits.

Venezuelan socialism co-exists with capitalism. For how long, and how, are unknown. Meanwhile, most Venezuelans’ lives are better. Popular support for the Bolivarian revolution is high.

Poverty dropped from 55 percent in 1995 to 26.4 percent in 2009, extreme poverty from 25 to seven percent. Unemployment, 15 percent in 1999, fell to 7.8 percent in 2009. University enrollment increased from 785,000 students in 1998 to 2,340,000 in 2011. Health care is free and accessible; infant mortality fell 34 percent after 1998, life expectancy increased 2.4 years. With Cuban help, some 35,000 youths are studying medicine for six years at no cost. In 2011 construction began on 350,000 houses for poor people. Subsidized food is available. Illiteracy disappeared.

President Chávez was born in Barinas in 1954. Because his schoolteacher parents were poor, Chávez was raised by his grandmother Rosa Inez Chávez. The floor of her house was dirt. Young Chávez sold sweets to passersby. He was barred from elementary school because of decrepit shoes, for a while. His storyteller grandmother guided Chávez into reading and history. Chávez entered a military academy in Caracas as an avenue toward his goal of playing professional baseball.

The class-conscious Chávez told biographer Bart Jones about his grandmother: “I saw the injustices of the world…I learned with her the principles and the values of the humble Venezuelan, those that never had anything, and who constitute the soul of my country.”

U.S. political and media commentary on Chávez’s death, by and large, has been cold, calculating, and hostile. That’s of a piece with U.S. complicity with the military and media coup that removed him for two days in April 2002, consistent too with U. S. backing later that year of sabotage and work stoppages that paralyzed oil production. Millions of dollars have flowed from Washington to fund internal dissent.

The United States does not act alone. Offering condolences on Chávez’s death, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggested to Venezuelans, ”At this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

The European Union backed the 2002 coup. Its declaration cited “trust that the transitional government will respect democratic values and institutions so that the present crisis might be overcome within a framework of national peace.”

Colonialists and their overseas subjects are at odds by nature. Defending British rule in North America, the famous dictionary author Samuel Johnson, for example, told his biographer that: “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” So today’s neo-colonialists are true to form. Hyperbole and distortion go along with novel ways to subjugate — economic, internal subversion, and military. One understands: targeted peoples are working on solutions that may work, that is to say, they unify and build socialism — as per President Chávez.