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Hugo Chávez

The United States’ biggest bogeyman dictator remaining, Hugo Chávez, has died of cancer at age 58.  His status as our most feared repressive ruler says something about the state of the world today because by any reasonable accounts he was neither all that repressive nor that big of a challenge to the US.  Even the amount he was feared was greatly exaggerated as a badge of honor by this man of the people.  Yet his passing is extremely important in that it probably marks a new phase in the continuing progress of Latin America.

Why did we fear Chávez, if we did at all?  What will come next?  Most of it has been show so far, but in typical South American fashion it was a pretty good show.  This one may have some lasting and even positive effects.

ChavezHugo Chávez was always a man of the people in this nation unreasonably impoverished despite great wealth.  His first attempt at a coup in 1992 landed him in jail, but his popularity saw him released from jail in 1994 and elected President in 1998.   From there, he sought to re-make his nation as a truly socialist commonwealth, the Bolivaran Republic of Venezuela.  The constitution was overhauled by 2000 and a system of social programs funded by massive oil exports (the fourth largest exporter to the US) was installed.

“After many readings, debates, discussions, travels around the world, etcetera, I am convinced — and I believe this conviction will be for the rest of my life — that the path to a new, better and possible world is not capitalism. The path is socialism!”

Chávez was not without his critics, of course.  Opposition radio and television was routinely banned, and leaders who took him on were often targets of investigation on dubious charges.   Even his supporters sometimes wondered where all the money was going, wondering why there was not more general improvement in conditions for the people of Venezuela.  Part of the problem was that those with money routinely took it out of the country, depositing it in the US and often fleeing themselves – Miami developed an active anti- Chávez community during this time.

It is hard to call him a “dictator”, however, no matter how much power he concentrated in his own hands.  A 2007 referendum that would have ceded absolute control to him failed handily and Chávez respected the results.  He was only willing to go so far.

What mattered most, however, was the show and bluster – which had far more positive effect than most in the US will ever understand.  Chávez, like his idol Simón Bolívar, stood for regional independence and cooperation.  No longer did anyone have to take orders from Washington.  That message resonated well and has at least partially defined leftist governments in Ecuador and, to a lesser extent, Brazil.  The growing success of the region does owe some debt to Chávez.  As Jimmy Carter said in a lengthy statement:

Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chávez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen.  President Chávez will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment. During his 14-year tenure, Chávez joined other leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean to create new forms of integration.

That’s pretty strong praise for our biggest bogeyman.  Yet for all the talk some kind of war with the US, we remained his largest trading partner and we kept our hands off his government.  Hatred of Chávez was always tempered by the simple, practical realization that he did a lot of good both in Venezuela and the region.

For my own part, I have never known what to make of the man.  The over-the-top abuse of the name of  Bolívar bothered me as a deep admirer of this great man.  I also wondered how it was in the interests of an impoverished nation to pull oil out of the ground and load it into ships for quick cash when there was so much value to be added – as plastics and the raw materials of many industries employing millions.  The clear abuses of free speech and free assembly were simply wrong.  But for all of that, something had to be done to organize South America and lift it up, and that did happen.

With his passing Chávez leaves behind a terrible power vacuum that could yet rip Venezuela apart.  The long stifled opposition will certainly seize its chance and try to make something happen.  We can all only hope that it is peaceful and democratic – and that the region as a whole comes together now that the polarizing force is gone.

Rest in peace, Hugo Chávez.  Bless you all, Venezuela.

11 thoughts on “Hugo Chávez

    • I never knew what to make of Chavez. I do find myself grieving his passing because I don’t know what’s next for Venezuela and the region. I cheer for them and wish them all the best. It seems like Chavez’s regime is something they had to pass through – so what’s next?

  1. I agree that if he’s as bad as it gets we are doing OK. But he is far from the worst one remaining. Assad has to go in Syria. If the people of Venezuela really want socialism they can have it, no skin off my nose.

    • I just can’t take a hard line on socialism, knowing how important cooperation is when a nation is rising to developed status. The example of Japan in the 60s was duplicated brilliantly in South Korea and is now being put to work in Malaysia and Indonesia. Brazil followed a similar path, and it’s worked well for them.
      I guess the bottom line is that I would never want to dictate “the right way” to people in a situation very different from mine. I can complain about a lack of free speech – I do feel that’s a universal right, at least in politics. But the rest – yes, they can have it. 🙂

  2. Good article!! I really liked the quote from President Carter too.
    I spent about 2 hours today talking to a conservative (libertarian) and certainly not all about politics. I think I learned a great deal altho him and I disagree on many things, primarily he seems to have a more monolithic thought style. I know that may seem wierd for a libertarian. He thinks for- profit health insurance plans are more effective than non- profit health plans. I can’t explain it except by saying he has swallowed the Pawlenty bs that we should allow insurance companies from Mississippi sell us insurance. Neither of us have decent insurance. And yes I know about the 82% average (amount spent on direct care). I know about ineffective duo/tripolies where the big players essentially set prices. It all was just blowing my mind because in a sense we were locked in a training room and altho we didn’t have to agree we couldn’t just walk away either. It seems in my mind where politics comes up my wife and I and my brother and one sister in law pretty much stand together(liberal variations). And when I have disagreements with my 3 male friends (liberal variations) we just agree to disagree on those minor points as the friendship is the most important thing. And because I am the only one (of these 6 people who are close to me), who works directly with the public in a grey collar service economy I am the bridge between opposing viewpoints. And all this bought me to 2 very interesting websites, Erik Hare and the other is “edge” (where science and the humanities meet). tell me what you think.
    Once again thank you for the article. A speaker on NPR also spoke with some balance as you do.
    P.S. Sorry for the length but this is where it gets interesting altho I’m a liberal I have lived my personal life far more conservatively than the libertarian.

    • Thanks! Being respectful means to me that you start by acknowledging that people come to the conclusions and opinions they hold dear for a reason. If you assume they are simply stupid in some way you are insulting them – and it will come out eventually. In this world we all have to work together at some point, and that means we have to respect each other. We don’t have to agree, that’s silly.
      So I try to be respectful and accept that people do things for reasons I don’t understand but are very dear to them. In the case of Hugo Chavez the guy didn’t steal and did back down when told he went to far by the people. That means something important, and he should have credit for that. I don’t agree with him, but he did accomplish a lot – and it’s worthy of respect.
      The one thing I really don’t understand is why respect seems so difficult for so many people today.

  3. Where did you get your Jimmy Carter quote from and at what time? I think you have a good scoop. It seems most of the first hits when you google are from right wing haters of Jimmy Carter and Hugo. You may have got it from a national or local Atlanta service or maybe international or left wing but good job. I’m a bit out of the loop as I am working full time again.

    • I got that quote from the UK Guardian. I think there’s a link up there somewhere to it – they were running a “live blog” as world leaders reacted to Chavez;s death.

  4. Thanks, that’s where I also spotted it late. Love the Guardian site both UK and US. I know you are not much of a movie goer but the arab film fest starts next weds-sunday in MPLs. The egyptian Spring was what got me to the guardian. The fest will have at least one if not more films about the arab spring, the big one is “winter of discontent” I hope to go I think it will be better or at least more grassroots than zero dark thirty.

    • That would be a good thing to see, thanks! We know so little about the rest of the world here, it’s chilling. I would like to know more about the Arab Spring in particular – this may have generation long implications, even if the immediate effects are slow to come on.

  5. My one piece of advice about the arab film fest (I’ve gone to 3 or 4) is to expect a large crowd for the opening nights on Weds, Thurs, and Friday.
    Also there will be a lot (1 hour or more) of talking before they screen those early films as they often have the director there. Because of my work hours and not being part of the arab community I often go to the smaller films during the matinee times.

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