The unprecedented worldwide response to the death of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and especially in the Western Hemisphere, has brought into stark relief the “multi-polar” world that Chávez fought for. Fifty-five countries were represented at his funeral on March 7th, 33 (including all of Latin America) by heads of state. Fourteen Latin American countries decreed official days of mourning – including the right-wing government of Chile. In contrast to the emotional outpourings, and the honor and respect that came from Latin American heads of state, the White House put out a cold and unfriendly statement that – to the horror of many Latin Americans – didn’t even offer condolences.
It seems that the most demonized democratically elected president in world history had a lot of friends and admirers – and not just the “enemy states” like Iran or Syria that get first mention in U.S. news reports. Now we are told that the outpouring of sympathy is all about Venezuela’s oil, but no Saudi Arabian royal ever got this kind of love, while alive or dead.
Readers of the New York Times were probably surprised to learn from an op-ed last week by Lula da Silva, Brazil’s popular former president, that he and Chávez were quite close and shared the same vision for Latin America. It was always true: in 2006, after Lula was re-elected, the first trip he took was to Venezuela to help Chávez campaign for his own re-election.
Let’s face it: what Chávez said about Washington’s role in the world was what all the left presidents – now the vast majority of South America – were thinking. And Chávez didn’t just talk the talk: as Lula noted, he played a crucial role in the formation of UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations), CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations), and other efforts at regional integration.
“Perhaps his ideas will come to inspire young people in the future, much as the life of Simón Bolívar, the great liberator of Latin America, inspired Mr. Chávez himself,” wrote Lula.
Chávez was the first of what became a long line of democratically-elected left presidents that have transformed Latin America, and especially South America over the last 15 years, including Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Lula da Silva and then Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, José “Pepe” Mujica in Uruguay, and Mauricio Funes in El Salvador. Before Chávez, democratically elected leftist presidents tended to end up like Salvador Allende of Chile – overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1973. Much of the Latin American left, including Chávez himself, was still skeptical of the electoral route to social change more than 20 years later, since the local elites, backed by Washington, had an extra-legal veto when they needed it.
Chávez was able to play a vital role in the “second independence” of South America because he was different from other heads of state in a number of important ways. I noticed this when I met him for the first time in April of 2003. He seemed to treat everyone the same – from the people who served him lunch at the presidential palace to visitors whom he respected and admired. He talked a lot, but he was also a good listener. I remember a dinner a few years later with more than 100 representatives of civil society groups throughout the Americas – activists working on debt cancellation, land reform, and other struggles. Chavez sat and listened patiently, taking notes for an hour as the guests took turns describing their efforts. Then he went through his notes, and said: “OK, here’s where I think we might be able to help you.” I couldn’t imagine any other president doing that.
It wasn’t fake – there wasn’t anything fake about the man. He said what he was thinking, and of course that wasn’t always appropriate for a head of state. But most Venezuelans loved his sincerity because it made him more real than other politicians, and therefore someone they could trust.
His attitude towards other governments was similar. Although he had big public fights with some governments, he almost never criticized another head of state unless they attacked him first. He successfully pursued good relations even with the right-wing Álvaro Uribe of Colombia for several years, until Uribe turned on him, which he saw (probably correctly) as Uribe acting on behalf of the United States. When Manuel Santos, who had been Uribe’s defense minister, became president of Colombia in August 2010 and decided to pursue good relations with Chávez, he was pushing on an open door [PDF]. Relations were repaired immediately. Chávez was friendly to anyone who was friendly to him.
But it was more than his personality or search for alliances – which he needed in order to survive, after the Bush administration made clear its intention to overthrow him in 2002. (Although it was almost never reported in the U.S. media, the documentary evidence of Washington’s involvement in the 2002 military coup against Chávez is quite strong.) Chávez had a very solidaristic view of the world. He and his government had many policies that were not driven by the principle that “nations don’t have friends, but only interests.” He saw the injustices in the international economic and political order the same way he saw the social injustices within Venezuela – as a social evil and something that could be successfully fought against. Why should the United States and a handful of rich allies control the IMF and the World Bank? Or write the rules of commerce in the WTO, or in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (which Chavez helped defeat)? Venezuela didn’t have any national interest in these struggles, since it is an oil exporter.
But Chávez thought they were important, and his ideas happened to coincide with what was happening in the world: it was rapidly become more multi-polar economically. For example, China is now, by the best economic estimates of its (purchasing power parity) exchange rate, already the largest economy in the world, yet it has very little voice in these most important multilateral institutions. Other developing countries have even less. Chávez’ ideas therefore resonated increasingly in much of the world, and especially in Latin America.
On the other hand, his tenure also shows the enormous power of the media in shaping public opinion. Most governments are quite familiar with his accomplishments, but because the Latin American and U.S. media reported almost exclusively negative news on Venezuela for 14 years – sometimes grossly exaggerated as well -- most people in the Western Hemisphere never learned even the basic facts about Venezuela or what Chávez was doing.
They do not know that, once Chávez got control over the oil industry, Venezuela’s economy grew very well and poverty was reduced by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent. They don’t know that most of these gains came from increased employment in the private sector, not “government handouts.” They don’t know that millions of Venezuelans got access to basic health care for the first time, and that education increased at all levels, with college enrollment doubling; or that public pensions rose from 500,000 to over two million. The western media has mostly reported Venezuela as an economic and political failure. And most people don’t know that Venezuela bears no resemblance to an “authoritarian state,” and that most of the Venezuelan media is still opposed to the government.
They don’t know what Chávez did for the hemisphere – not only the billions of dollars of aid distributed through Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program and other foreign aid, but also – as Lula explained – the role that he played in bringing about the unity and second independence of Latin America.
This independence is much more than a matter of national or regional pride, or one of the biggest geopolitical changes so far in the 21st century. It has had huge consequences for the people of Latin America, where the poverty rate fell from 42 percent at the beginning of the decade to 27 percent by 2009. It is difficult to imagine this kind of social and economic progress while the region was still under IMF/Washington tutelage; indeed the region as a whole barely had any per capita GDP growth at all from 1980-2000.
Most people in the Western Hemisphere have gotten a “Tea Party” view of Venezuela, with little difference between the liberal and right-wing media depiction of the country and its government. It is practically as one-sided as the view of the United States that Soviet citizens got on state TV in the 1980s – people in unemployment lines and soup kitchens, poverty and police brutality. They had to find external news sources to know that most Americans still had a middle-class existence and a job, and among the highest living standards in the world.
So now there is a battle over defining Chávez’s legacy – and there are many people trying to protect the hard-won gains that they made in demonizing Chávez. For them the outpouring of sympathy and respect for Chávez is a real problem.
It is fitting that the aftermath of Chávez’s death should reflect not only the battles that he fought but also the relations that he helped change. During his 14 years in office, the United States lost most of its influence in Latin America, and especially South America. So it can be said with some certainty that in his battle with Washington, Chávez won. And with him, so did the region and the world. For that he will be forever remembered, honored, and respected – as he was on March 7th by most of the world.