Now that would be some movie; the story of a man of the people who rises against all odds to become the political Elvis of Latin America. Bigger than Elvis, actually; a president who won 13 out of 14 national democratic elections. No chance you will ever see such a movie winning an Oscar – much less produced in Hollywood. Unless, of course, Oliver Stone convinces HBO about a cable/DVD special.
How enlightening to watch world leaders’ reactions to the death of Venezuela’s El Comandante Hugo Chavez. Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica – a man who actually shuns 90% of his salary because he insists he covers his basic necessities with much less – once again reminded everyone how he qualified Chavez as “the most generous leader I ever met”, while praising the “fortress of democracy” of which Chavez was a great builder.
Compare it with US President Barack Obama – in what sounds like a dormant cut and paste by some White House intern – reaffirming US support for “the Venezuelan people”. Would that be “the people” who have been electing and re-electing Chavez non-stop since the late 1990s? Or would that be “the people” who trade Martinis in Miami demonizing him as an evil communist?
El Comandante may have left the building – his body defeated by cancer – but the post-mortem demonization will go on forever. One key reason stands out. Venezuela holds the largest oil reserves in the world. Washington and that crumbling Kafkaesque citadel also known as the European Union sing All You Need is Love non-stop to those ghastly, feudal Persian Gulf petro-monarchs (but not to “the people”) in return for their oil. By contrast, in Venezuela El Comandante came up with the subversive idea of using oil wealth to at least alleviate the problems of most of his people. Western turbo-capitalism, as is well known, does not do redistribution of wealth and empowerment of communitarian values.
I hate you, cabron
According to the Foreign Ministry, Vice-President Nicolas Maduro – and not the leader of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, very close to top military leaders – will be temporarily in power before new elections to be held within the next 30 days. Maduro is bound to win them handily; the Venezuelan political opposition is a fragmented joke. This spells out Chavismo without Chavez – much to the chagrin of the immense pan-American and pan-European Chavez-hating cottage industry
It’s not an accident that El Comandante became immensely popular among “the people” of not only vast swathes of Latin America but also all across the Global South. These “people” – not in the Barack Obama sense – clearly saw the direct correlation between neoliberalism and the expansion of poverty (now millions of Europeans are also tasting it). Especially in South America, it was popular reaction against neoliberalism that led – via democratic elections – to a wave of leftist governments in the past decade, from Venezuela to Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay.
The Bush administration – to say the least – abhorred it. They could not do anything about Lula in Brazil – a clever operator who adopted neoliberal clothes (Wall Street loved him) but remained a progressive at heart. Washington – incapable of getting rid of the coup after coup reflexes of the 1960s and 1970s – thought that Chavez was a weak link. Thus came the April 2002 coup led by a military faction, with power given to a wealthy entrepreneur. The US-backed coup lasted less than 48 hours; Chavez was duly restored to power, supported by “the people” (the real thing) and most of the army.
So there’s nothing unexpected in the announcement by Maduro, a few hours before El Comandante’s death, that two US embassy employees would be expelled in 24 hours; Air Attache David Delmonaco, and assistant Air Attache Devlin Costal. Delmonaco was accused of fomenting – what else – a coup with some factions of the Venezuelan military. Those gringos never learn.
Immense suspicion among Chavistas that El Comandante may have been poisoned – a convoluted replay of what happened to Yasser Arafat in 2004 – is also predictable. It could have been highly radioactive polonium-210, as in Arafat’s case. The Hollywood-friendly CIA may have some ideas about that.
All shook up
The verdict is now open on what exact brand of revolutionary was Chavez. He always praised everyone from Mao to Che in the revolutionary pantheon. He certainly was a very skillful popular leader with a fine geopolitical eye to identify centuries-old patterns of subjugation of Latin America. Thus his constant reference to the Hispanic revolutionary tradition from Bolivar to Marti.
Chavez’s mantra was that the only way out for Latin America would be better integration; thus his impulsion of myriad mechanisms, from ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance) to Petrocaribe, from the Banco del Sur (the Bank of the South) to UNASUR (the Union of South American countries).
As for his “socialism of the 21st century”, beyond all ideological straitjackets he did more to explore the true spirit of common values – as an antidote to the putrefaction of turbo-charged, financial capitalism – than tons of neo-Marxist academic analyses.
No wonder the Goldman Sachs gang and cohorts saw him as worse than the Black Plague. Venezuela bought Sukhoi fighter jets; entered strategic relationships with BRICS members Russia and China – not to mention other Global South actors; maintains over 30,000 Cuban doctors practicing preventive medicine living in poor communities – what led to a boom of young Venezuelans studying medicine.
Stark numbers tell most of the story that needs to be known. Venezuelan public deficit is a mere 7.4% of GDP. Public debt is 51.3% of GDP – much less than the European Union average. The public sector – defying apocalyptic “communist” accusations – accounts for only 18.4% of the economy; less than state-oriented France and even the whole of Scandinavia. In terms of geopolitics of oil, quotas are established by OPEC; so the fact that Venezuela is exporting less to the US means it’s diversifying its customers (and exporting more and more to strategic partner China).
And here’s the clincher; poverty accounted for 71% of Venezuelan citizens in 1996. In 2010, the percentage had been reduced to 21%. For a serious analysis of the Venezuelan economy in the Chavez era, see here.
Years ago, it took a superb novelist like Garcia Marquez to reveal El Comandante’s secret as The Great Communicator; he was one of them (his “people”, in the not-Barack Obama sense), from the physical appearance to the mannerisms, convivial attitude and language (the same applied to Lula in relation to most Brazilians).
So while Oliver Stone surveys the film market, one will be waiting for a Garcia Marquez to elevate Chavez to novelistic Walhalla. One thing is sure; in terms of a Global South narrative, history will record that El Comandante may have left the building; but then, after him the building was never the same again.
• This article was first published in Asia Times