Some Thoughts on Chavez

7 Mar

There is a quote I use from Tony Benn in my book, Broke But Unbroken, that goes like this: “All progress comes from underneath. All real achievements are collective.”

It is an idea that is neither novel nor unusual, but with the death yesterday of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, I think it’s one many on the Left would do well to ponder.

Yes, he was an unalloyed champion of the Venezuelan underdog, using public money from the country’s oil industry to greatly reduce poverty and inequality. He took a country where an estimated 21 percent of people suffered from malnutrition and turned resources to education, health, housing, pensions for the elderly and agriculture. He supported grassroots social movements like Brazil’s Landless and Rural Workers Movement through scholarships to medical schools and agronomy courses. And in doing all of that he underlined the comparison we can make with other underdeveloped countries, especially the resource rich ones, that have never even tried to makes these kinds of endeavours and where poverty remains endemic and horrible.

But that is not a revolution. At least not the kind I’d prefer to see. Decision-making power remained in the hands of Chavez and his ministers. The improvements they made may have been significant, but they came from and were controlled up top, not down below.

And while I enjoyed his ‘the-smell-of-sulphur-is-still-here’ speech at the U.N. a few years ago as much as anyone,  I don’t think there is any kind of a positive spin that can be put on his embrace of extraordinarily nasty dictators like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Likewise, he may have got rid of the hegemony of profit-minded, rich-country petroleum companies in Venezuela’s oil fields, yet only transferred the same powers to China, one of the most undemocratic nations on earth. According to Intercambio Climático, it now owes China more than $35 billion in so-called commodity backed loans.

The disconnect between popularity and popular power can be seen, I think, in the troubling story of a housing project Venezuela built in Zorange, a district near the slum of Cité Soleil, in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince. Built at a cost of $4.9 million, 128 solid new homes sat empty for 15 months before a few chosen families were finally allowed to move in. By then desperate squatters had already gone in and taken over 50 of the houses. Who would get a house and through what mechanism has never been very clear, but one thing is certain: this was not a project designed with or directed by any organization of the urban poor in Haiti. Representatives of government, both Venezuelan and Haitian, were the one making the decisions.

Anyone can make mistakes, but the emotional, even irrational, adulation of Chavez and hatred of anyone who questioned him makes it impossible to want to cut the late leader any slack. Villifying people who have ideas different from his — and I do not include here the kind of people who would like to roll back time and have a small, ridiculously over-privileged elite return to its position of power — is not just short-sighted and unhelpful but unfair.(Ibid for the folks who lean the other way and think Chavez is the worst leader in the world.)

Venezuela still faces major challenges. Its crime rate is out of control — and along with enough to eat and a roof over one’s head, basic security is also a human right. Its economy is highly unbalanced, raising questions regarding whether it will need to exploit dirtier sources of oil and exacerbate global warming, and of course the wide political gulf still divides Venezuelans.

Authentic political and socio-economic progress still eludes Venezuela, but when it does come, it will be collective and it will come from below.


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