Comment: Chavez was a towering leader who deserved better critics
The hypocrisy of politics can sometimes be startling. British and American commentators – most of them on the right, some on the left – have taken to the airwaves to libel Hugo Chavez as just another tinpot dictator, hated by his own people, a tyrant who imprisoned judges, closed down TV stations and hated America.
Chavez, who died of a severe respiratory failure yesterday evening, was a complex and layered figure. He had his weaknesses. But the attacks on him are not motivated by concern for free speech or human rights. They are motivated by the unlimited fury of the west when a third world leader exerts control over multinational corporations and directs resources towards their own people.
Here is a simple, incontestable fact about Hugo Chavez. He was not a dictator. Anyone who suggests otherwise has not grasped basic political concepts. In fact, Chavez won the presidency four times in elections which were monitored by international observers. He brought forward a constitutional arrangement which was fairer to minority groups. It speaks volumes about the double-think that pervades western coverage of international relations that he was often referred to as a dictator in stories about the election campaign he was fighting. His opponents, who are given such an easy ride in the international press, are rather more complex.
In 2002, a group of right-wingers, businessmen and sections of the military launched a coup against Chavez. For a short period of time it was successful and he was detained. Mercifully, palace guards remained loyal to Chavez and launched a counter-coup, eventually returning him to power. Chavez later shut down some privately-owned TV stations. This was great news for Chavez' opponents, who cited the closures as examples of his demagoguery. It is nonsense. These stations had helped coordinate the coup against the democratically elected government of Venezuela, and yet Chavez had still allowed them to broadcast. When Britain was under attack by the IRA, we would not even let Gerry Adams speak on television. Any comparable situation would have seen the channels shut down.
American involvement in the coup corresponds to the way the US behaves in what Europeans call, without shame or disgrace, 'its backyard'. It is hard to imagine a more obvious example of imperialist thinking in modern politics and yet people use this phrase without any realisation of what they are implying.
Dictatorship and poverty are not preconditions of American support for Latin American regimes, but they are commonly the side-effects. The Chavez approach – to raise taxes on oil companies and use a spike in energy prices to fund literacy and health programmes for the poor – prompted a hostile reaction from the Bush administration. That turned him into one of Chavez's prized enemies. He labelled him a "donkey" and "a devil" while many of Bush's more current critics, such as David Miliband, were still fawning at his feet.
Chavez, like his inspiration Fidel Castro, was originally neither a socialist nor an anti-American, but the political and military attacks from Washington drove him away. That had unforeseen affects, as Chavez built up a 'pink tide' alliance with leftist leaders across the continent, including Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. With the US distracted by the 'war on terror', Latin America was finally emerging from its shadow. That trend continues today, as even right-wing governments openly talk about liberalising the drug laws which are devastating their security arrangements – something which would have been unthinkable when the US exerted more control.
Unfortunately, those were not his only allies. Chavez had a great many faults and his choice of friends is among them. It was appalling to see him form close alliances with dictators in Syria, Iran and further afield. Of course, this type of behaviour is no worse than the foreign policy followed by the UK, which sells arms to human rights abusers in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Critics attack him for chumming up to Gadaffi. I wonder if they will raise similar points when Tony Blair is next on the front pages. There is a spectacular irony to anyone criticising Venezuela's sales of arms to Syria without having made equal noise complaining about our own sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, but that is not an excuse. It is a stain on Chavez's reputation.
He also exhibited the signs of starting to become a future autocrat, or at least of succumbing to the lunacy that prolonged power and adoration give leaders. He had been in power for 14 years, which is too long for the human mind to withstand. He needed to go, although it would have been preferable if his method of departure had not involved his death.
His TV programme, Alo Presidente, was broadcast on all state-owned TV channels and went on for hours. At one point he even ordered his defence minister to send Venezuelan forces to the Colombian border while in front of camera. His efforts at collectivisation and agrarian reform were generally a failure and better results were achieved by more moderate leaders like Lula da Silva in Brazil, primarily due to higher administrative standards and the absence of a distracting rhetorical war with Washington.
Chavez's opponents – relatively few in number but overwhelmingly rich – wield disproportionate influence in Venezuelan politics. They are now, finally, moving closer to the centre, but it took time. Nevertheless, Chavez was wrong to imprison a judge or ever close their stations.
But whatever his faults, Chavez should be celebrated and admired, not despised. Anyone who has visited Latin America knows the reality of this beautiful, tragic, violent continent. It is a story of appalling poverty and of private interests, usually with American backing, trampling on democracy. It is the same story you always get when third world economies rely on natural resources: the wealthy get very wealthy, the majority get very poor. There is a total breakdown in security, triggering ever more authoritarian police and military responses which never tackle on the inequality which caused the problem in the first place.
The US' role is a shameful one. In Guatemala they helped overthrow the democratically elected social democrat government of Jacobo Arbenz, replacing him with a murderous dictatorship which culminated in Rios Montt's terrible genocide against the indigenous Mayan people in the countryside. In Chile, the US helped overthrow the democratically-elected social democrat government of Salvador Allende and replaced him with Augusto Pinochet, the murderous puppet tyrant who killed thousands and implemented a brutal free-market programme, ruining the Chilean economy and driving a relatively wealthy country into poverty.
Those of us who are familiar with the tragedy of Latin America learned this story early on. Chavez represented something new and old, a return to the pride and dedication of Simon Bolivar. He focused relentlessly on the poor and refused to bow down to the American influence which has brought nothing but tyranny and humiliation to Latin America.
He was a flawed man, as his opponents like to emphasise. They judge his trade arrangements and civil liberties record to a higher standard than their own governments, even though the pressures and dangers facing him were much better. The real reason they despise him is not because he was a dictator. It is because he was willing to control the private sector so it would benefit the poor, rather than international investors. When they tried their way of doing things, it brutalised Chile. When he tried his way, it had at least a limited beneficial effect.
It wasn't a miracle, it wasn't even as successful as Brazil's more moderate attempt to achieve the same end. But he did his best. He deserves to be recognised for it, not libelled because of his refusal to prostrate himself before private interests.
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