“You are a coward, a killer, a (perpetrator of) genocide, an alcoholic, a drunk, a liar, an immoral person, Mr. Danger. You are killing children …”
These are the controversial words that Hugo Chavez told George W. Bush after the then American president launched a war on Iraq based on bogus information of weapons of mass destruction being developed in that country.
Chavez, the president of Venezuela since 1999, died of cancer on March 5. Most of the mainstream media presented a negative image of the Latin American leader calling him “tyrant,” “anti-democratic” and a “dictator” while for many he was an anti-imperialist hero.
The discussion about Chavez and his government is ongoing. Time and history will be the best judges for the achievements and failures of his government. However, besides consuming traditional mass media, citizens of this world also have access to a tremendous and continuous 15 mile long amount of the most diverse opinion articles, historical documents and scientific data through web surfing or social media.
Chavez was elected to his first term as president of Venezuela with the largest percentage of the popular vote (56.2 per cent) since 1983. Since then, he was reelected two other times in 2006 and 2012.
The elections were observed by many organizations, including the Carter Centre, a human rights organization founded by U.S. president Jimmy Carter in 1982. Carter himself praised the elections system in Venezuela as “the best in the world.”
The first political action Chavez undertook during his first year as president of Venezuela was to call for a constitutional assembly. The assembly promulgated a new constitution in 1999. This constitution is very progressive enabling the government to implement policies such as the Law of the Land passed by the Chavez administration. This law declared large landholdings of unused land held by a few rich families in Venezuela to be illegal and it mandated that the land be given to families who needed it to grow food.
As of January 2009, the Venezuelan government had redistributed nearly 2.7 million hectares of idle land (6.6 million acres — nearly 1/3 of the landholdings existing prior to 1998) to 180,000 landless peasant families!
The constitution of 1999 also enables Venezuelan citizens to call referendums for important political and economic decisions such as the recall of an official — including the president.
In 2004, opposition in Venezuela organized such a referendum, calling voters to recall Chavez out of government. Chavez won the referendum again by means of 58 per cent of popular vote.
Among the interesting pieces of research about Venezuela, there is a study of 10 years of Chavez government done by Mark Wesibrot, Rebecca Ray and Luis Sandoval from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., that presents remarkable data:
The real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has doubled, growing by 94.7 per cent in 5.25 years, or 13.5 per cent annually.
The poverty rate has been cut by more than half from 54 per cent of households and extreme poverty has decreased by 72 per cent. Inequality, as measured by the Gini index, has also fallen substantially. The index has fallen to 41 in 2008, from 48.1 in 2003 and 47 in 1999. Real (inflation-adjusted) social spending per person more than tripled from 1998-2006, primary care physicians in the public sector increased 12- fold from 1999-2007, providing health care to millions of Venezuelans. Educational gross enrollment rates more than doubled from 1999-2000 to 2007-08.
The labor market also improved substantially over the last decade, with unemployment dropping from 11.3 per cent to 7.8 per cent.
Chavez was a great advocate for Latin American political and economic integration, creating programs and institutions.
PETROCARIBE, for instance, was a program by which Chavez’s government decided to subsidize thousands of oil barrels to poor Caribbean and Central American nations such as Haiti, Nicaragua and Honduras among others. The payment system allows these countries to purchase oil for five per cent-50 per cent up front, with a grace period of one to two years; the remainder can be paid through a 17-25 year financing agreement with one per cent interest if oil prices are above US$40 per barrel.
In synthesis, for North American governments, First World leaders and rich privileged oligarchs in Venezuela, (and for their privately owned media corporations), Hugo Chavez was a “tyrant.” This is probably because his “unforgivable sin” of nationalizing the oil industry (traditionally exploited by privately owned corporations) and investing the oil income in social programs for the poor. On the other hand, for the three million Venezuelans that attended his funeral and many other millions in Latin America, Hugo Chavez is probably the biggest hero of recent history in the region.
» Jaime Chinchilla is part of Brandon’s Latin American community and a member of the popular Son Latino Band. His column appears monthly.