Chavez and af­ter

The Pak Banker - - OPINION -

vi­ate mis­ery were not in vain.

In the West, though, this is largely part of a ten­dency to damn him with faint praise, not least be­cause blan­ket con­dem­na­tion would sim­ply not be cred­i­ble in the light of ver­i­fi­able facts and fig­ures whereby in­equal­ity, ab­so­lute poverty and in­fant mor­tal­ity have sub­stan­tially di­min­ished dur­ing Chavez's 14 years in power.

Sure, there are less cred­itable fig­ures that can also be cited. The rate of in­fla­tion, for in­stance, has fluc­tu­ated and re­mains in­or­di­nately high. More dam­ag­ingly, the level of crime has soared. At the same time, there are in­nu­mer­able Venezue­lans for whom rou­tine hunger has given way to three meals a day. There are the mul­ti­tudes who have in re­cent years en­tered a class­room or been ex­am­ined by a doc­tor for the first time in their lives. Such progress can­not lightly be dis­missed, and it un­doubt­edly contributed in large part to the spon­ta­neous out­pour­ing of mass grief as Chavez's cortege passed through the streets of Caracas last Fri­day. Last week's mourn­ing was also a trib­ute to what has since then been achieved in the face of in­cred­i­ble odds.

It is not easy to for­get that in the wake of the April 2002 coup, a sub­stan­tial sec­tion of the so-called lib­eral Press in the US un­equiv­o­cally hailed the putsch as a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment, only grudg­ingly con­ced­ing, af­ter Chavez had been re­stored, that he had in fact twice been voted into power by sub­stan­tial ma­jori­ties.

The same sort of men­tal­ity was re­flected in Phil Gun­son's obit­u­ary last week in The Guardian. "The de­bate con­tin­ued as to whether Chavez could fairly be de­scribed as a dic­ta­tor," he noted, "but a demo­crat he cer­tainly was not." As some­one who emerged victorious in 13 out of 14 na­tional votes dur­ing his in­cum­bency, and abided by the pop­u­lar ver­dict in the sole in­stance that he didn't, Chavez would jus­ti­fi­ably have begged to dif­fer. Fur­ther­more, at the grass­roots level he suc­ceeded to a re­mark­able ex­tent in in­sti­tut­ing lev­els of par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy un­par­al­leled in much of the world.

The pe­jo­ra­tive use of the term " pop­ulist" is com­mon in the West­ern me­dia in the con­text of Chavez, and it is not un­usual for ef­forts to­wards greater so­cio-eco­nomic equal­ity to in­cur the charge of in­cit­ing class war­fare. Greg Grandin has noted in the Amer­i­can pe­ri­od­i­cal

The Na­tion that there are, by the broad­est def­i­ni­tion, 11 po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Venezuela. Per­haps that's 11 too many, but the level of po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion in that coun­try can­not even be­gin to be com­pared with the state of af­fairs un­der US-spon­sored or sup­ported regimes across Latin Amer­ica in the past 60 years.

Chavez has also been crit­i­cised over the years, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, for at­tempts to muz­zle seg­ments of the pri­vately owned me­dia. It's worth bear­ing in mind, though, that even Chavez crit­ics fa­mil­iar with th­ese out­lets con­cede some of them - in­clud­ing those that con­tinue to flour­ish - made Fox News ap­pear fair and balanced in com­par­i­son. The pos­si­bil­ity of sedi­tion is hardly ever viewed with in­dul­gence any­where in the world.

Chavez is ar­guably more open to crit­i­cism on the grounds that in his ir­ri­ta­tion with Un­cle Sam, he was too in­dis­crim­i­nate in em­brac­ing regimes that the US de­spised, gath­er­ing some un­palat­able friends in the process.

What most dis­tressed Washington about him, though, was that his de­ter­mi­na­tion to ame­lio­rate the con­se­quences of ram­pant neo-lib­er­al­ism proved in­fec­tious. And as if it wasn't bad enough to seek to use Venezuela's oil wealth for the ben­e­fit of its poor­est ci­ti­zens, Chavez was will­ing to spread it about in the re­gion, too.

As one Latin Amer­i­can elec­torate af­ter an­other voted in left­wing lead­ers, the Amer­i­can night­mare of fall­ing domi­noes seemed to be coming true long af­ter it thought it had put an end to such non­sense with the over­throw of Sal­vador Al­lende 40 years ago and the Nicaraguan counter-rev­o­lu­tion in the decade that fol­lowed. Blame for help­ing to trans­form Latin Amer­ica into some­thing other than Amer­ica's back­yard is a badge Chavez would have worn with pride.

Brazil is of­ten cited by his crit­ics as a valu­able counter-ex­am­ple, an in­stance of cen­tre-left "prag­ma­tism". It's worth remembering, though, that Ina­cio Lula da Silva, elected shortly af­ter the abortive 2002 coup, con­sis­tently re­sisted US ad­vice to iso­late Chavez. And his suc­ces­sor, Dilma Rouss­eff, de­clared last week: "Pres­i­dent Chavez will live on in the empty space that he filled in the heart of his­tory and the strug­gle of Latin Amer­ica." She might have added that this pre­dic­tion is likely to be ful­filled with­out re­course to the quasi-re­li­gious, semi-macabre and mostly com­mu­nist tra­di­tion of em­balm­ing his corpse and putting it on dis­play.

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