Chavez and after
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.