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Rundle: Chavez dies, and the West hates some more
Last year, landing in South America just as Hugo Chavez departed it - for treatment in Cuba - your correspondent wrote an overview of the Chavez era, its achievements and shortcomings, and the sheer hatred it drew from a Western media, with few exceptions.
One story seemed to summarise it all. In 2005, the governors of Maine and New Hampshire sought help from eight oil companies to provide heating fuel for the poor. The Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina had driven oil prices sky high, and the poor in northern states had to choose between food, rent and heating.
Seven of the oil companies were US-owned; they all refused. The only one that responded was PVDSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company. When the provision of cheap heating oil for more than 100,000 families was revealed, the press focused not on the bizarre reversal whereby a Third-World country was subsidising a First-World one - but whether this was propaganda drive by Chavez. It was the height of the neo-liberal triumphalist era, only starting to fray at that very moment. The poor, at home or abroad, simply did not exist, save as a pretext for a "populism" whose rationale no one could remember.
That approach long ago became the template for dealing with Chavez's Venezuela. What was at the centre of Chavez's program for better and otherwise - the immediate alleviation of poverty - became the one thing that was never spoken of. The UK Telegraph's ready-to-roll obit - online today as news broke of his death - says it all:
"Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela who has died aged 58, was a shrewd demagogue and combined brash but intoxicating rhetorical gifts with a free-spending of oil revenues to turn himself into a leading figure on the world stage."
The obit manages to give a fairly even-handed account of the years leading up to Chavez's election in the late '90s - how the poor watched, for decades, as the country's burgeoning oil revenue failed to trickle down to them. Here's the space The Telegraph gives a decade of social programs:
"Massive increases in public spending, fuelled by oil revenues, were the key to his popularity. The downside was inflation, corruption, waste ..."
There then follows a long paragraph, stuffed with statistics, about the rise in crime in Venezuela. But 15 years of social programs? Not a word, not a figure. With a few exceptions, such as Al Jazeera, that has been the general condition throughout. The statistics were easy enough to find, since they came from the World Bank: poverty cut from 60% down to 25%, extreme poverty - regular hunger, malnutrition and lack of shelter - down from 30+% to 6%, millions getting regular medical care for the first time, subsidised staple food, land reform and much more.
The endless repetition of the one Chavez story in the Western media, the "populist" leader "much loved" in the slums, etc, but with a controversial record on democracy and a "worrying" tendency to pal up with dictators, etc. The very obtuseness of such insta-stories was based on the First-World/Third-World disjuncture that prompted Chavez's election in the first place: the con job of global neo-liberalism, the promise, after the collapse of communism, that playing by the rules of a market-based global system, other countries could join the First World club.
In Latin America, and perhaps more broadly, Chavez was the turning-point - the moment at which a popular process delayed by a century of US imperial dominance was restarted, and it was possible to imagine that poverty and underdevelopment could be really addressed. Chavez's early victory, and Venezuelan oil money, went out to the whole continent, making it possible for Left victories in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and elsewhere. They were joined by Lula's separate victory in Brazil, and by the end of the decade, Right-wing pro-US governments were in the minority.
By the time the West was in a time and place - following the 2008 global crash - where many might have been more receptive to a Latin American solution, the wheels were starting to come off Chavez's Bolivarian revolution somewhat. Redistribution to the poor had not been matched by investment in infrastructure, or a diversification from an oil industry economic base (imagine living in a country that has spent decades under-investing a resources boom and simply allowed it to inflate, ohhhh, I dunno, house prices? Imagine that!).
New housing had not followed at the same degree as other reforms, and crime had begun to spiral out of control, as a rural population came to the cities. There are often crime waves in places going through a period of class liberation - South Africa being one other example - but Chavez was slow to recognise that addressing it was a social justice issue, reluctant to engage in the sort of crackdown that would inevitably turn a police force on poor communities. By the end of the decade, this disjuncture between redistribution and development could not be ignored - as Rory Carroll's piece in The Guardian, about as even-handed as we're likely to get, details at gruesome length.
So what happens now? New elections must be held within 30 days. Prior to his death, Chavez had all but anointed vice-president Nicholas Maduro as successor, and the brevity and suddenness of this process gives Maduro a greater chance to win. Curiously, it may be this event that will give the Chavistas a chance to get social reform back on track, without Hugo's demagoguery, or the moralism that fostered a barely disguised anti-commercial attitude. On the other hand, the rapidity of the change might make any sort of claim to legitimacy by both sides possible.
Every election Chavez won was judged fair by international observers, but it can't be denied that he has filled the judiciary, etc, with hand-picked candidates. Since they replaced candidates hand-picked by about a dozen major families, it can hardly be seen as a reversal of democracy (though it inevitably is) - but it may have created a situation where neither side will accept a result inimical to them.
Whatever happens, Chavez has happened. Business as usual was suspended across a continent. A whole generation of a whole class of Venezualans had the opportunity for the fundamental things of life - food, shelter and the most basic medicines. Even in the US, the heating oil program continues, now into its eighth year. If it was deployed purely in the interest of propaganda, it was a pretty poor effort - since it now extends to the poor in 25 states of the US without much being made of it. As the West goes into a so-called "quadruple dip" recession, with another crash on the way, it may turn out that Latin America, with its movements of power and its re-assertion of the possibility of change, is a vanguard of things to come, rather than the long tail.
If so, that will be Chavez's legacy.